With its propensity to fit the news within pre-existing narratives, the mainstream media has been in a bit of a predicament with regards to how to portray this most confusing of conflicts.
Back in 2011, it all seemed so much simpler. The Arab Spring delineated a clear arc for the Syrian uprising to follow: peaceful protestors valiantly risking their lives against the corrupt and oppressive Assad regime in an attempt to get a piece of Western democracy. These protestors were unquestionably the good guys; the Assad regime, the evil bad guys.
There was nothing our national media loved more than to caricature a foreign dictator, and fresh from the theatrical downfall of Colonel Gadaffi – the most pantomimed of all foreign despots – the media set their sights on the Assad dynasty.
As events transpired, Assad proved to be as iniquitous and barbaric as some of history’s most notorious villains, yet to the bewilderment of our incredulous British press, so did the rebels.
Firstly, the UN reported that the good guys had been using chemical weapons against the bad guys. And then it was reported that the good guys were literally eating the hearts out of the bad guys. Then, to top things all off, our arch-nemesis from the previous decade, Al-Qaeda, joined the civil war on behalf of the good guys. The press were befuddled. The good guys had turned bad! How do you depict a story without any good guys?
In truth, the Syrian civil war is no different to most other conflicts: a complex, multifaceted situation with numerous competing factions all vying for their own vested interests. Sure, one side may act markedly more heinous and savage than the other, but rarely is there ever this neat demarcation between good and evil that the mainstream media so persistently portrays.
Where the Syria war does dramatically differ from previous global conflicts, however, is that seemingly everyone in the world now has a smartphone! All it takes is one amateur clip of a rebel eating a dead soldier’s heart to go viral on the internet and boom the Manichaean narrative is subverted. With this deluge of images disseminating across cyberspace, it is virtually impossible to prevent the real picture emerging. And this real picture is inevitably a chaotic, convoluted picture as opposed to a struggle of innocence against evil.
In addition, as the inexorable ascent of social media into all corners of our lives won’t be ending anytime soon, it is likely that the media’s ambivalence in Syria will be a sign of things to come in the 21st century. No longer will a simplified depiction suffice, when there is such vast amounts of easily accessible data that points to the contrary.
Impelled by the forces of YouTube and Twitter, the mainstream media is being forced to open up to a more balanced and nuanced version of events – a version in which there is no black and white, but only shades of grey, and a version which is undoubtedly closer to the truth. This can only be a good thing.