“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is great” - Saul Bellow in “To Jerusalem and Back”
Travel video blogs, or vlogs, in which well-to-do individuals travel the globe and record their adventures and experiences, is one of YouTube’s most popular genres. Much like the travel shows on television that came before them, they can allow people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to vicariously experience another country or culture through the eyes of the vlogger.
The genre can also provide more interactive brochures to attract other tourists - as seen from the myriad of travel vlogs from the same few locations.
And these videos are popular. Many of these reach hundreds of thousands of views and the more popular destinations can get millions of hits in a relatively short amount of time.
But travel vlogs can also serve a more nefarious purpose: propaganda and information warfare. In the information age, the internet has been ‘revolutionary’ in the evolution of propaganda. States can now spread disinformation easily via bots on Twitter, fake Facebook campaigns, deep fake videos, trolls, and various other methods ad nauseum.
Travel vlogs, which often carry a connotation of innocence, are not immune from being hijacked for this very purpose.
By utilizing popular travel vloggers, a more authoritarian state can gain a cheap and effective method to shape global public opinion. Playing on the ignorance - or frankly, obliviousness - of these travel bloggers affords a low-cost, high-reward situation for these regimes. An ostensibly innocent and/or gullible vlogger can be easily manipulated to produce positive reports and images of authoritarian states.
A perfect example in which authoritarian regimes have exploited travel vloggers is Syria. Since the beginning of the year, a number of YouTube vloggers have gone to Syria and took part in guided tours of regime-held areas across the country. Given the nature of Syria, it is hard to imagine the regime not being involved in almost every step of these videos.
And indeed, this is evident by the production of the videos themselves. To even get into Syria legally, one must obtain a visa via a regime-approved tourist agency. Then, and it should be rather obvious, but the tourist agency will only provide tours to regime-approved areas. You can only see what they want you to see.
The content of these videos are then heavily taken from regime talking points. For example, a video from Aleppo uploaded last week by vlogger Eva zu Beck talks about the beauty and resilience of the city and its people. Which is completely fine and absolutely true.
However, Beck largely glosses over the years of brutal bombings and attacks on the city perpetrated by the regime albeit for short references to people fleeing their homes and cinematic shots of rubble and damaged buildings.
She does talk about the city rebuilding and the city coming back to life, but is silent about how this was largely caused by the regime in the first place. Of course, it is unlikely that she would have been critical of the regime given the circumstances of her visit.
But that is precisely the point of this exploitation of these travel vloggers. And this video has so far garnered almost 200 thousand views - a sizable count for YouTube. (At 300 thousand subscribers, Eva is so far the largest vlogger on YouTube to have travelled to Syria.)
Earlier in the month, Eva also uploaded a video of her travels around Damascus. Much like the Aleppo video, similar themes play out. She gives a glowing review of the state, talks about the so-called religious and ethnic pluralism in which all denominations of Muslims, Christians, and Jews can co-exist and flourish in the state, and proudly dons a shawl of the Syrian Arab Republic flag at the Azm Palace.
Only a small mention is given to the current state of Syria, which occurs at the very end of the video. This brief mention largely omits the nature of the conflict and the regime’s role.
And Eva is not the only YouTuber to produce these types of videos. KentoBatuta, a Japanese vlogger who tries to invoke the spirit of legendary Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta, has uploaded a series of videos from Syria. These somehow feel like traditional tourism material: brief, to the point features, mainly focusing on Syria’s more well-known attractions. But Kento has also played directly into the regime’s narrative.
For instance, Kento travels to Saydnaya, which sits close to Damascus and is home to several important Christian monasteries. But it also home to the infamous Saydnaya Prison, where tens of thousands of Syrians have been tortured and summarily executed by the regime. No mention of this was made in Kento’s video.
In Kento’s video from Aleppo, he mainly talks about the city’s historical Christian sites. This is also completely fair, as the city’s Christian sites are an incredibly interesting part of history that is largely overlooked. But Kento’s depiction of the destruction of the city is mainly confined to the Syrian rebels, making no mention of the regime’s role in the mass violence - much like Eva’s video.
Yet another vlogger, the German ‘Stgtravels’, has also produced a series of videos from the country. The vlogger spends the second video of his series lamenting about the loss of heritage sites, while posing next to posters of Bashar al Assad. Typing in “Syria Travel 2019” into YouTube’s search bar will generate dozens of similar videos from many different vloggers.
It is evident that the regime has tried to cultivate a welcoming culture and environment for vloggers to travel to Syria and paint a positive picture, effectively shaping global public opinion for them. This is not unlike the recent trip made by several so-called ‘journalists’ to Syria.
In fact, some of the talking points seen in the travel vlogs matches with talking points made recently by Max Blumenthal - a well known Assad-regime apologist. While the travel vlogs are definitely not as extreme, and are not to the same scale in which Blumenthal operates, the same regime-approved language can be discerned: purported pluralism in local governance, the equality afforded to all Syrians regardless of denomination, the role of Christians in Assad's Syria, and the rebuilding of the country without mentioning the regime's role in the destruction.
All of this tracks with the regime's strategy to shift global public opinion in its favor. In Sam Dagher's "Assad or We Burn the Country," the author notes that since the war began, the regime, via Bashar al Assad's associate Khaled Mahjoub, has ran a coordinated media campaign aimed at Westerners. (Just check out this Robert Fisk article about Mahjoub and Mahjoub's response.)
To quote Dagher's book: "In addition to being fed the regime's narrative, reporters and visiting Western delegations had a chance to marvel at how, despite the war, life continued as normal inside Damascus...Westerners got to see clean streets, well-tended parks, busy markets, and people going to work and school." (pg.361) All of this despite the regime torturing and killing people, bombing villages, and fighting a brutal war elsewhere in the country.
Dagher also notes that one of the favorite spots that the regime showcased to these media junkets was the Souk al Hamidiyeh in Damascus' old city - a popular spot in the travel vlogs. It is clear that many elements of this campaign can be seen in the vlogs.
With all this said, I do think it is necessary to state that I do not believe that all of these vloggers are conscious propagandists of the Assad regime. Incredibly naive, ethically and morally questionable, and perhaps blinded by the idea of YouTube clout? Most definitely.
I do, however, believe that each and every one of them has been exploited by the Assad regime to provide a positive view of Syria to the outside world. To make matters worse, these videos come across as normal tourism vlogs to YouTube and its algorithms instead of functional propaganda videos. YouTube has no system in which to place a warning about these types of videos like it does for state propaganda channels. And those viewers less-informed about Syria are none the wiser.
And thus is the very danger of the weaponization of travel vlogs on YouTube.
Edited to include new information on Sept. 30, 2019.