The upcoming Syrian elections have been dismissed as a "farce" and a "parody of democracy" by opposition leaders, but that doesn't mean Bashar al-Assad isn't taking it seriously. And he has one useful tool in his arsenal: Facebook.
On Monday, The Syria Campaign launched a website that took the American social network to task for allegedly taking money from the Assad campaign for sponsored posts.
The image above shows two of the sponsored posts, both designed to push readers towards the Facebook page for Sawa, Assad's reelection campaign (the word "Sawa" means "together" in Arabic). That page has over 200,000 likes at the time of writing.
According to Facebook, the sponsored content has already been taken down, but The Syria Campaign is now demanding the social network give any money it received for the campaign to charities for Syrian children. The campaign has set up a replica of Facebook which directs readers to a petition:
“By accepting money for ‘promoted posts,’ Facebook has provided a platform for the propaganda of a regime that has been at the heart of one of the world’s most brutal conflicts,” Anna Nolan from The Syria Campaign said in a statement.
A Facebook representative refused to say how much money was exchanged for the advertisement or what would happen with the money, but emphasized that Facebook goes to lengths to ensure it it complies with all Syrian sanctions and that it would not permit ads originating from or targeting Syria.
“You’ll find a range of voices debating events in Syria on Facebook," the spokesperson said. "As long as this takes place within the parameters of the law, then Facebook is a place where people can discuss the issues that effect their lives.”
Syrian voters are due to go to the polls on June 3, though many don't believe that the election will be fair. Syria has been at war for the past three years, with many parts of the country devastated and at 2.8 million people have been displaced in the region, with few people in rebel-held areas are expected to vote. Most opposition leaders were stopped from running by new election rules, and the two viable candidates are not well-known.
As with almost all of this year's many global elections, social media has been playing a large roll in the campaign. One of the opposition candidates, Maher Hajjar, has been forced to distance himself from one Facebook page run in his name that made a number of controversial comments.