In the photograph above, a 4-year-old Syrian refugee named Marwan can be seen crossing the desert, apparently alone, near the Jordanian border. It's a heartbreaking image that went viral after it was posted on Twitter by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But here's the problem: Little Marwan was not crossing into Jordan on his own and was in fact accompanied by a group of refugees just outside the frame of the original photo. On Tuesday, Andrew Harper, UNHCR's representative to Jordan, clarified that Marwan's case, which seemed to encapsulate Syria's terrible refugee crisis, was not quite as it had appeared at first blush. "He is separated -- he is not alone," Harper, who posted the original photo, tweeted. According to a press officer on the scene, his family was a mere twenty steps away.
The debacle is just the latest in an ongoing march of misleading Syria coverage -- intentional or otherwise -- that have often muddied any kind of rational discussion of the consequences of Syria's brutal civil war.
In a later tweet, Harper posted a photo indicating that Marwan was indeed accompanied by a group of refugees, contrary to what had been suggested earlier:
Harper made sure to note on Twitter that it was primarily news agencies that pushed the narrative about the four-year-old being alone in the desert. Push the narrative they did. In one tweet, CNN Anchor Hala Gorani said "little Marwan was found in Jordan desert w possessions in plastic bag; was later separated from his family." A New York Daily News headline relished the story: "Refugee named Marwan, 4, found wandering the desert alone while fleeing civil war in Syria."
But UNHCR wasn't exactly helping their own case either. The British Mirror reported that Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesperson, said, "We think Marwan may have got lost during the night." Whether the UNHCR wanted to or not, their photo became just one of many misleading and highly publicized images and videos to have emerged from the Syrian civil war.
A month ago, a photograph of what was supposedly a Syrian boy sleeping in between his parents' graves exploded on social media after Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba tweeted it. The problem? The photo was actually repurposed from an art project by Saudi photographer Abdul Aziz Al-Otaibi, who used his nephew for the shots. "Look, it's not true at all that my picture has anything to do with Syria," Al-Otaibi told the journalist Harald Doornbos. "I am really shocked how people have twisted my picture."
With an ever-dwindling number of reporters on the ground in Syria and an opposition movement desperate to gain support among the international community, doctored or inaccurate photos and videos have become a standard element in Syria's protracted civil war. In May 2012, the BBC ran a story about a massacre in the Syrian town of Houla accompanied by a photo of a young boy jumping over dozens of body bags. The only problem? The photo was taken in 2003 in Iraq and showed bags containing skeletons found in a desert south of Baghdad. The BBC ran the image after a Syrian activist circulated it online.
Syrian opposition activists have extensively relied on YouTube to broadcast videos of the violence in their country. But videos can be easily doctored -- and even more easily misrepresented. Videos purporting to show the atrocities of the Assad regime have actually depicted scenes from Lebanon, Russia, and even Mexico. Here is one from Lebanon filmed in 2008 and aired in 2012 by Reuters as footage from Syria:
The problem with inaccurate photos and videos isn't just that they're wrong; they also undermine the cause they're supposed to promote. In January, a report based on photos from a Syrian defector accused the Assad regime of torturing and killing thousands of detainees in government custody. Though there is little evidence to doubt the report's veracity, the Syrian government quickly fired back that that the photos were fakes. Given the conflict's history of forged images, and the fact that the report was partly sponsored by the government of Qatar, which has chanelled funding to rebel groups in the country, the Syrian government's argument isn't easily dismissed.
And as the fakes continue to stack up, it's a defense that only gets easier to use.