Syria’s illegitimate elections and a not-so-safe public safety app

in May 28th, 2021

Here's what we emailed out the week of May 28, 2021. Sign up for updates directly in your inbox.

Earlier this month, we shared a survey to learn more about how news impacts our wellness. Turns out, it affects us quite a bit. Among the many insights, we heard that 82% of you not only agree that news is stressful, but that many of you feel more stress when consuming news. That’s tough, but understandable, to hear.

While one of our core values at Below the Fold is to provide healthful news experiences, where we balance every email to avoid skewing too negative, it can be difficult to execute. Take for example this edition. We’ll be digging into elections in war-torn Syria and how a mobile app led to a wrongful manhunt. It's still heavy, but we try to inject hope by sharing how you can make change and lightening the subject matter through ASCII art (even if that’s not always enough).

As we continue our efforts to improve your news experience, we welcome you to review the complete list of stats from our study. And of course, always feel free to write back with your own thoughts (or comment on our latest Instagram post)!


Sham elections in a still war-torn Syria

Wed May 19

Many countries, including the U.S., released a joint statement opposing Syria’s elections. They've called it illegitimate while the U.N. similarly criticizes it for going against a resolution adopted in 2015 that mandated elections not only be both supervised by the U.N. and inclusive of Syrians that fled the country, but also to take place after a new constitution was adopted (none has). 

Some Helpful Context

Assad’s family has ruled Syria for some five decades. In 2011, protests and lethal crackdowns sparked civil war, leading to nearly half a million casualties counted by 2014 and 5.6 million Syrians fleeing the country. In 2015, the U.N. adopted the aforementioned resolution with a process for ending the conflict, but progress has stalled with constant disagreements and refusals to negotiate.

So how is Assad set to win despite it all? There’s a lot behind the extent of the regime’s power...

  • First, all those who fled Syria during the war are now ineligible to vote as are Syrians living in an area controlled by opposition groups (roughly a third of the country).
  • State employees and civil servants (aka Assad’s supporters) were bussed directly to voting centers. Those in government-held territory are being pushed to vote for Assad with similar tactics used in 2014 "elections," which Assad won with 92% of the vote.
  • Candidates are only allowed 10 days to campaign, not allowing enough time for Syrians to even know the candidates, who also had to be approved by the Assad government to run.
  • And ultimately, many Syrians are afraid to vote for anyone else. Assad even made a power play by voting in Douma, a satellite town that was blocked from food, medical equipment, and aid supply after peacefully protesting his authoritarian regime in 2013. For five years, airstrikes targeted homes, bakeries, and hospitals while civilians survived off scraps and starved.

Experts are saying it’s all a show for the international stage to appear democratic while accomplishing nothing, making progress on neither the situation in Syria nor on the process in the U.N. resolution. 

Some additional resources...

  • Full coverage: Codastory
  • International opposition: U.N.
  • Assad’s vote in Douma: NPR
  • Help Syrian children: Unicef


What happens when public safety apps threaten public safety?

Tue May 18

A California resident was manhunted after being falsely identified as an arson suspect. As Los Angeles enforcement searched for suspects in response to the Topanga Canyon wildfire, crime-watching app Citizen named and posted an image of an innocent man — and offered $30,000 for information leading to his arrest. Police have found the real suspect but Citizen is now under fire for their potentially disastrous allegation. 

The app already has a rocky reputation.

  • Citizen made its 2016 debut as Vigilante, a 911-like system for alerting area residents of possible crimes. Soon after launching, it was banned for leading to potential violent responses and racial profiling. 
  • Relaunching a year later as Citizen, the app was marketed as a public safety app featuring maps of incidents pulled from 911 calls using AI, verified with humans, and supplemented with user photos and videos. 
  • Most recently, they launched an immersive video experience called OnAir, featuring real-time audio and video context. While OnAir found a missing teenager in New York City a few weeks ago, one of its hosts led listeners to search for the falsely accused arson suspect.

And it’s not the first time social media-driven investigations have gone awry. Users on social news site, Reddit, notoriously misidentified Boston Marathon bombing suspects, causing enormous grief to the accused and their families. And on Facebook, hunts for pedophiles based on thin evidence have led to suicides, irreversible damage to innocents, and endangered ongoing investigations. Criminal justice specialists, security experts, and law enforcement are looking for ways to provide transparency in investigations processes as concerns grow over how these apps and groups normalize vigilante policing. 

Some additional resources... 

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Is that wailing? I think we're scanning for the wrong waves.

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