Facebook Pressured To Cut Off Assad Election Campaign

A human-rights advocacy group has launched an online petition calling on Facebook to block access to its services to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in advance of the country’s national election taking place on Tuesday.

The Syria Campaign started the petition on Monday on Facebook, calling on company founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to cut off all advertising and media on the social network from Assad’s Sawa (meaning “together” in Arabic). It also wants Facebook to use ad revenue received from the Assad regime to fund aid for Syrian children.

Launched on May 10, the Saw site so far has attracted more than 200,000 “likes.” Anna Nolan, a spokesperson for The Syria Campaign, indicated that promoted posts had appeared in the feeds of users based on their interests and likes, as well in those of Syrians and others who stand against the Assad regime in the U.S. and Arab world.

By running the ads, “What Facebook is saying is that propaganda is OK, and sham elections are okay and they have played an active role in promoting that,” she said. “We’ve seen the adverts ourselves.”

For its part, Facebook said the ads had been placed from outside Syria and had been taken down, since they violated its policies. “These ads are no longer part of our platform. We terminated those ads,” said a company spokesperson. “As always, we take down ads that violate our policies.”

The company didn’t specify how long the ads ran or what particular Facebook policy the ads contravened. But it noted: “We comply with all relevant Syrian sanctions and do not permit ads originating from or targeting Syria.”

At the same time, Facebook has no immediate plans to remove the Sawa page. “You’ll find a range of voices debating events in Syria on Facebook. 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,” said the spokesperson.

Facebook said it could not confirm the Sawa page was created by Assad. The Syrian president is running against two relatively unknown candidates, according to a Guardian report, with tributes to Assad found across public spaces in Damascus and other regime-controlled areas of Syria.

The re-election campaign has also established an extensive online presence that includes Twitter, Instagram and YouTube pages designed to boost voter turnout. Nolan suggested the polished nature of the material is also aimed at influencing global opinion in Assad’s favor.

The Syria Campaign and opposition activists have denounced the election as corrupt, as it comes in the midst of a bloody civil war, with legitimate opposition candidates unable to participate. The Guardian report noted that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week declared the elections “a farce.”

The Facebook page set up by The Syria Campaign, using the URL Adsfordictators.org, had by early Monday afternoon had gotten almost 500 people to sign its petition.

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