"Searching for Syria" Before

Released by Google and the UNHCR in 2017, “Searching for Syria” presents itself as a resource to answer the world’s most googled queries about the Syrian refugee crisis through digital storytelling methods, though Western bias undergirds its very structure.[1] Google has long promoted itself as a multinational enterprise—rather than a solely Western one—to combat ongoing criticism towards its lack of diversity in employment, product design, and algorithm development.[2] While Google has claimed progress, its initiatives maintain colonialist assumptions, assumptions that are manifested in “Searching for Syria.” Analysis through Google Trends reveals that the specific queries used to frame the narrative of the project only come from the United Kingdom and the United States, even though Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are ranked in the top five regions that have searched for Syrian crisis related terms over the past seven years.[3]

A map of the regions that have searched for the specific queries in “Searching for Syria.” Generated (ironically) by trends.google.com on June 16, 2018.

A map of the top regions that have used Google to search for Syrian crisis key terms. Generated by trends.google.com on June 16, 2018.

Although Google offers versions of the “Searching for Syria” website in other languages, the same queries, content, and storyline are used in every version of site. By characterizing Western queries as global questions, Google constructs the West as the authority that controls the knowledge production of the world. Google queries drive the construction and progression of “Searching for Syria’s” narrative; the first page begins with the question “What was Syria like before the war?” and is immediately followed by the response: “Perhaps more familiar than you think.” The site’s ensuing examples of familiarity presume a Western audience, such as the affinity amongst Syrian teens for FC Barcelona football videos and the British band the Gorillaz which Google notes, “became the biggest Western band to play” in Syria when it visited in 2010.  Using Western concerns as the framework for a narrative that seeks to inform and educate its audience about Syria implies that Western discourse must speak and think on Syria’s behalf.

Until October 2018 when Google added an Arabic version of the site, “Searching for Syria” only had versions in English, French, German, and Spanish, adding a linguistic dimension to its colonization.[4] Although “Searching for Syria” embeds video profiles and interviews of Syrian refugees, it only features English speakers or English translations; even the Spanish and Arabic versions of the website link back to the English videos. Photographic profiles feature quotations in English or have no caption at all, establishing the refugees as either Westernized or voiceless. “Searching for Syria’s” form transfers the language of dominant hegemonies to the subaltern, forcing their narratives to hybridize with the cultural perspectives impressed upon them.

“Searching for Syria’s” digital colonization furthers in its simulated, immediate encounters between the user and blurred copies of the Syrian refugee experience. One significant example is the use of 360° virtual reality technology; users are invited to “visit” different locations within Syria through an interactive experience that attempts to immerse them in the visual, geographical, cultural, and political context of the events.[5] In one case, the user is transported via virtual reality to a once-existent market in Damascus, images and sounds contributing to Google’s humanistic snapshot of Syria before the civil war’s devastation.

[1] Google and UNHCR, “Searching for Syria,” Searching for Syria, accessed May 16, 2018, https://searchingforsyria.org/en/.

[2] Although most criticism has been directed towards the historical lack of diversity within Google’s workforce, critics and scholars note that a lack of diversity amongst developers creates a lack of representation when designing Google’s products, which can cause biases to be overlooked and embedded within machine-learning algorithms. An infamous example is Google Photo’s facial recognition feature, which caused a fiasco when it identified black people as ‘gorillas.’  Wendy Lee, “How Tech’s Lack of Diversity Leads to Racist Software,” SF Gate, July 22, 2015, https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/How-tech-s-lack-of-diversity-leads-to-racist-6398224.php.

[3] The five queries used in the project are “What was Syria like before the war?”, “What is happening in Syria?”, “Who is a refugee?”, “Where are Syrian refugees going?”, and “How can I help Syrian refugees?”

[4] Google and UNHCR, “Searching for Syria.”

[5] Google and UNHCR.

[6] Google and UNHCR.

[7] “WorldWidePanorama – Contributor: Willy Kaemena,” accessed June 17, 2018, http://worldwidepanorama.org/worldwidepanorama/wwppeople/html/WillyKaemena.html; “Willy Kaemena, Panoramic Photographer – 360Cities,” accessed June 17, 2018, https://www.360cities.net/profile/willy-kaemena.

The market that Google presents, though, is a fictional and fragmented imitation. A nearly transparent thumbnail hyperlinked to a separate pop-up for sources reveals that the photographs used to create the 360° experience are not “authentic” or “real” but remastered images from stock photo sites that were spliced and re-stitched for virtual reality formatting. [6] Further digging into the photo origins found that the images were donated to by a single Western tourist who considers himself a “hobby photographer” and “world traveler.” [7] Additionally, the virtual reality experience incorporates the generic sound effects of muffled voices, birds chirping, and bicycle bells ringing, most likely edited in from stock audio samples. While a deconstruction of the digital market exposes the bizarre, disjointedness of its underlying composition, the final, assembled product is a rather effective one. Users who enter Damascus are greeted with sights and sounds that are realistic enough to invite attention and wonder, but are romanticized and cosmopolitanized so that the experience is still agreeable for Westerners unconditioned for foreign encounters. The market, a digitally constructed simulacrum of a historical place, presents itself as a reality to the user, thus becoming an effectual example of Baudrillard’s hyperreality.

Though virtual reality usually aims for complete immersion, “Searching for Syria” intentionally uses hypermediacy to prioritize the user’s perspective and in doing so, reifies the Western gaze. Every 360° “experience” maintains text in English that overlay the image and describe the Syrian locations through descriptions from UNESCO’s World Heritage Site initiative. The lens of Westernized text cannot be removed or ‘x’d out’ of; it is a fixed component in the virtual experience that is only removed once the user “leaves” the Syrian exhibition altogether. Though users are granted some mobility as they interact with the interface, they are constrained to the Western gaze as they view representations of Syria and the refugee experience. The Syrian refugee narrative can only be accessed through its Westernization, manifesting the idea that only the West can render the East intelligible or legitimate.