Mediatisation of a revolution: (De)mobilisation among diasporic Syrian dissidents in Europe

Public Defence of PhD Thesis by Zenia Bredmose Henriksen Ab Yonus.

Assessment Committee

  • Associate Professor Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Chair (University of Copenhagen)
  • Professor Lisa Wedeen (University of Chicago)
  • Senior Lecturer Erin Cory (University of Malmö)

Moderator of the defence

  • Associate Professor Jesper Nielsen (University of Copenhagen)

Copies of the thesis will be available for consultation at the following three places:

  • At the Information Desk of the Library of the Faculty of Humanities, Karen Blixens Plads 7
  • In Reading Room East of the Royal Library (the Black Diamond), Søren Kierkegaards Plads 1
  • At the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, Karen Blixens Plads 8.


There is little known about the role of diaspora activists in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, which began in 2011. News about Syria has been propagated widely, making it one of the most socially-mediated conflicts in history, but knowledge about how Syrians themselves evaluate the role of media is scarce. This thesis is an investigation into the media practices of Syrian diasporas in order to understand how they navigate the newly-emerged mediascape with different constraints and opportunities for transnational and oppositional political activism.

The media have functioned as a virtual battlefield, both locally and globally, to mobilise support for narratives or to direct military, political, or financial measures. Taking both the materiality and attributes of media into consideration, the focal point is the representation of the Syrian conflict, and how the nature of mediated spaces both enables and disables political activism in diaspora. I look at the concepts of diaspora, media, and political mobilisation encompassing everyday politics, both socially mediated practices and diasporic networks, in order to understand the cultures of information in which the interlocutors of this study have engaged.

I apply the theoretical concept of mediatisation from below, a bottom-up approach, and I simultaneously include a holistic understanding of the various intersecting social forces at work. I primarily use a methodology of semi-structured interviews carried out in 2019 with 37 Syrians residing in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. I have transcribed and coded using NVivo software in order to make a grounded theory analysis of the narratives presented. I have combined the interviews with digital ethnography to get an insight into the discussions mentioned in the interviews. The mixed methods approach make it possible to look at the relational dynamics within the media environment.

The main conclusion to the question of political activism is that mediated and lived experiences affect how people are able to fight for freedom, democracy, and (transitional) justice. What I call ‘demobilisation’ - not to confuse it with ‘depoliticisation’ - is witnessed, but there is a vast decrease in the diaspora-based activities. This is not to say that activists are not still fighting or no longer believe in the revolution, but there is a despair and a sense of meaninglessness prevailing. I uncover the key factors for this development by not neglecting the happenings on the ground in Syria, but also focusing on lives of Syrians in diaspora. I have found four main socio-political constraints for activism:

  1. Transnational repression through digital authoritarianism carried out by regime and regime- supporting agents;
  2. Saturation and overload of mediated information and violence;
  3. Challenges from life in diaspora; and
  4. Fragmentation within the oppositional movements

The overall argument is that political activism has declined due to a combination of these four constraints. Transnational ties that are, in many ways, transmitted through various kinds of media shape these dynamics. The thesis thus connects the structures of political action formation among Syrian diaspora groups in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany with everyday media practices.