The Syrian government is fighting a cold war with social media.
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Rather than shutting down the Internet and mobile-telephone networks, officials are skirmishing with opposition activists. Syria blocks service in some areas while allowing it elsewhere. It hacks opposition websites and monitors their activity. In some cases, it’s resorting to pre-Internet tactics, arresting and torturing protesters to force them to divulge their passwords.
The opposition is engaged in a similar kind of low-intensity warfare. When the Internet is blocked, messages are sent by satellite phones smuggle into the country or carried by hand on mobile hard drives. Anti-government hackers infiltrate and damage official websites. If cameras are confiscated or too dangerous to carry, activists use camera pens. If Facebook is too unreliable, they turn to Skype for secure and anonymous communications.
Syria may typify the Repression 2.0 policies as governments try to keep
communications networks open to allow their economies and governments to
function smoothly while taking pinpoint measures against dissidents.
Early in the Arab Spring, Egypt and Tunisia, tried to shut down the
Internet entirely, but governments in Iran and China have developed
sophisticated methods of filters and mobilize armies of hackers to
disrupt the opposition.
Hostile to old and new media alike, Syrian President Bashar Assad
effectively started the guerilla warfare last February when he lifted a
ban on Facebook. Only days earlier, he had declared his country immune
from the unrest roiling Egypt and other neighbors because of his strong
anti-Israel stance and his acknowledged role as a bulwark against
That was then. In mid-March, protests erupted in the southern city of
Deraa and spread to other cities. Eight weeks, 900 lives and 10,000
arrests later, Assad has yet to succeed in containing the unrest, but
neither has he ordered a complete shutdown of the country’s
communications even as embarrassing videos and other information leak
out documenting killings and other abuses.
In fact, activists said, rescinding the ban of Facebook wasn’t a sign of
tolerance or confidence, rather a more efficient means of ferreting out
“Facebook has been somewhat useful for the security forces and
intelligence services to know who is an activists and who was contacting
who,” Malik Al-Abdeh, editor-in-chief of the London-based Barada
satellite television channel, told The Media Line.
Syrians could access social media like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter by
using proxy servers, which enabled them to enter the websites through a
kind of secret backdoor beyond the ability of domestic intelligence
services to find. But with the ban on Facebook lifted, many Syrian
naively logged in directly.
Social media exposes networks of friends and associates, distinguishing
between people who might be bystanders at demonstrations and those who
are actively involved.
Al-Abdeh told of a friend whose anti-regime activities were exposed when
he was arrested. “They forced him to give them his Facebook password.
They went in. He thought he had deleted anything incriminating but, lo
and behold, there was one private message he forgot to erase from a
well-known Syrian opposition activist,” Al-Abdeh recalls. His friend was
detained for a month.
Damascus’ cyber-cold war has even come to Facebook the company. After
administrators took down a page belonging to the Syrian army and then a
second one put up to replace it, the government’s Al-Thawra
newspaper quoted unnamed pro-government activists vowing revenge. It
decried the unwillingness of the Palo Alto, California, company to ban
its arch-nemesis, the Syrian Revolution 2011 page
“The conspiracy of Facebook management, together with the so-called
revolution in Syria, has exposed its double-standards, whereby there are
some pages you can’t close and other that are closed without warning,” Al-Thawra
a pro-government activist as saying. “Every time they close a page we
will open dozens. If they want to get rid of us they might as well close
all of Facebook because there is no other way to stop us.”
In fact, a Facebook page called the Syrian Electronic Army
, together with its webpage
is widely believed by Internet experts and activists to be the public
face of the regime’s cold warfare. Indeed, the webpage openly advertises
that its backers are hacking opposition websites and staging denial of
service attacks on perceived anti-Syrian sites.
The OpenNet Initiative, a US organization that monitors Internet
filtering and surveillance practices, found that the Syrian Electronic
Army was supplying members with the software to stage attacks in
addition to identifying targets and advising when to launch raids.
Another tactic has been to intercept users’ communications with Facebook
in what is popularly known as a man-in-the-middle attack, according to
another Internet advocacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF). Users’ browsers display a warning on Facebook that it isn’t safe
to log in. Clicking on the warning, which many users do without
thinking, allows the attacker access to and control of the Facebook
The attack is not extremely sophisticated,” EFF said in a May 5 posting.
Nevertheless, it warned, “If you are in Syria and your browser shows
you this certificate warning on Facebook, it is not safe to login to
While Facebook and other social media have made their biggest splash by
bringing news of Syria to the outside world, Al-Abdeh said it was used
locally – although he disparages reports that the number of Facebook
users has skyrocketed since the ban was lifted. He said a lot of those
users are probably decoys set up by the government and its supporters.
The Syrian army page in its second incarnation suspicious had 18,000 likes within a few hours.
Inside Syria, almost no one uses Facebook to send messages. Many Syrians
are convinced that Skype, the global Internet telephone network, offers
the safest channel for communication. But Facebook does serve as a
bulletin board for local activists to share news with the neighborhood
or village. In one Damascus suburb, for instance, opposition leaders
posted the names of government informers in the area.