Syria adopts two-faced strategy with social media

Instead of blocking the Internet, embattled regime fights cold war-style battles with activists.

Syrian-es 311 (photo credit: Syrian Revolution 2011 webpage 311)
Syrian-es 311
(photo credit: Syrian Revolution 2011 webpage 311)
The Syrian government is fighting a cold war with social media.
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.
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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 Islamic fundamentalism.
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 anti-regime people.
“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 stated 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 , 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 account.
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 Facebook.”
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.