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The dark side of the Syrian internet

By Index on Censorship / 1 June, 2011

Jillian C YorkSurveillance and spamming — how the Syria’s embattled regime and its supporters battle protesters on social media. Jillian C York reports

In his book, The Net Delusion, released in early 2011, Evgeny Morozov warned us of the dark side of the internet, its utility to authoritarian regimes, and the potential for dictators to use it against their citizens. Though online repression was no new thing, Morozov’s thesis took on so-called cyberutopians, whose overly optimistic view of the internet, he argued, ignored its perils.

The timing of the book’s release coincided, unfortunately, with the start of the Arab Spring in which Tunisian and Egyptian activists leveraged digital tools to their advantage, using them to assist with the organisation of protests and to amass international attention for their cause. Suddenly, cyberutopians had reason to celebrate, as their belief in the power of the internet for social change was confirmed.

But Morozov wasn’t wrong. In Syria, where demonstrations have been taking place since late February, the government has begun to catch up with activists, both offline and online. Though the Syrian internet has long been censored, citizens have for some time had the upper hand, using circumvention and anonymity technologies to get around censorship and protect themselves online.

In February, just as calls for protest in Damascus began to be answered, the government of Syria did a surprising thing, unblocking Facebook, Blogspot and YouTube, which had been banned since 2007. The decision was met with suspicion: the sites had been popular despite the ban, and some suspected that unblocking them would allow the government greater surveillance capabilities.

Within a month, their suspicions proved true. Stories of Syrians being detained, their Facebook passwords demanded, began to circulate, while not long after, several Syrian Facebook users reported being presented with a fake SSL certificate when trying to access the site.

Soon after, focus shifted from the use of technology to surveil and harass citizens toward the use of social media to manipulate the prevailing media narrative. First, on Twitter, a crop of spambots began to emerge, targeting popular hashtags like #Syria in order to draw attention toward benign images of Syria (such as photographs of beautiful Syrian landscapes) and away from news of the ongoing protests.

Next emerged a collective that has come to be known as the Syrian Electronic Army. As Helmi Noman, senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab recently documented, the Army has hacked scores of foreign websites deemed to have insulted Syria. They have also begun “spamming” the Facebook pages of popular figures and institutions, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, American President Barack Obama, and the United Nations, leaving pro-regime comments and pleading for foreign support of the Assad regime.

As Noman reports, the Army has also leveraged Facebook to organise their attacks, even using the polling feature to learn what websites their constituents hope to target.

Syria is in many ways a tricky case — President Bashar Assad, who has been in power since 2000, has significantly more support than Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak did, as well as a powerful network of secret police and supporters. The emergence of online pro-regime forces herefore proves difficult for journalists, who must seek to distinguish between genuine support and organised (and possibly paid) propaganda efforts. The growing sophistication of such networks will continue to present difficulties for opposition, researchers, and journalists alike. A competing narrative had emerged and seeks to challenge — and stifle — the narrative of freedom.

Jillian C York is the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation

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