While the battles between the opposition and the Syrian regime are waged on the ground, a different battle is emerging online.
In the midst of a virtual blackout on the city of Hama, citizen videos – often shaky and unverifiable – document the brutality of the Syrian military’s crackdown on the city, ongoing since July 31 – the day before the start of Ramadan – while online campaigns, hosted on Facebook and Twitter, aim to draw attention to events on the ground. The narrative: Syrians are suffering and want the world to take notice.
At the same time, and often on the same networks, a different story can be seen, as Syrians in favour of the Assad regime stake out online ground in attempt to shift the narrative in their favour. And though there are individuals who post supportive sentiments about Assad, the overwhelming majority of pro-regime content online appears well-coordinated; the work of organised groups coming together to support the beleaguered president.
The Syrian electronic army
Tunisia’s Ben Ali promised a more open internet just one day before he was ousted. In Egypt, Mubarak sought a different strategy, shutting down the majority of the internet for a week in the hopes of disabling activist networks. Syria has taken a different approach to the internet altogether, first unblocking popular social networking sites, then throwing support to pro-regime hackers in the hopes of countering opposition forces online.
As Helmi Noman has documented, the Syrian Electronic Army – a cabal of hackers, acknowledged as a positive force by Assad himself in a June 20 speech – has overtaken certain Facebook pages, such as those belonging to French and US presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and the page for ABC News and flooding them with comments like “we love Bashar al-Assad” and “I live in Syria, stop lying, nothing is happening in Syria”.
More recently, the group has targeted the US Department of Treasury, in light of US government plans to impose further sanctions on the Syrian regime.
In addition to flooding Facebook pages, it has coordinated hacking attempts from their own Facebook page, and have defaced or disabled a number of websites. Although Facebook has removed a number of their pages, a quick search of the site brings up numerous new ones, suggesting a strong sense of determination.
Though the “electronic army” doesn’t seem to have much of a presence on Twitter, other groups vie for influence there by flooding popular hashtags with largely irrelevant content, such as photographs of the Syrian landscape, often accompanied by other, unrelated hashtags.
Though the Army seemed to reign in the online domain for more than a month, just as the scales in Syria now seem to be tipping in favour of the opposition, so are they in favour of Syrian digital activists and their supporters.
In early August, the sites of Syrian First Lady Asma Assad and the UAE Embassy in Syria were hacked, for which Anonymous took credit. On August 7, the Syrian Ministry of Defence website was also targeted with an elaborate defacement, featuring the Syrian flag, the symbol of Anonymous, and the following message:
“To the Syrian people: The world stands with you against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. Know that time and history are on your side – tyrants use violence because they have nothing else, and the more violent they are, the more fragile they become. We salute your determination to be non-violent in the face of the regime’s brutality, and admire your willingness to pursue justice, not mere revenge. All tyrants will fall, and thanks to your bravery Bashar Al-Assad is next.
“To the Syrian military: You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people, and anyone who orders you to kill women, children, and the elderly deserves to be tried for treason. No outside enemy could do as much damage to Syria as Bashar Al-Assad has done. Defend your country – rise up against the regime! – Anonymous.”
In retaliation, the Army defaced the landing page of AnonPlus, a nascent social network set up in response to the suspension of Anonymous’ account on the Google social network. The defacement included several images of corpses purported to be “Syrian army martyrs”, or members of the Syrian military killed by “armed opposition”.
The online battle between the Syrian Electronic Army and pro-opposition forces should not be seen as a reflection of events on the ground. The past few weeks have seen increasing pressure on the Syrian regime from external sources, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who recalled the country’s envoyto Syria – as did Kuwait and Bahrain – and rumours of high-level defections from the military persist, though remain unconfirmed.
The war of words (and defacements) online may not relate directly to the “war” on the ground, but it shouldn’t be discounted, either: Syrians campaigning online know that their calls for solidarity won’t be met with silence.
Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.