Syria propaganda social media war frenzy

2012-08-12 21:39

Paris - The battle for Syria is raging on the ground but also on social media, where people on both sides of the conflict are hacking, posting and spamming in a frenzied propaganda war.

The Twitter feeds of news organisations have been hacked by pro-regime elements, videos purporting to show atrocities in Syria are regularly posted to YouTube and pro- or anti-government messages often flood Facebook pages.

"People are using all these social media platforms to influence audiences outside their country to support them; they're getting quite aggressive with it," said David Bailey, an expert on social media and the military.

"The so-called Arab Spring was very softly-softly. Nobody was being too harsh on the web against the regime... Now it's 'look at this, look at that, and I'll drag up as much nastiness as possible in the hope that you're going to support me.'"

Social media are widely credited for having helped mobilise and co-ordinate protesters during the Arab Spring, which kicked off in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread to Egypt, Libya and other countries.

In Syria, they are being used as a platform to galvanise public opinion as the nearly 17-month-long uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule rages on.

"It's not at all surprising that all the different elements in this conflict are making use of social media," said John Bassett, a cyber security expert at the Royal United Services Institute and a former British intelligence officer.

"It's the great arena where information struggles of whatever kind happen these days."

Pro-regime supporters, for instance, have spammed Facebook accounts deemed anti-Assad with thousands of vitriolic messages.

Tortured activists

They are also posting pro-regime comments and "liking" them thousands of times - a move that brings visibility to the statements.

In addition, the Syrian government is using social media to track activists, says Okhin, a Paris-based hacker who has worked remotely with people in the country to educate them on cyber-security.

"By infiltrating social networks using traditional techniques - pretending to be another person, putting people at ease - they gain access to [the activist's] list of friends, and can see who they're speaking to," he said.

The hacker, who refuses to reveal his real name, adds that the government has reportedly tortured some activists to gain access to their social media accounts.

The regime also use techniques such as phishing, he said.

"They put in place a fake Facebook page, and people log on via the Syrian internet with their user names and passwords, which the government then recover and use."

The Twitter accounts of news organisations have also been hacked. Last weekend, for instance, people gained access to one of Reuters' feeds and posted tweets - some of which carried false reports about rebel casualties.

But Bassett said these methods were still relatively crude.

"They're able to use many of these fora only because the people they are hijacking have poor IT security... And there's not a great deal of understanding in human psychology and human behaviour in what's being done."

No control

Opposition activists, meanwhile, are also making use of social networks to raise awareness of the situation, mainly by posting grisly videos purporting to show people killed or maimed by regime forces, including kids.

But the videos are hard to authenticate, and this method has sometimes backfired, with other footage posted online allegedly showing rebels themselves committing atrocities.

"Neither side has ultimate control on the message going out," said Bailey.

In some instances, social media have allowed outsiders to get wind of significant developments on the ground.

One man claiming to be a rebel, for instance, on Tuesday posted a photo on Facebook of himself posing with a weapon identified by one intelligence expert as a portable surface-to-air missile launcher with infrared guidance.

If the account and photo are genuine, it would be one of the first indications that Syrian rebels have acquired anti-aircraft missiles.

Crowd-sourced map

But aside from those fighting each other in and out of Syria, other activists are also using social media to collate information about casualties and victims of sexual violence in the uprising.

A group of US-based activists has created Syria Tracker, a crowd-sourced effort where people on the ground can report crimes via direct web entry, e-mail or by tweeting with the hashtag #basharcrimes.

By also tracking news stories, blogs, Facebook posts, and cross-checking the information with trusted sources and other reporting outlets, the activists have created a map charting deaths across Syria.

Women Under Siege Syria is another similar, crowd-sourced map that charts rapes during the conflict.

Ultimately, though, experts say there is little evidence the war of words on social media is having a measurable impact on the ground.

"It's not at all clear whether information operations on any side - and certainly on the regime side - are being that productive," said Bassett.

  • Desilusionada - 2012-08-12 22:18

    And the fidels plus cohorts (and sycophants who do not understand their and other's circular reasoning patterns), fall into the same trap. Typing one-liners in caps, sprouting so-called intellectual ideas (using as many syllabled word as possible), and repeating outdated ideologies is now exposed as fallacies. Perhaps the demon, decadent, warmongering West's technology is not the bogey as made out by the enlightened anti-west comment making lot who keep resorting to either anti-Semitism, insults, racism or hate-speech in poor efforts to make their point. If the west is so bad why use their technology?..... Why are democratic societies always leaders in scientific fields, and never dictator run regimes?...

      para.nomm - 2012-08-13 08:13

      We use "their" technology because governments are the ones who are against small people in general, not the scientists that develop technology. Examples like China show that using "their" technology can be useful to develop their/our own technology eventually. Only the bigger countries create core technology because they are so interested in dominating the world. But that monopoly is turning into a slow spread of wealth and knowledge for the rest of the world. Someone had to be first; first but not necessarily better nor the only ones within the next few decades.

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-08-13 08:51

      I am flattered that you single me out in your drivel. If you cannot make up what those who might disagree with you believe and why they might disagree with you, it's easy to rattle off nonsense like that. I come on here, purely to try to make sense of complex events far away and to hear from other people information that goes beyind the mainstream media to get a fuller picture of what's actually happening. I do it primarily for my own interest but also in some small way to contribute to the 'community' here and in some small sense also to feel that I'm not just ignoring what's happening like so many others do. If other people get something usueful out of what I post, that's great. I do not agree with your views and you certainly do not agree with mine. That causes me absolutely no pain.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-13 08:52

      "Only the bigger countries create core technology because they are so interested in dominating the world". What an immature and ridiculous notion.

      imam.madi.129 - 2012-08-13 12:07

      Correction, the Soviet Union excelled scientifically and they were not democrats. The Chinese are not doing bad either and they are not democrats. So do not over simplify life, its not like astros or jelly beans.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-08-13 16:13

      The Soviet Union and China were decades behind the West in every innovative field. They still are far behind today.

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-08-13 16:48

      Is that why they managed to be the first to send man into orbit?

      gerhard.kress.3 - 2012-08-13 18:29

      Mgoqi, why don't you get the muslim countries to help you and your country? I in the West already know where all the strength lies. Watch the present SA government taking the glass beads from the chinese. Nothing has changed hundreds of years later. The chief gets the money and the rest is expendable. That should show you your own backside.

      tom.guy.37669528 - 2012-09-20 20:47

      @gerhard.kress The West is no different. Democracy and capitalism are not synonymous unless the press remains critical and independent. Unfortunately it is anything but, so most of us are brainwashed to the point of no return. Watching US politics nowadays is entertainment but entertainment only. In the US the chiefs (corporations, banks, etc) get the money and the rest are expendable. Why do you think the middle class is shrinking so fast? Who do you think benefited from the bailouts and the rounds of Quantitative Easing? Yes, the banks. Politicians play the game, or have no chance in an election (Ron Paul). The people have long been forgotten in US and general politics internationally, unfortunately, money talks.

  • lissnup - 2012-08-13 02:11

    "The so-called Arab Spring was very softly-softly. Nobody was being too harsh on the web against the regime.." I beg to differ! These social media tactics were identified in the social media storm generated by the unrest which followed the 2009 Iran election, and were no less present during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, to name just three of the many countries where mass protests gained prominence on social networks. The aggressive recruitment and training of volunteers and/or the use of pricey professional PR companies for social media disinformation campaigns by regimes with a penchant for human rights abuse is well known to most those supporting protesters or advocating for civil rights online.

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