Social media has enabled the Syrian Uprising to be documented like no other conflict in human history. It shapes our own awareness of the conflict, but, more significantly, it has helped to create a domestic “cyber-war” that has intensified and escalated the war on the ground. Since January 2012, over one million videos have been uploaded to websites like YouTube, receiving hundreds of millions of views. In a recent video uploaded to a channel called ‘AllEyesOnSyria’, a group of rebel soldiers dressed in civilian clothing – jeans, camo-pants, trainers – throw grenades and blindly fire assault-rifles presumably in the direction of a Syrian Army unit. Scrolling through a list of related videos you can find examples of sniper fights, tank kills, RPG explosions, interrogations and executions. However, the sheer quantity of videos on a site like YouTube has made the task of navigating between truth and propaganda extremely problematic. Accordingly, this article will look into ways in which rebel groups and the Syrian government, under President Bashar al-Assad, have used social media during the conflict; it will touch upon its limitations and offer some thoughts about how developments of social media have changed the landscape of social activism and government control.
For foreign observers, evidence from social media – video footage, blogs, tweets, community forums – provide a vital glimpse into both the Syrian conflict but, at the same time, they offer a potentially warped illustration. During the Arab Spring in 2011, restricted websites such as Facebook and YouTube were suddenly unblocked, which, as cyber experts and rights activists argue, made it easier for the Assad administration to track and spy and their opponents by monitoring computer traffic and tricking users with dodgy links containing spyware. The social media revolution during the Arab Spring helped to break the Syrian government’s media monopoly, but because hackers loyal to the Assad regime have been so successful in manipulating social media to their own advantage, it has also hastened the government’s crackdown on activists. The Assad regime learned vital lessons from the events which unfolded in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-11, and since the start of the Syrian Civil War, has poured money into the tracking of dissidents over social media.
In response to growing civil unrest in 2011, the Syrian government established Branch 225, a communications security department which monitors its population’s Internet activity. Since May 2011, a hacker militia loyal to the Assad regime known as the Syrian Electronic Army, has had great success in obtaining the identities of opponents by planting spyware on activists’ personal computers. Once activated, malicious software can send information stored on activists’ PCs back to computers in the Syrian telecom service. DarkComet, a “Remote access Trojan” or RAT, has been used extensively by the SEA because it can infect numerous PCs at any time, as it is usually delivered by a compromised Skype account belonging to a friend. DarkComet hands control of the machine to the hacker who can capture passwords, access e-mail address books, record keystrokes and even activate a microphone or webcam. In January 2014, the SEA hacked into Microsoft’s Skype messaging service, its Facebook page and blog, using them as a platform to claims that Microsoft has sold personal data to governments around the world.
The Guardian newspaper writes that: “the SEA has targeted a number of high-profile media organisations, including the Associated Press, the Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post, to take over Twitter accounts belonging to them,” and that their hacking techniques appear to be consistent in all cases, “using “phishing” techniques to grab passwords from large shared groups, and then exploiting the control of accounts.” Website hacking and defacement stunts serve to increase the global publicity of a group like the SEA, and although their relationship with the Syrian government remains unclear, the consequences of a Syrian activist being detained by the Assad regime – through the use of government sponsored hacking – could prove fatal. In May 2013, Human Rights Watch reported upon the “widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions of peaceful protesters, activists, humanitarian assistance providers, and doctors.” Acts of systematic torture have been documented in 27 different facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies across the country, which suggest “a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity.” In other words, the state-sponsored cyber war against activists and insurgents is reinforced by a policy of arbitrary arrests and systematic torture, which is underpinning the government’s crackdown of its opposition.
The Syrian government’s cyber agenda has been met, or rather fashioned, by the use of social media by activists seeking to continue, or possibly accelerate, the conflict. In fact, social media has been used as far back as 2005 by those speaking out in opposition to Assad and the Ba’ath Party in government; allowing activists to share a common ideology on the Internet, whilst still preserving some degree of anonymity during a period when public protest could have proved fatal. Following the civilian uprising in 2011, and in the subsequent civil war, micro-blogging sites like Twitter have been used as a platform for breaking news such as the locations of fighting and the military capabilities of opposition forces. However, video sharing websites – YouTube, in particular – have proven to be the most effective tool for rebels and activists. Opposition activists have benefited from the absence of foreign journalists in Syria and have been able to document the war which portrays them a more positive light. Video sharing has also helped to give individual fighting groups greater exposure; most insurgent units run their own YouTube channel, which usually plasters their own unique insignia across the page. Once a particular group have established their own online brand – ‘AllEyesOnSyria’, for example – they can raise funds on sites like Facebook. In an interview with Syrian insurgent Abu Mohammed al-Mohandis, Bloomberg Businessweek contributor, Sarah A. Topol comments how potential benefactors for opposition forces are provided with a wish list inventory of items useful for fighting with Assad’s army. Topol writes how donations tend to come from “wealthy individuals, businessmen, and clerics from the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Europe” and that “donors can contact brigades directly, as each Facebook page has an administrator who can be messaged about receiving funds or supplies.” As journalist and blogger Eliot Higgins remarks, the creation and dissemination of high-production-value videos is important for insurgent groups as they have come to be regarded as adverts for potential investors.
As more and more Syrian activists use YouTube and Skype to document the conflict, the Assad regime has increased government censorship to further inhibit the formation of enemy coalitions and the spread of information. ABC News correspondent, Lara Setrakian, comments how activists have used Skype to report on the Syrian war whilst maintaining some anonymity, despite the constant fear of the government hacking their PCs using malicious software. On paper, the dynamics of the cyber-war are very much stacked in favour of the Assad regime. Only 16.4 per cent of Syria’s population have access to the internet, compared to nearly 50 per cent in Iran – and many of that small number are wealthy elites loyal to the Ba’ath administration. Furthermore, the country’s entire communications infrastructure is controlled by the government; a hurdle which has demanded a certain degree of creativity to bypass. In order to circumvent the government’s censorship apparatus, activists have encouraged people to upload thousands of videos at the same time, which the Assad regime and SEA cannot physically censor all at once. This extensive proliferation of amateur videos on YouTube and Skype is perhaps all the more striking considering a country like Syria, which had been restricted to the world’s media for so long. Before the emergence of social media as a tool to propagate information worldwide, atrocities such as massacre in the city of Hama in 1981-82, where thousands of Syrians were killed (Robert Fisk estimates the number at around 20,000), largely went unnoticed by the international community.
However, the global response to the Syrian government’s suspected use of chemical weapons in August 2013 represents some kind-of turning-point, prompting a more focused discussion about the possibility of foreign intervention. The Obama administration’s intelligence assessment on 21st August concluded that accounts from medical personnel as well as “videos; witness accounts; thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area; journalist accounts; and reports from highly credible nongovernmental organizations” led the U.S. government to determine that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on its own citizens and that “that 1,429 people were killed…including at least 426 children”.
The extensive use of social media by both sides during the Syrian Civil War has helped to create a cyber-war which runs parallel, and in many respects also shapes, the brutal war between the Syrian Army and rebel forces on the ground. Yet social media has not always been successfully exploited by activists or the Assad administration. New York based journalist, Melik Kaylan, remarks how “despite all the expertise in propaganda [on both sides], the products can often seem bafflingly alienating or repellent” for foreign onlookers. SyriaTube, a pro-Assad channel on YouTube, posts regular videos of rebel fighters taking hits from Syrian Army units juxtaposed to music from spaghetti westerns and ‘send-offs’ such as “Bye-Bye” and “God Bless Syria Al-Assad”. Likewise, the cry of “Allaha Akbar” in rebel videos comes across as barbaric, and as Kaylan comments, the vehement religiosity of both sides appears to be completely at odds with the indiscriminate violence. The production of videos with the object of acquiring Gulf and Saudi funds may also have had the effect of alienating many spectators previously sympathetic to the rebel agenda. Ben Hubbard, the New York Times’ Middle East Correspondent, comments that the flow of considerable amounts of private funds – a new “wild-card” development – has “exacerbated divisions in the opposition and bolstered its most extreme elements.” As Hubbard observes, following the West’s hesitancy in financing more secular forces in the early stages of the rebellion, “fighters have flocked to Islamist militias and in some cases rebranded themselves as jihadist because that is where the money is.”
Recent infighting between insurgents in the rebel-held Aleppo province, in northern Syria, has certainly contributed to the rebel-cause falling somewhat out of favour within parts of the international community. Aryn Baker, the Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME, writes that rebel infighting could potentially “spell trouble for an opposition movement seemingly on the wane”, and that rebels can only expect support from the West if they sever their “symbiotic relationship with al-Qaeda affiliates.” Just as social media documented the emergence of the opposition movement in Syria; it has become a platform upon which that very movement could conceivably unravel.
The unfolding events in Syria would not have garnered so much global attention without social media. The question remains, however, would revolutions have taken place without its communicative and galvanising influence? The free flow of digital information – tweets, instant messaging, blogs, videos, forums – provides an enormous platform upon which activism can evolve. Everyone has their own individual “say” in matters, which can – as in the case of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 – help to accelerate the course of social change. In the case of Syria, however, the organisation power of social media is a way in which the Assad regime can fight back; through its use of censorship and sophisticated monitoring techniques. Of course, Westerners are not exempt from this culture of digital monitoring. A recent report in the Guardian claims that the National Security Agency collects about 200 million text messages a day from around the world “using them to extract data including locations, contact networks and credit card details.” Nevertheless, the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Arab World should not be accredited to developments in digital media. There can be little doubt that it accelerated the process of change, but the danger in attributing huge socio-political upheaval to media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is that such an understanding, firstly, does not consider the advantage they offer to regimes already in power and, secondly, it neglects the agency of those individuals who risked their lives and strove for change in the first place.