Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt learned the hard way about the organizational and promotional power of social media. It’s a lesson that supporters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have taken to heart.
In recent weeks and months, as Syria has become increasingly mired in violence and bloodshed, Assad loyalists have taken the fight to social media, using Twitter, blogs, Facebook and even sophisticated hacking techniques to flood the web with pro-regime messaging.
The most high-profile of these attempts came last week, when a group calling itself the “Syrian Electronic Army” hacked into Harvard University’s website and posted a picture of Assad in army fatigues above text accusing the United States of supporting a “policy of killing” in Syria.
The Electronic Army’s Facebook page links to these other online pro-Assad groups, which post in Arabic and English. Some have videos of atrocities allegedly committed by anti-government protesters, others feature pictures of a nattily-attired Assad standing before fluttering Syrian flags, adoring crowds or a lion (see photo, above). Then there are these music videos on YouTube, that literally sing the dictator’s praises. YouTube also has been the outlet of choice for Assad opponents to display the beatings and other heavy-handed tactics used on the protesters.
You’ll also find Assad supporters on Twitter.
@syriancommando only has 526 followers, but he’s prolific, having written more than 20,300 tweets, with messages like:
“Traitors who tried to destroy #Syria will not get to enjoy reforms. They will get to enjoy their prison cells and then the gallows.”
On his companion blog of the same name (description: “Just another Syrian, in his office, trying to protect his country from a vicious externally driven war”) the anonymous commando rails against “failed traitors,” the Muslim Brotherhood and (weirdly) Newsweek’s Daily Beast website.
Pro-Assad websites, like the “Syrian Martyr Family Fund” have also sprouted up with videos of “what really happened in Hama” and pictures of piles of automatic weapons that they assert were used by protesters who have been portrayed by Western media as peaceful. Another site features some creative anti-Al-Jazeera posters, the network is seen by regime loyalists as a tool of anti-Assad powers in the region.
Earlier this year, Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers based at Harvard Law School, identified what it says are spambots that bombard followers of the #Syria hashtag with messages unrelated to the revolution, slowing or clogging the follower’s Twitter feeds.
The websites aren’t very slick, and the anti-Syrian government Tweeters appear to have thousands more followers than the Assad supporters. Still, the pro-Assad web presence and infrastructure have gained a formidable enemy: the hacker group known as Anonymous. Over the last few months the group has hacked into and defaced Syrian government websites and computer systems both within the country and at its embassies abroad. On Tuesday, Anonymous used the Twitter handle @RevoluSec to say:
“We don’t like to repeat ourselves often but really, the Admin PW (password) for the CENTRAL BANK OF #SYRIA was…’password'”
Other Twitter handles the group uses to needle the regime are @Op_Syria and @ArabAnonymous.
It would appear that despite a lack of U.N. resolutions against the Assad government, or a Libya-style NATO bombing campaign, a small part of the international community is waging war against the regime.
It’s the online part of the international community, and the regime is fighting back.
You can follow P.J. Tobia on Twitter.