The Syrian conflict is filling social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime are engaged in a fierce propaganda battle.
"Here are e-mail addresses and passwords of Al Jazeera employees" reads a message on the website of the "Syrian Electronic Army." The message goes on to say that the group has 40 British and 150 US news pages under its control as well as the websites of Syrians abroad "who are supporting the terror against our country."
The Internet portal is conceived as a propaganda arm of Bashar Assad's regime, encouraging its users to support the beleaguered dictator through spam attacks. The attacks are targeted at media critical of the Assad regime.
Nearly identical comments
The messages contained in the spam attacks appear regularly in Facebook and independent international media such as Al Jazeera, BBC-Arabic and DW's Arabic offerings. Within just a matter of minutes, hundreds of nearly identical comments appear, praising Syria's ruler and army and attacking regime opponents as "dogs," "terrorists" or "Zionist stooges."
The Syrian Electronic Army is active on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, claiming to "fight media that manipulate the truth." Many experts and even regime critics assume, however, that the postings are not a privative initiative of Assad's supporters but rather the work of Syrian intelligence forces.
Syrian activist Amer Matar, who lives in Germany, claims the regime supports efforts to attack opposition websites. In public speeches, in fact, Assad has publicly thanked the administrators of the Syrian Electronic Army for their efforts, according to Matar.
Facebook has frequently blocked the electronic army's webpage, but its administrators continue to find ways to reinstall it. Other media report similar experiences of trying to erase the spam spread by Assad's Syrian Electronic Army or to block user profiles linked to the army. But within minutes, the army reappears with a new profile, spreading the same identical propaganda. Professionals are clearly at work.
Plenty of insults can also be found on platforms operated by Assad's opponents. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz said recently in an interview that all fan pages of those engaged in the Syrian conflict and supporting terror should be banned. But how to determine when terror is being glorified or simply documented? The boundaries are often blurred.
A general blocking would be difficult to justify anyway. Since strict media censorship prevails in the Syrian police state, the Internet is often the only way for protestors and regime opponents to disseminate information to the general public about human rights violations by Syrian security forces.
However, the authenticity of the content, often videos taken with cell phone cameras and published on Facebook and YouTube, is hardly ever confirmed. So there is no absolute certainty that it hasn't been manipulated for propaganda purposes.
For this reason, the "check and counter-check" principle of quality journalism has therefore been relaxed by numerous international media organizations. Since most journalists are able to establish their own independent views locally in Syria, they often rely on YouTube with the obligatory note: "The video's authenticity cannot be verified."
For the opposition, Facebook, YouTube and the other social media sites are not only a platform for disseminating important information but also a forum for original forms of dissidence. The Facebook page "The Chinese Revolution against Chinese Tyrants" has its own cult status. The page pretends to be focused on Assad's political allies in Beijing. In reality, however, the "Chinese Revolution" is about Syria, with dictator Assad as the "Chinese Tyrant." And most of the Syrian regime representatives have been given funny-sounding Chinese-style word endings.
The page is managed by two Syrian students. "People feel better about criticizing Chinese President Hu Jintao than Assad," said one of the students in a Skype interview. They not only feel better but presumably safer, too.