Human Journalism – best articles from periodismohumano.com

By Mónica G. Prieto · (Beirut) / Translation: Blanca García
  • Social networks become a battlefield for pro-democrats and Bashar
  • Asad’s followers
  • The Syrian Electronic Army, firm advocates for the regime, has dozens of thousands of active members

Screenshot of a Syrian citizen’s video during the slaughter president Assad’s Army carried out in the city of Hama, in which according to the Syria Center for Human Rights at least 90 people were murdered and dozens wounded on Sunday.

The situation was the usual one in times of revolution and fear: a military checkpoint, several uniformed men stopping the cars to search for weapons or activists and a car with two young Syrians frightened by the prospect of an arrest.

-What do you have in the car?

- Nothing, nothing.

-Are you sure? You don’t have any Facebooks in the trunk?

The boys’ faces went from fear and distrust to utter stupefaction, tells Rami Nakhle as he twists with laughter. “They don’t even know what that Facebook thing is, but they’ve heard that it’s very bad and that they need to ask”, he explains as he bursts out laughing in his home in Beirut, a modest apartment with ashtrays full of cigarette butts and coffee mugs everywhere.

Syrian soldiers control a road. The picture was taken by a citizen around the middle of May (AP)

It is one of the few relaxed moments during the conversation with a man considered the public face of the cyber activists who have set up the revolution against Bashar al Asad, and one of the most enlightening arguments for the contradictory battle the regime wages against the Internet, the only weapon in the hands of a disarmed population.

In spite of the cyber repression undertaken by the regime –with a certain disadvantage, given the “technical deficiencies”, as Rami describes it, of a dictatorship that has been isolated for five decades- Facebook has become a battlefield in the Syrian uprising. About thirty groups defend the president, another more than twenty call to revolution: some of them are groups as important as Syrian Revolution 2011, protests information source, or Local Coordination Committees, driving force of the protests themselves.

When, at the beginning of the year, before the revolution broke out, the regime surprisingly allowed access to Facebook, blocked until that moment, Syrians flung themselves onto the social network. A couple months later, when the repression of the timid protests and the arrest of a group of teenagers in Daraa for drawing a graffiti against the dictatorship set off the first massive protests, Facebook had already become the essential tool to organize the marches.

Syrian dissident Rami Nakhle in his apartment in Beirut (Mónica G. Prieto)

There was no other safe way to do it in a militarized country: in his book Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, writer and journalist Alan George estimated that the Muhabarat (Intelligence Service) has 65,000 employees, plus hundreds of thousands of part-time or occasional collaborators or informants. “In a country of 16.7 million people [data from 2001] there is a full-time member of the secret police for every 257 Syrians. If we only count those over legal age, there is a policeman for every 153 [adults]”.

The protesters’ only advantage is that the Muhabarat is not used to working with the Internet or social networks, at least for now. At the sight of the danger the new tools involved, the regime went to war in the networks with the same weapons and recruited a militia, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a cyber militia in which to delegate the battle that goes on in the networks in charge of attacking “protesters’ web sites on Facebook”, as Ahed al Hendi, coordinator of Cyberdissidents.org, explained to AFP. “A lot of those comments are death threats and accusations of treason”.

It is about questioning the legitimacy of the activists and giving another take on what is happening in Syria in which the regime is victim of a conspiracy, men in uniform are murdered with impunity by armed civilians financed from the outside and demonstrators have been manipulated by foreign power who want to see Damascus fall, as already happened in Baghdad.

Picture used by the Syrian Electronic Army on Facebook.

On its website, the Syrian Electronic Army describes itself in a heroic tone. “So who are we exactly? And what is our cause? We are a group of enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria, and this distortion is carried out by many Facebook pages that deliberately work to spread hatred and sectarian intolerance between the peoples of Syria to fuel the uprising”.

“The heads of the so-called “Syrian Revolution” [groups]took the Facebook as their means of communication to spread their destructive ideas (…)Here came the need for the Syrian Electronic Army to stop these godforsaken plans against our beloved country. So let’s fight them using their weapon, this idea was what brought the Army to life”.

Mohamed Merei is “a proud member of this Army”, as he confesses in an electronic conversation with Periodismo Humano. This Syrian resident in Latakia defined the formation as “a group of Syrians who love their country, who have seen the deceitful media campaigns and have decided to tell the truth about what is going on in Syria. We are not hackers, we just comment on Facebook groups describing the reality of what is happening. When we read a wrong comment on any Facebook page, we answer with the truth and proving our love for Syria and our huge love for doctor Bashar Assad”.

His point of view is apparently shared by many others. A few days after the opening to the SEA Facebook group, they had 60,000 followers, according to their own data. “Different user reports have managed to shut it down, but they keep opening the group over and over”, goes on Nakhle, who does not exactly have a good opinion about the regime’s cyber soldiers. “The thugs who beat protesters during the day are the same ones recruited to harass cyber activists at night”.

On its website, the SEA declares that Facebook has shut down the group 22 times, but that does not prevent the latest edition of it from circulating, opened on June 21st. Merei, with an image of the Syrian president as profile picture, is a member of this and other groups that support Assad. Some are massive, like Bashar al-Asad, with 196,000 followers, others are more modest, such as Shut up Obama, we love Bashar (almost 12,000) which also has the variation Shut up Sarkozy, we love Bashar, or the dramatic –and very Arab- We would die for our President. But those who support the protesters are not fewer. The Syrian Revolution 2011 has 234,000 followers: a reflection of the social division that exists in the country and that so makes a civil conflict feared.

Screenshot of an Israeli website hacked by the SEA (InfoWar Monitor)

Rami Nakhle and Mohamed Merei have completely opposite views about what is happening in Syria. For the first one, citizens are being massacred for demanding democratic reforms, whereas for the second one an international conspiracy has supplied criminals with arms to disguise as protests what really is an attempt to change the regime. “When the crisis began a lot of people joined the marches with legitimate goals”, Merei considers. “In Daraa they wanted to change the governor, and the leadership represented by the president accepted those legitimate claims. But the opponents outside of Syria want to exploit the protests for their own purposes, they want to usurp power at any cost. That is why they support the demonstrations, introduce weapons and hire criminals to attack protesters and then say that the Security Forces are the ones who kill people”, explains this young university student.

Mohamed is visibly upset about the coverage, which he believes is biased, of the Western press. “Now the crisis is global, France, the US and Turkey have dug their hands into Syria to get some benefit out of the crisis. The armed men arrested confess to being supported by [anti-Syrian Lebanese politician] Saad Hariri. In Jisr al Shoughor they admit that they have gotten help from Turkish Intelligence. The Syrian Army has arrested Turkish soldiers on Syrian land who were training armed men”.

Points of view as opposite as fierce is the confrontation between the two blocks, both on the field and on the net. A study carried out by InfoWar Monitor details a massive spam campaign on Facebook walls as well as about 140 SEA attacks on Western and Israeli sites: the webs become blocked with an image that includes the following message with small variations: “We are the Syrian people, we love our president Bashar Assad and we are going to take back our Golan. Our missiles will fall on all those of you who dare even think about attacking our beloved land”.

The avalanche of comments supporting the regime on social networks targets every forum that, to the eyes of the SEA, can contribute to creating an opinion in favor of Assad: from the Oprah Show’s Facebook page to the European Parliament’s.

The cybernetic militias loyal to the Damascene dictatorship cannot be directly linked to the regime because there is no proof, aside from logic –in a country as controlled as Syria it is very unlikely to have so many citizens working out of the regime’s sight- and from the proud mention of them he made in his June 20th speech, in which he described them as “a real army in a virtual world”.

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