Though Syria is an internet laggard, social media has played a crucial role in the revolution―and in helping the government’s propaganda and monitoring machines.
Academics remained skeptical of social media’s influence on politics until the Arab Spring protests erupted. That movement, which has already brought about a change of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, relied on digital communications tools. Social media has been the platform for an extraordinary advancement in communications among citizens, helping them to share information, mobilize people, and even raise funds. This is laid out in a report written for mediapolicy.org entitled Syria’s Cyber Wars.
Online social media, which virtually anyone can use from home, played a central role in the Syrian uprising and helped break the decades-old government media monopoly. But it helped the Syrian government crack down on activists.
Since the 1963 Baathist coup, media have been a tool for the Syrian government. A new media law enacted in 2011 was hailed by authorities as cementing press freedom, but it contains enough broad prohibitions on what Syrian media can address to allow censorship of almost any substantive topic.
Meanwhile, as in much of the world, the use of the internet and social media in the Arab world has exploded in the past decade. Syrian Facebook members are estimated in the hundreds of thousands today, with about 10,000 joining each month. Facebook, which is used as a platform for launching publications or movements, has become an important battlefield in the propaganda war between Damascus and Syrian dissenters. It hosts hundreds of pages dealing with the revolution. In Twitter activity, the UAE leads the region, but use is growing fastest in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
Young Arabs are using social media to discuss civic issues and even mount social campaigns, such as for women’s and workers’ rights and against honor crimes. The internet has been the only medium for stirring debate among citizens in Syria, as all kinds of dialogue are forbidden in real life due to the enforcement of emergency laws.
Some NGOs in Syria have started to rely on social networking sites to find volunteers, raise funds, or organize events, while international groups have used webinars or other online training to reach Syrian participants.
Still, the impact of social media in Syria has been blunted by the country’s relatively low internet penetration rate, around 20 percent. Nor is the internet as free as elsewhere; the government owns all telecommunications infrastructure, maintains a long list of banned websites, and requires documentation of all internet café users. Even a government decision in February 2011 to lift a ban on Facebook was seen as a way to encourage users to abandon software they had used to secretly access the site so they could be more easily monitored.
Damascus has used a surgical approach to shutting down the internet, cutting electricity and phone services in the most restive areas and restoring them when unrest died down. It has also launched distributed denial of service attacks against some websites and forged phony Facebook pages and tortured some detained opponents in order to get passwords to Facebook and email accounts. In late 2011, the Syrian government spent billions of dollars for Western-made equipment to monitor internet and email activity.
In response, some Syrians have turned to proxy servers or to mobile applications that allow access to blocked websites.
Even with their limitations, web 2.0 tools in Syria have provided a sphere for public debate, a place for interaction with the outside world, a source of independent news, effective tools that support NGOs, and anonymous ways to form pressure groups and mount civic campaigns.
As one blogger and human rights activist put it, “The technologies of web 2.0 are a time bomb for government officials, who have controlled every medium in Syria tightly for decades and who find the internet like a bunch of sand that can always change its form to escape surveillance.”
View the study here