The Syrian government is cracking down on protesters' use of social media and the Internet to promote their rebellion just three months after allowing citizens to have open access to Facebook and YouTube, according to Syrian activists and digital privacy experts.
Security officials are moving on multiple fronts — demanding dissidents turn over their Facebook passwords and switching off the 3G mobile network at times, sharply limiting the ability of dissidents to upload videos of protests to YouTube, according to several activists in Syria. And supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army, are using the same tools to try to discredit dissidents.
In contrast to the Mubarak government in Egypt, which tried to quash dissent by shutting down the country's entire Internet, the Syrian government is taking a more strategic approach, turning off electricity and telephone service in neighborhoods with the most unrest, activists say.
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“They are using these tactics to cut off communication for the people,” said Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. He said the Facebook pages of at least two close friends had been recently hacked and now featured conspicuously pro-government messages.
With foreign journalists barred from the country, dissidents have been working with exiles and using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to draw global attention to the brutal military crackdown on protesters that has killed more than 700 people and has led to mass arrests in the last nine weeks. The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page, which now has more than 180,000 members, has been a vital source of information for dissidents.
“The only way we get information is through the citizen journalists,” said Ammar Abudlhamid, a Syrian activist based in Maryland who was one of several Syrian exiles to help organize delivery of satellite phones, cameras and laptops into the country earlier this year. “Without them, we would not know anything.”
While Facebook has proved to be a powerful platform for activists to help mobilize protests and broadcast their struggle in Tunisia, Egypt and now in Syria, it can also pose considerable risks to dissidents.
There are about 580,000 Facebook users in Syria, a 105 percent increase since the government lifted its four-year ban on February 9, according to Fadi Salem, director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government.
Though Syrian officials sought to portray the decision as a sign of openness, human right advocates warned that the government could use Facebook to closely monitor regime criticism and ferret out dissidents as nearby countries erupted in revolt.
A man in his 20s living in Syria said that the police demanded his Facebook password late last month after arresting him where he worked and taking his laptop. “I told him, at first, I didn't have a Facebook account, but he told me, after he punched me in the face, that he knew I had one because they were watching my 'bad comments' on it,” he said. “I knew then that they were monitoring me.”
The man, who asked that his name not be used because he fears that talking openly could cost him his life, gave up his password and spent two weeks in jail. After he was released, he said that he found pro-regime comments made in his name on his Facebook account. “I immediately created a new account with a fake name and so did most of my friends,” he said.
Another man living in Syria, who is in his early 30s, said security officials also demanded his Facebook password. He is a software developer working to support a small group of digital activists who distribute video of the protests to television and media companies outside of Syria.
He said that he was able to avoid detention recently because he had created multiple Facebook accounts with fake identities. Under Facebook's terms of service, users are required to use their real identity online or risk losing their account.
He said it was the only way for him and others to keep safe.
“I was called down to security headquarters and told to bring my laptop,” said the man whose identity is also being withheld because he fears that he will be jailed or killed for supporting the dissidents.
“They told me to give them my password so they could verify an account. They wanted me to open it in front of them. I actually opened up the other account that had nothing on it. They went through the messages trying to find comments that are related to the revolution. But there were none.”
He said people now shared passwords with friends so that if they mysteriously vanished, their friends would delete regime criticisms on their Facebook pages, which are considered enough evidence to detain someone under the country's strict freedom of expression laws.
To help counter the protesters' successful online narrative, pro-government supporters in Syria have created Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels to disseminate pro-regime messages on pages in Syria and around the world, including pages run by the White House and Oprah.
The Syrian Electronic Army group is also working to disrupt dissident efforts. Their Facebook page, with 60,000 members, was shut down by Facebook this month for outlining detailed instructions on how to attack opponents online, a violation of Facebook's terms of service.
For now, activists in Syria said they would not know whether using Facebook had helped or hurt them until the revolt came to an end.
“Using it for activism is a risky gambit,” said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy group that is looking into reports of an anonymous effort to hack into people's Facebook accounts in Syria.
“It may be effective if the regime that you are campaigning against is insufficiently ruthless or powerful. If you win quickly, Facebook is the right tool to use. If not, it becomes much more dangerous.”