The battle for Syria is raging on the ground but also on social media, where people on both sides of the conflict are hacking, posting and spamming in a frenzied propaganda war.
The Twitter feeds of news organisations have been hacked by pro-regime elements, videos purporting to show atrocities in Syria are regularly posted to YouTube and pro- or anti-government messages often flood Facebook pages.
Social media are widely credited for having helped mobilise and coordinate protesters during the Arab Spring, which kicked off in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread to Egypt, Libya and other countries. In Syria, they are being used as a platform to galvanise public opinion as the nearly 17-month-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule rages on, AFP reported.
Pro-regime supporters, for instance, have spammed Facebook accounts deemed anti-Assad with thousands of vitriolic messages. They are also posting pro-regime comments and “liking” them thousands of times – a move that brings visibility to the statements.
In addition, the Syrian government is using social media to track activists, by infiltrating social networks using traditional techniques – pretending to be another person, putting people at ease – they gain access to (the activist’s) list of friends, and can see who they’re speaking to.
The hacker, who refuses to reveal his real name, adds that the government has reportedly tortured some activists to gain access to their social media accounts. The regime also use techniques such as phishing. They put in place a fake Facebook page, and people log on via the Syrian Internet with their user names and passwords, which the government then recover and use.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, are also making use of social networks to raise awareness of the situation, mainly by posting grisly videos purporting to show people killed or maimed by regime forces, including kids.
A group of US-based activists has created Syria Tracker, a crowd-sourced effort where people on the ground can report crimes via direct web entry, email or by tweeting with the hashtag #basharcrimes. By also tracking news stories, blogs, Facebook posts, and cross-checking the information with trusted sources and other reporting outlets, the activists have created a map charting deaths across Syria.
Women Under Siege Syria is another similar, crowd-sourced map that charts rapes during the conflict.
Ultimately, though, experts say there is little evidence the war of words on social media is having a measurable impact on the ground. It is also impossoble to verify authenticity of posted photos and videos.