As a live, online video-stream broadcast the terrifying sounds of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces pounding opposition strongholds in Homs yesterday, another battle was raging on an instant-messaging forum.
As people expressed their horror at what was happening and typed in the opposition battlecry “Allahu Akbar”, a pro-regime user weighed in with “May Bashar [sic] army kick your asses”. The other users responded with a volley of expletives. The loyalist retorted: “Be prepared we are coming FOR U.”`
The conflict between supporters and opponents of the regime of Mr Assad is being fought just as urgently in the cybersphere as on the streets of Homs, and goes far beyond trading insults. Two shadowy transnational armies slug it out on a daily basis for control not of streets and neighbourhoods but of websites and information caches.
“It’s a real war between us,” says one so-called hacktivist on the opposition side, who calls himself Abdul Hak (servant of truth). “Sometimes they win a battle, sometimes they lose.”
It has been a good week for the anti-regime side, which succeeded in not only hacking the text message news service of the pro-regime TV station Addounia, but, through the hacker group Anonymous, releasing what are claimed to be private email correspondence of Mr Assad’s advisers.
Much like the ‘real-world’ Syrian opposition, the cyber-activists are a disparate mixture of individuals and groups in and outside Syria. According to Abdul Hak, groups inside will often do what is known as “hardware hacking”, such as disrupting wires. Opposition cyber activists are said to communicate with each other via Skype, internet relay chat, disposable email addresses and sometimes even the comments sections of random websites.
Their enemy, however, is not to be underestimated. The so-called Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-government hackers whom activists allege have received professional help and training, are believed to have hacked the websites of Harvard university and broadcaster Al Jazeera. Others have sought to neutralise Twitter as a tool for mobilising the opposition by using their favoured hashtags such as “16 March” (the day of the first protests) and flooding them with links to porn sites or pictures of Syria in a glow of tranquillity.
The cyber war may seem like a side-show compared with the struggles between protesters, armed insurgents and government forces going on every day inside Syria but, according to Wissam Tarif, a researcher with the campaign group Avaaz, it can have life and death consequences.
“Three months ago, I got a PDF file on my email with more than 40,000 names of people they have detained, and that file came from activists who hacked in to interior ministry website,” he says.
Moreover, with a situation of near stalemate on the ground, control of the narrative is key for either side to move forward. With the state having controlled the public sphere for so long, the opposition have some of the advantages of the underdog in the information war. It has more impact when hackers jam the airwaves in central Damascus, as they did a few months ago, and broadcast a famous song demanding that Bashar leave, than it does when pro-government activists hack opposition sites.
Abdul Hak says the two sides occasionally meet in cyberspace. “It happens a lot via Facebook pages,” he explains. “It’s like: ‘Hey, we are going to bring down your pages’, and you have an answer like: ‘Bring it on’.”
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