A group of people wave a flag of the Syrian opposition from a communication tower during a mass demonstration held to mark the tenth anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war. (Photo by Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Analysis

Walls Have Ears, but Digital Walls Have Ears and Eyes

Syrians used to say “walls have ears” to warn someone that they crossed a red line or to refer to the countrys security apparatus and its deployed informants, the Mukhabarat.” In 2011, the same people broke the silence and fear and rose up against the authoritarian regime. The Arab Spring was a critical moment for the use of social media and cybersphere in general. And while the international debate was particularly focused on the role of social media in democratization or de-democratization, social media in Syria has been weaponized by the regime and complicated by a number of factors throughout the last decade.

Mobilizing under state of surveillance

In Syrias police state, all communications—including the internet—have long been censored  and controlled under the emergency legislation of 1963, which was later replaced by the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 19 of 2012. Before the uprising in 2011, blog sites were blocked in Syria, including social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube; bloggers were also arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured for writing anything perceived as dissent. Subsequently, Syrians have long experienced censorship and the consequences of digital surveillance; and when the government lifted blocking on social media on February 5, 2011, it was no more than a warning sign that the regime was strategically planning for new mechanisms of espionage and surveillance. Nevertheless, following the first protests in March 2011, online organizing became a crucial need and activists had no other option but to take the risk and try to mitigate the consequences. Social media was needed to communicate and organize the mobilization. Skype and private Facebook groups, for instance, provided a virtual space for communication and organizing between activist groups across the country. Having cell phones with cameras, along with internet connection and access to social media platforms created a new form of journalism in the Syrian context. Alternative online news networks appeared as a new power of citizen journalism, especially after foreign media was expelled from Syria shortly after the start of the revolution. Bloggers and ordinary citizens took the responsibility upon themselves to share breaking news and footage with international media outlets and live streaming platforms.

Undermining and criminalizing speech

Parallel to the physical suppression of peaceful demonstration, the regime used other digital means to target activists and journalists. After only two months of the uprising, government media outlets started reporting on the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA)—which carried out the cyberwar of the Syrian authorities by creating counter narratives and closing hostile Facebook pages.” The group was portrayed by state media as a youth initiative to confront enemies” and the “Facebook war,” in reference to dissidents organizing on social media platforms. Later, many of the digital repression operations were attributed to the SEA. Its offensive operations have varied from disinformation to monitoring activists’ social media groups and accounts, to creating anti-uprising propaganda, luring dissidents and arresting them, to more sophisticated operations such as phishing attacks and malware.

Furthermore, the Syrian authorities enacted new legislations to undermine and criminalize freedom of expression in cyberspace, including Media Law No.108 of 2011,  Law No.17 of 2012, and Anti-Terrorism Law No.19 of 2012. These laws along with other articles of the Penal Code, stipulate that anyone—including  pro-government journalists—who participates in social media or any publication counter to the regimes narrative can be punished by imprisonment and a fine.

Malware and digital surveillance technology

Since 2007, the Syrian regime, as other authoritarian regimes in the region, invested in building a sophisticated surveillance system through importing technology from companies in Europe and South Africa. These companies and others supplied the regime with technologies despite its dark history of repression and human rights violations.The U.S. and EU sanctions against the regime in 2011 may have limited the regime’s ability to import surveillance technology, but they didn’t prevent all surveillance technology trade with the Assad regime. This was obvious when Blue Coat equipment was detected in Syria in 2013, which arrived via a third-party distributor— Computerlinks in Dubai. 

With support from Russia, China, and other regional powers, Syria increased its surveillance capacity and technology.  In some cases, allies targeted dissidents directly on behalf of the regime. Moreover, during the course of the conflict, the regime developed mobile phone applications, spread by the SEA purporting to be “updates” to widely common applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram; and more recently, the regime developed a malicious application that used COVID-19 as a bait.

Struggle over the narrative

Syrians found on social media platforms a space to save and share human rights violations that they documented on their phones since the beginning of the uprising. And as the continuous detention of activists has led to the seizure and destruction of devices, social media platforms served as a tool for activists to store small portions of their archives online in private groups on Facebook and on public pages and YouTube channels.

Social media companies howeverin particular Facebook and YouTube—began arbitrarily removing such content, along with the accounts of many activists and citizen journalists who documented crimes and violations.

These companies turned blind eyes and ears to activists’ appeals to review these arbitrary decisions, which greatly affect the Syrian collective memory and victims’ narrative as well as the course of justice and accountability. And at the same time social medial companies—including Twitter—took no serious efforts to deal with misinformation campaigns and coordinated efforts to manipulate the narrative around the regime’s war crimes, atrocities, and massacres—many of which were documented by international organizations.

Growing roles and growing risks

The role of the internet and social media in mobilization in Syria is still growing. At first, Syrians used social media with caution and skepticism as physical spaces for organizing and working away from the internet were still more dynamic; but the role of social media became more crucial with changes on the ground, especially as the regime began cutting off roads between cities and neighborhoods, deploying security forces and checkpoints, and restricting the freedom of movement for activists—later escalating into sieges and mass displacement.

The changing dynamics of the conflict forced many activists to work in exile and allowed them to express their opinion freely—particularly on translational advocacy and transnational justice—which requires working closely with wide networks of activists on the ground. As a response, the regime expanded its scope of digital espionage targeting individuals and organizations in exile to undermine their work and uncover their networks inside Syria.

March has marked a decade of the Syrian revolution. A decade of struggle for human rights and political and civic rights. A decade of conflict over the cyberspace between citizens’ and civil society’s entitlement to it and the regime’s turning it into a tool of repression. To ensure that activists and citizens have free and safe spaces for mobilizing and expressing freely, the international community should work on all of these levels:

  • Efforts should be made to achieve democratic transition in Syria and perform legal and institutional reforms that guarantee freedoms and civil rights, including digital rights, in the constitution and in practice.
  • Considering the severe human rights violations associated with digital surveillance, those who engage in cyber espionage in Syria should be held accountable by the international community alongside war criminals.
  • A practical framework of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights should be applied with mechanisms to monitor and hold technology companies accountable for their business with dictatorial regimes.
  • Tech companies should be pressured to adopt ethical policies to ensure that their technologies are not used in human rights violations and that their policies are more inclusive; tech companies should also take into consideration human rights and ensure their businesses are never exploited by repressive states in any means.

Despite providing citizens with a space to mobilize and express their causes, social media has empowered authoritarian regimes in countering revolutions, as Professor Ronald Deibert of the University of Toronto says: “Social media have turned out to be a dictator’s best friend.” Yet, the risks and the catastrophic consequences of using social medianamely the pressure of authoritarian digital repression and the lack of ethical and human rights commitment of the tech firmsshould not push activists to withdraw from cyberspace. On the contrary, the cybersphere should be secured to guarantee and protect digital and human rights.