Social Media Becoming Online Battlefield in Syria
Social media is often credited with helping spread the Arab Spring, as activists shared messages of discontent and organized protests using Facebook and Twitter. More than a year after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, it has become a megaphone for propaganda from both sides of the struggle in conflict-ridden Syria.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are replete with propaganda from Syria — government forces and rebels have been using the networks to spar for the attention and support of the outside world. The Syrian government even has a division, the Syrian Electronic Army, assigned to the task.
“It’s not surprising that Syria has attempted to develop a cyber warfare capability,” John Bassett, senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, recently told Reuters. “It’s in line with their chemical and biological warfare program and their aspirations as a regional power.”
YouTube in particular is a prime example of the information war being waged alongside the real-world battle for Syria. Video is easily manipulated to serve one side or another. Either side may upload video of the same event, but framed completely differently: government forces might claim an explosion is the result of foreign terrorists’ activity, rebels might claim it was the righteous work of a Syrian freedom fighter.
“The government and the Free Syrian Army both take certain pieces of video and completely interpret them in different ways,” David Clinch, editorial director at Storyful and former editor at CNN’s international desk told Mashable.
With few journalists able to verify either side’s claims in Syria, online rumors have been flying fast and loose: a false Twitter account pretending to be a Russian minister reported the “death” of Syria’s president, leading to very real turbulence on global oil markets.
Some news outlets are trying to sort through the chaos: The New York Times, for example, has an ambitious project to sort through footage uploaded from Syria in an attempt to glean truth from hyperbole and fabrication called “Watching Syria’s War.”
Hackers have also gotten involved in Syria’s conflict. Over the weekend, several Reuters blogs were infiltrated and the hackers posted pro-government propaganda disguised as legitimate news content. A Reuters Twitter account was later hacked with the same goal: posting pro-Assad content.
It’s still unclear if the digital assailants carried out their operation from in or outside of Syria. The hackers — and even the spammers posting propaganda on social networks — could be from halfway across the world. If that’s the case, we may be witnessing a new global evolution in information warfare. And if it isn’t, it’s a sign that cyberwar is quickly becoming a major component of real battles.
“Cyber attacks are the new reality of modern warfare,” Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the US Naval War College, told Retuers. “We can expect more. . .from all directions. In war, the greatest casualty is the truth. Each side will try to manipulate information to make their own side look like it is gaining while the other is losing.”
Is cyberwar becoming a major component of “regular” warfare? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image courtesy of Flickr, FreedomHouse