Divide and Conquer

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, pp. 62-66 of the paperback edition.)

In mid-February 2011 in Bahrain, protesters—mostly members of the Shiite majority—were inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt to take to the streets. One month later, the Sunni regime unleashed a bloody crackdown with the assistance of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By mid-May more than eight hundred people had been detained, with human rights groups estimating at least thirty people had been killed at the hands of security forces, including four during police detention, one of whom was an award-winning news editor. As a result of the crackdown against online and offline dissenters, Global Voices contributor Ali Abdulemam, who had been arrested previously in 2010, was forced into hiding.

In addition to the violence, arbitrary detentions and arrests, and censorship of websites and blogs run by human rights groups and activists, government supporters launched aggressive efforts to discredit domes- tic and international critics, deploying tactics that echoed Chinese-style authoritarian deliberation. Not long after the protests began, pro government bloggers, Facebook activists, and Twitter users popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, posting news and “evidence” that the protesters were Shiite terrorists in league with Iran, and blaming them for the bloodshed.

Pro government activists reposted and retweeted charges by the Bahraini information ministry that opposition media had posted fabricated news intended to provoke sectarian hatred. Mahmood Al-Yousif, a prominent Bahraini blogger and founder of an organization that works to oppose sectarian divisions, was targeted by several blogs and Facebook pages belonging to government loyalists who accused him of inciting hatred. One Facebook page titled “Bahrain Against False Media” listed Al-Yousif as part of a group of people who “attempted to trick the international media and residents and citizens of the country to join them in their hate campaign under the disguise of pro-democracy while in fact it was purely anti-government.” Partially as a result of these social media accusations, Al-Yousif was arrested and placed under investigation for several days before being released.

Supporters of the Bahraini royal family insisted loudly that anti- Sunni troublemakers were simply using “human rights” as a ruse to trick the outside world into supporting them in their gambit to overthrow the government and establish a Shiite regime. One Twitter user called @rightsbahrain described himself as a former activist with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), an organization whose members have been persecuted for their efforts to report on human rights abuses. @rightsbahrain said he was “now intent on revealing the hidden agenda about BCHR’s political propaganda machine while they use the ‘human rights card’ as a front.” A tweet posted on May 20, 2011, was typical: “I’m pro-truth, pro-democracy (not the way anarchist elements of opposition wants democracy).”

On May 3, 2011, World Press Freedom Day, pro government social media mavens shared a statement by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in which he reaffirmed his commitment to “free, impartial and independent Press,” stating that “we assure all Press and media figures in Bahrain that their rights are preserved, and that no one will be harmed because of peaceful and civilised expressions of opinion under the law.” At the same time, international organizations including Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and the International Crisis Group were all re- porting widespread violations of human rights and freedom of speech. His words echoed Chinese government statements claiming that the Chinese Internet was as free as anywhere else and was regulated in accordance with international standards.

In Syria, where between March and July 2011 an estimated 1,400 people were killed and at least 15,000 detained in connection with antigovernment protests, the Internet has long been heavily censored. Activist groups had considered the Syrian Internet to be second only to Ben Ali’s Tunisia when it came to Internet censorship in the Arab world. Bizarrely, in late February as political tensions mounted, the government suddenly unblocked social media websites such as Facebook, Blogspot, and YouTube for the first time since 2007. The reasons soon became clear: soon after the ban was lifted, government hackers launched what is known technically as a “man in the middle” attack on Syrian Facebook users, inserting a false “security certificate” onto people’s browsers when they tried to log into their Facebook accounts through the secure “https” version of the site. This attack enabled government hackers to take over activists’ accounts and gain access to their entire network of contacts.

The government also wanted to use social media to get its side of the story across, with the help of citizens claiming loyalty to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Pro government Twitter accounts flooded Twitter’s #Syria “hash tag”—the place on Twitter where people would most logically look for news about events in Syria—with non- sensical spam. Others directly harassed and lobbed accusations at people expressing support for the protest movement. Though one Facebook page called “Syrian Revolution 2011” quickly gained tens of thousands of followers, other pro government pages with names like “Youth Only for Assad’s Syria” also proliferated.

Even more ominous, the government first tacitly, then openly encouraged pro government bloggers and hackers to use Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms to rally supporters and plan attacks against antigovernment activists, Western media, and governments critical of Assad’s crackdown on dissent. In May, an organization called the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) emerged, describing itself as a group of young Syrians determined to wage war against “the fabrication of facts on the events in Syria.”Though the group claimed to be in- dependent, its website was hosted on computer servers belonging to the government-affiliated Syrian Computer Society. The so-called army’s members used a series of Facebook pages to recruit new “soldiers” to its cause, targeting the Facebook pages and accounts of government critics and activists with insults and pro government messages. For the more technically adept recruits, the group distributed denial-of-service-attack software to be used to bring down or deface opposition websites. SEA also went after a range of news, government, and even commercial web- sites in the United States, Britain, Italy, and Israel, defacing them with messages like “You have been hacked by ArabAttack! Syria Forever.” The group’s official YouTube page documents the various attacks, accompanied by military symbols and set to patriotic music.

In June, Assad praised SEA directly. “Young people have an important role to play at this stage, because they have proven themselves to be an active power,” he said in a speech. “There is the electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality.” The group promptly posted a thank-you note on Twitter, followed by a longer response on Facebook: “Our message to the news agencies and reporters: If you have a shortage of professionals to report the correct news . . . the hordes of the Syrian Electronic Army will not be forgiving with you.” Later that week, SEA claimed responsibility for attacking the website of the French embassy in Damascus for the “negative stand of the French government on Syria.” They also attacked ten Israeli websites, leaving the message “We Are the Syrian People, We Love our President Bashar Al Assad and we are going to return our Jolan Back, our Missiles will be landing on each one of you if you ever think of attacking our beloved land SYRIA.”

Syria under Assad is just one of the many authoritarian regimes that have grown increasingly sophisticated in using the Internet, as much if not more than they are trying to control it. Such tactics bolster the power of ruling regimes by marginalizing liberal or oppositional members of society at the hands of other citizens—either instead of the state or in addition to the state, depending on the country. By emulating and adapting local variants of networked authoritarianism and authoritarian deliberation, governments seek to constrain citizens’ ability to build online organizations and communities dedicated to finding viable political or policy alternatives. Democracies—especially new ones in which courts lack genuine independence from the executive branch and opposition parties are weak—are by no means immune to manipulation of the public discourse by the authorities and companies that control digital networks and platforms.

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