Social Media is our main source of news about what is happening in Syria
Silenced Tweets: The Future of Social Media
In this series Sampsonia Way interviews writers from around the world on the effects of Twitter’s new protocols that widen the site’s reach to countries with restrictions on freedom of expression. Twitter now has the ability to withhold content from users in a specific country based on legal requests for removal. Twitter says the censored content will be available to the rest of the world and the blocked content will be labeled as such in its home country.
On February 23, the United Nations declared that Syrian authorities had committed “gross human rights violations” and that the nation was “on the brink” of civil war. Despite the severity of the conflict, a recent article in Slate reported that the Syrian uprising has produced a considerably lower volume of Tweets compared to the uprisings in Egypt and Iran.
Yet recent events demonstrate that Twitter still serves as a relevant news source and communication tool between Syria and the international community. For instance, after the United Nations Security Council vetoed the Arab League’s peace plan in early February, Syrians on Twitter called for protests at Syrian embassies around the world. As a result, hundreds of people protested outside of embassies in Washington D.C., London, Berlin, Kuwait, Cairo, Paris, and Istanbul.
While Syria removed its ban on Twitter and social networking sites in February 2011, the country still remains on Reporters Without Borders’ list of Internet Enemies, and is considered to be the third worst place to be a blogger by Committee to Protect Journalists.
In an effort to understand what Twitter’s new protocols will mean for the future of social media in Syria, Sampsonia Way interviewed two Syrian bloggers and avid Twitter users: Ameer who writes from Syria in Arabic and English on his blog Hurreya, and a cyberactivist and only identified by his alias, Syrian Thinker. Due to the danger of blogging from Syria, neither individual could provide their full names or photographs.
In this interview, conducted via email, they talk about the Syrian government’s current surveillance of Twitter, the groups of activists known as “coordinations” that disseminate news via Twitter and Facebook, and the methods Syrian bloggers use to work around the government’s censorship.
Twitter has proven to be a useful tool in Syria and other Arab Spring uprisings. How do you think their new policy on censorship will affect the future of these movements?
Ameer:I think this will reduce Twitter’s impact in future movements, as a government could request to ban the tweets of someone who speaks out against it.
I will give you a current example of a request from the government: On Feb 6th a group of hackers leaked the emails and passwords used by the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs. Afterwards, we found this email. The Twitter accounts listed in that email were started by different people to mock Bashar al-Assad, but the accounts are not blocked, as far as I know.
(On February 27, 2012 Sampsonia Way ran a search for the mock accounts on Twitter. It discovered that only one, @Bashar_alAssad, was accessible.)
Syrian Thinker: Sadly regimes like the one in Syria will use this feature in a very bad way. The regime will hire hundreds of employees just to seize the sensitive tweets. Citizens won’t be able to view this information and the regime will maintain the bright picture it portrays.
Ameer: Besides, the new policies will have a huge effect on domestic journalism now that a journalist’s posts can be withheld in his country by a government’s request. China would be the best example for this, and the Syrian regime too would be happy to make a requests to withhold some users in Syria. Twitter doesn’t admit this, but who knows, this might be just the beginning of more restrictions on users’ freedom of speech.
In what ways does the government censor Twitter?
Syrian Thinker: The government uses monitoring and filtering servers to watch everything pass fro¬m Syria to the outer world. These servers also slow down the speed of the internet. Because of these filtering servers the websites appear as if they’re blocked, but technically they’re not. As of now they’re not blocked (there’s a little slowing down, but Facebook and Twitter are working fine), and most Syrians doesn’t use Twitter, Facebook, or email websites without also using protection tools like Tor, VPN, etc. because we know that the government is doing its best to hack the activists’ accounts, or at least know what they’re talking about and planning to do.
Ameer: Many websites are blocked without any reasons—and I’m not talking about the websites that help the revolution like Facebook or YouTube—I’m talking about normal websites, like the Arabic wikipedia entry, which is blocked in Syria for no reason, but it’s hard for me to give many examples because I’ve been using anonymity tools for months now.
Let’s talk about the loopholes Syrians use to go around censorship—Tor or VPN connections, for example.
Ameer: The Internet is monitored heavily in Syria. Maybe to a lesser extent nowadays, but all activists, or even those who speak against the regime, use anonymity tools such as Tor network or VPN connections. Tor is a free network. Everyone can download the program from their website.
Syrian Thinker: : We use Tor program, VPNs, SSH Tunnels and other programs to avoid the government’s censorship. We can get programs like Tor for free, but we have to buy the VPNs and SSH server accounts with credit cards. Usually a relative or friends outside of Syria will buy them for us because we don’t have credit cards in Syria.
To what extent is citizen journalism conducted over Twitter and social media platforms in Syria?
Ameer: As you know, the international media isn’t allowed into Syria, so we’ve had to count on ourselves. But there is a huge number of people in Syria who you could describe as citizen journalists working to spread news about the current situation.
Most of those people are working on Facebook. There is a body called the Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union that contains many groups of activists who are on the ground in each neighborhood, town, or city in Syria. These groups are known as coordinations. The point of these coordinations is to organize the rallies, publish news, and upload videos. Every coordination has a Facebook page.
Syrian Thinker: Social media—especially Twitter and Facebook—is our main source of news about what’s happening in other cities. Of course, we also use trusted sources like the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which has a Facebook page, Twitter account, and official website. The LCC puts out the news the moment they are sure about it, and there are branches of reporters for the LCC in every city to cover what’s happening.
On Twitter there are trusted users who write tweets on their own, such as @Samsomhoms. He lives in Homs and tweets what he sees and how people are living during this hard time there. Twitter users who read @Samsomhoms cry when they read what he says about what’s happening in Homs.
Do these users face any dangers? Are there any risks involved?
Syrian Thinker: No there’s not much risk. Individuals like @Samsomhoms use a fake name so they are not known by the government. But Syrian Twitter users may be in danger if their tweets are monitored by the government or even if they read others’ tweets. The government monitors specific words and does not differentiate between reading or writing anti-regime tweets.
Although tweets may be unavailable in an individual country, they will still be accessible globally. Domestic users will be able to view banned tweets if they are re-tweeted by foreign users. Do you think this will drive the international community to be more alert about what is happening elsewhere and re-tweet news that may be blocked domestically?
Syrian Thinker: I am a little pessimistic and I don’t think the international community will care a lot about the Arab Spring movement. The world is seeing live footage of what is happening in Homs now and no one cares. They’ve done nothing! There are some exceptions, but I don’t think the international community will care about us.