09.08.11

Syria’s Cyberthugs

Pro-Assad Syrian spammers swarm Facebook pages of Newsweek, Al Jazeera and other media websites in what turns out to be a rather clumsy attempt to orchestrate public opinion in favor of the embattled dictator. Brian Ries reports on the latest weapon wielded by desperate despots.

The embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pulled no punches in holding on to power throughout the country’s months-long uprising.

First, street thugs beat back the protesters. Then, tanks. Now, Assad has apparently turned to an army of mostly anonymous propagandists to sway public opinion in his favor on the Facebook pages of Western media organizations.

 We’ve seen this Syrian Electronic Army, as it’s been dubbed, firsthand.

On Wednesday afternoon, a wave of several hundred Assad supporters stormed onto Newsweek’s Facebook page with a clear message: Syria is fine. Mind your own business.

But based on our inside look at the swarm, coupled with a brief investigation into the recent activity of the perpetrators, we can reveal how these pro-Syrian cyberthugs operate in their attempt to sway Western opinion.

This is nothing but Internet spam.

For us, it began just after 4 p.m. ET, when Newsweek page moderators posted a story from this week’s issue on the Newsweek/Daily Beast website. Moments later, the thread’s comments count uncharacteristically skyrocketed.

Nearly all the posts, it soon became clear, were broken-English commentary about the Syrian people’s love for Assad. Matching the Syrian government’s talking points, they blamed “terrorist elements” for the much-denounced crackdown on protesters, decried Western intervention, and demanded the Syrian people be permitted to maintain course, with Assad at the helm.

It became clear the users were pawns in a spam campaign set loose by propagandists with names like “Roben Hood” and “Hamody Syrian” working on behalf of Assad.

The same comments quickly appeared on the magazine’s public Facebook wall, where spammers left blood-soaked YouTube videos of murdered Syrian citizens—killed, the spammers alleged, at the hands of Al Qaeda.

But with names like “Roben Hood” and “Hamody Syrian,” all touting eerily carbon-copy comments supporting the embattled Syrian government, it became clear the users were pawns in a coordinated spam campaign set loose by propagandists working on behalf of Assad. Within 20 minutes, page moderators tracked upward of 1,000 comments or links left on the page by spammers, and began the process of filtering and removing their work.

Some, however, managed to stick around and make their case for the swarm in a corresponding thread.

“We are sorry for bothering you but really we want you to know the truth about Syria,” wrote one such spammer, whose Facebook profile picture is of Assad himself. “In Syria there is a big plot there is no revolution.”

Another user, writing in the same thread, denied our claim they were spammers. “We are not spam we are her[e] just to say the [truth]. We are syrian pepole [sic] and we love bashar alassad. So leave syria alone.”

Neither responded to requests to comment further.

Looking through the recent activity of some of the users—who, it seems, failed to lock down their Facebook privacy setting—sit appears this wasn’t their first Syrian rodeo.

Many were fans of similar pro-government pages, some of which were coordinating the spammers’ swarms.

On one such Page, “Syrian People in U.S.A.,” users were implored to visit the Facebook Page of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to share “the truth about what’s going on in Syria” (roughly translated). A look, then, at their public wall reveals waves of the same comments Newsweek received: “Syria’s a sovereign nation and its people have absolute freedom to choose the president without any interference from one,” and “President alassad will teach u the priciples of treating politely with ur masters.”

A further glance through the recent activity of many of these spammers also reveals similar activity on various Al Jazeera pages, Euronews, and a coordinated campaign to sway a poll led by Anderson Cooper 360. There, on the question “Should the UN Security council intervene in Syria?” spammers appeared to have skewed the poll by answering “NO” in waves—leading to a near 50-50 result on the 50,000 responses to date.

Even Nicholas D. Kristof, the globe-trotting New York Times columnist with a more than 200,000 following on Facebook, received the same spam. His page lit up Monday afternoon with similar YouTube videos alongside claims of an infiltration of terrorist cells into Syria.

Facebook, for its part, is on the case.

A source there, speaking anonymously due to company policy preventing commenting on actions taken against users or pages, tells me they’ve been actively investigating the Syrian spammers and disabling any pages being used to coordinate these attacks.

As far as the company can tell, the vast majority of the spamming is indeed coming from real Facebook users—not bots—but they don’t currently have any more information on who is behind the campaign. Some believe the online army got a shout-out from Assad himself in a speech earlier this June, when he referenced “the electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality.”

If recent history is a valid indication, the orders may be coming directly from Damascus.

During the waning days of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, Vodaphone customers mysteriously received pro-government text messages in the midst of the clashes between protesters and authorities. Vodafone Egypt eventually blamed the emergency powers provisions and called it unacceptable.

And in the weeks before the fall of Tripoli, Libyans reportedly began receiving emails warning of NATO planes and imploring fighters to defend the capital. “There is a plan to divide Libya into three or more zones by NATO,” one email read. “Be careful and spread the message to stop the injustice of NATO.” A rebel sympathizer at the Libyan Youth Movement wrote at the time, “We must not let this propoganda, regardless of how convincing (or not) it sounds, sway our efforts in any way.”

While it is unlikely these swarms will have any effect on public opinion, it’s clear that armies of human spammers are the newest weapons in the weakening grip of teetering despots.

At the very least, they’re good for an old-fashioned commenter fight. After a user on Newsweek’s page commented on the good looks of Assad’s wife, one of the spammers replied with a classic border-spanning defend-the-dictator insult.

“F--k u,” the Syrian spammer wrote. “Bashar alassad. To much good.”

Bots, after all, can’t swap insults.