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Dictators are (also) on Facebook

Damascus is only a three hour flight away from Brussels, yet an infinite distance runs between Syria and our understanding of the recent events. I went to Syria two years ago. Like in the other “Arab spring” countries, nothing could have lead us to imagine what would happen today under the puzzled and incredulous eyes of us Europeans. Likewise, we are far from understanding the spam attack on the European Parliament’s Facebook page by pro-Syrian messages that started two weeks ago is still going on.

Some of the comments from the first day. "Fans" were using pictures of Assad or the Syrian flag and copying/pasting the same messages several times

What happened

As chance would have it, on Tuesday 10 May I was in the Strasbourg hemicycle following the debate on the EU foreign policy with Lady Ashton. My interest was the EU position towards Bahrain, which was the previous week’s case on the FB page of the Parliament. But the most important and controversial point of the debate was Syria, on which  the EU had just imposed sanctions.

Coming back to the office I found several phone calls and emails. Alarm! During the previous night we had been spammed by some hundreds of pro-Syrian regime messages praising president Bashar al-Assad and the Army (yes, those who killed so far more than 800 people in the streets and tortured at least 8000) and attacking Western media and politicians for mingling with internal politics.

They were posting multiple comments each, with copied/pasted sentences (the most common “We love our president Assad”) under every single post of the EP page, starting from at least the beginning of April. Clearly a spamming action.

How to react?

We immediately informed our spokepersons as well as colleagues in the Foreign affairs business, and contacted Facebook to better understand what was going on.

In the meanwhile Karolina, our new 007, had found a FB page called “Syrian struggle” that was calling on fans to attack ours as well as other Western media and political pages on FB. We also read some articles explaining that there is an ongoing fight between FB and the Syrian government, responsible not only for spamming but also for fake security certificates and for torturing some activists in order to get their FB password and infiltrate their profiles. The articles were reporting suspicions that the Secret services or the Telecoms ministry were behind these actions.

After a couple of hours we published our reaction. In the meanwhile, the word had spread on FB and Twitter: “EP FB page under spamming attack by pro-Assad posts”.

The news rebounded quickly on the traditional media. A friend called to tell us that she heard it on Radio France International. Afterwards, we realised that the news was reported by over 150 online articles only in English and even more in French. Including Libération, the Washington Post and even the Bangkok Post (!).

A small parenthesis. I find very interesting the media reaction: it was the first time that our social media drew the attention of the media without passing through our traditional media channels (press releases, etc). Of course the involvement of our press people has been key, but they spontaneously opted for Twitter when choosing how to communicate what was happening on FB, and journalists quoted our FB post as a reliable source, with quotation marks. But this online-offline circle could be the subject of another post.

Going back to the spam attack, it happened again and more massively the following night and over the weekend, with thousands of messages every time. We were, of course, not the only victims of the attack. We felt almost honoured to be in the good company of the White House, the Washington Post, Nicolas Sarkozy and Oprah Wifrey.

We decided to cancel all the comments and ban the users, but it is very difficult to do it in a timely manner as the attacks were mostly at night. After some quiet days today 23 May they started again, probably in coincidence with the new wave of sanctions from the EU, this time personally targeting, among others, Bashar al-Assad. This week we temporarily closed our page to all posts from Syria, hoping for a better solution in the next days. We continue to be in touch with FB and to follow the situation on the media. We will soon fully brief the upper levels of our administration and the politicians with a complete dossier on this case.

From the Syrian side

We cannot say exactly what and how is happening, who is behind the attacks and how are they done. An article in the New York Times and another in the Washington Post this week explain how the regimes in Syria and other Arab countries are using the same instruments of the rebels: the “Repression 2.0“. It’s really scary.

From our side, in the beginning we thought it was a machine-made attack. We couldn’t believe that human beings could be able to post up to 800 comments in 6 minutes. After we mentioned it in our post, though, Syrians came to tell us that “they were not robots” and even left their coordinates to prove that they were real people. Now we tend to think that it is an organised movement, with a lot of fake profiles, but not necessarily generated by bots.

Indeed, the “Syrian struggle” page gives precise orders on when to attack (at night), and when to stop (in the early morning), as well as the messages to copy/paste on other pages (we discovered how Google Translate can be useful in such cases!). FB removed their page every time we (and, I guess, others) have flagged it up, but they keep opening a new one. At the moment of writing we are at its 13th version.

After the “fans” have done their job (attacked the targeted pages), they get back on that page and write comments like “done”. Yesterday, after we blocked Syrians, they wrote that “the European Parliament page has been shut down. Victory!”. But they promised to monitor it and be ready to come back if we open it again. (Of course we didn’t close the page, it’s just currently invisible  in Syria. Unfortunately, it is impossible at present only to block comments from a particular location while leaving the page visible, an issue we have raised with Facebook).

"Syrian struggle 2" incites its fans to attack the Parliament's page, 12 May 2011

The “Syrian struggle” pages are linked to the “Syrian Electronic Army” website, that also manages Twitter and Youtube accounts. We still don’t understand how official this page is and what are the links between it and the Syrian government. What is sure, is that there is nothing spontaneous in the proclaimed “love” of the spammers for Bashar al-Assad.  FB is being used as just another weapon of the dictatorship, together with tanks, rifles and torture.

The social media war

When I went to Syria, less than 2 years ago, Facebook was blocked. The regime was afraid of the freedom of the net, as in many other non-democratic countries. But later dictators understood the role of social media in the Arab spring, so they opened the sites better to control them. The repression in Syria is being played with all the possible instruments, including the very same of the rebels: digital media.  FB – after playing a central role in the freedom movements in the Arab world – is now also a weapon in the hands of the regime.

I hope that this entire story will finish very soon. Not the spam, but this horrible, dirty war in Syria. And that the EU is ready to take a stand against the “Arab Tiananmen”, as an MEP put it. From our side, we can survive with some spam on our page. We would just like to hear the joyful, brave voices of freedom coming from Syria, and not those of a gloomy, grim dictator and his obsessive supporters.

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