DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The byline has been withheld to protect the writer and those interviewed for the story. Reuters correspondents were expelled from Syrian shortly after unrest began in March.
Social media played a pivotal role in the ousting of Arab leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, but activists in an uprising in Syria fear Syria the government is keeping tabs on them by scanning websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
“I am too scared to speak about my political activity on Facebook,” said a 21-year-old activist, who asked to be referred to as Rana.
“I‘m not going to open a Twitter account,” she said, referring to the micro-blogging website where users post 140-character “Tweets.”
Rana’s fears stem from the widespread belief that government hackers are browsing the Internet to search for dissidents and tracking them down via social media websites.
Another activist, who asked to be referred to as Ammar, said he used to post anti-government comments on his Facebook page but stopped after his uncle, who is a member of the ruling Baath Party and works closely with local security, warned him that his name had come up as a dissident.
“My uncle told me that I‘m now on a list of people who the (Syrian) security are keeping an eye on. (My uncle said) it must be because security were scanning my Facebook activity,” he said at a cafe in the Old City of Damascus.
In May, U.S. officials told the Washington Post that Iran had started providing the Syrian government with sophisticated surveillance equipment to assist in tracking down opponents via the Internet. Officials said the same techniques were used in Iran to crush a pro-democracy “Green Movement” in 2009.
Both Iran and Syria deny that Tehran is sending equipment to help the Syrian government spy on its own citizens.
Since taking power in 2000, President Bashar al-Assad’s government has sought to stifle dissent by banning websites like Facebook, where users can interact with other members outside Syria.
Many Internet cafes in Damascus started using web proxies to bypass the block and gain access to Facebook, but earlier this year Syrians suddenly found they could get onto the site.
Activists say it was a ploy.
“The government reopened Facebook because they realized that it was more useful for them to allow activists to communicate on the site, and then track us down using their team of loyalists who search the Internet,” Rana said.
But pro-Assad Syrians have come out in the thousands to voice their support for the president online, another possible reason for unblocking social media websites. An online battle has ensued in which pro- and anti-government users have created Facebook groups to support or condemn the government.
“It is important to show my love for my president on Facebook, because many people outside Syria think that there is a revolution in Syria against Assad, but that’s not true,” Muhammad Merei, a student from the coastal town of Lattakia, told Reuters in a Facebook message.
“They wanted to (create) a civil war, they attacked the army and killed many people,” he added. Merei, who has a picture of Assad on his Facebook page, is a member of dozens of pro-Assad Facebook groups, including one dedicated to closing the prominent dissident group, “Syrian Revolution 2011.”
One Facebook group, titled “Bashar Al-Asad,” has more than 192,000 followers.
During the Egyptian revolution, which started in January, activists would use social media to organize demonstrations. In Syria, a country of 20 million, activists say that would be too risky.
“There are Facebook groups that organize protests, but they only give the location of the protest at the very last minute,” Rana told Reuters at her apartment in Damascus. “You don’t know what time it will start until just before it actually starts.”
Rana, and other Internet-savvy activists, worry that hackers will discover the time and location of the demonstration and send police to arrest anyone who shows up.
Landlines and mobile phones are tapped and Syrians who want to buy a SIM card have to provide identification and a thumbprint.
Instead, activists try to organize demonstrations by word of mouth or on instant messaging Internet programs, which they say are harder to track.
Diplomats in Damascus say the fear of using the Internet has been one reason why anti-government protests have not achieved the same turnout as demonstrations in Cairo of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, where more than 100,000 people have rallied for the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Fear is a big factor,” a senior European diplomat told Reuters at his home in Damascus. “But there are also still a lot of Assad loyalists in the capital and the government has a strong security presence here.”
Syria’s protests started in poverty-stricken rural provinces, where Internet usage is low.
Still, activists know the Internet is essential to get information out of the country and, often, social media websites are the only option.
Most foreign journalists are barred from working in Syria and local media outlets self-censor. The press coverage has come mostly from exiled human rights activists, anonymous Syrian bloggers and videos of demonstrations uploaded to YouTube.
“I have a blog, but I’ll never use my real name,” said Ammar, the Syrian activist who regularly attends protests in the Damascus suburbs. “We need more people in Syria to talk about the atrocities that are happening here.”
In his spare time, Ammar makes short films on his laptop using footage he finds on YouTube of police firing on protesters. He hopes the videos will help to keep interest in Syria high as the unrest draws out into the summer months.
But pro-Assad Syrians have sought to discredit many of the videos on YouTube, saying they are faked or the footage is not genuine. Indeed, some of the videos posted by anti-Assad protesters were later discovered to have come from neighboring Iraq or Lebanon, during civil unrest.
Activists know footage of peaceful demonstrations will serve to diminish the government’s credibility and have started filming protests live over the Internet to prevent government loyalists from challenging the video’s authenticity.
In the past few weeks, satellite TV networks have aired live footage of demonstrations in the city of Hama, the scene of some of the biggest anti-Assad demonstrations and of a brutal crackdown by his father nearly 30 years ago.
Assad deployed tanks outside the city last week.
But the Syrian government, Ammar said, is trying very hard to outwit bloggers and human rights activists.
“On days when a lot of people are killed, the government will just shut down the Internet. Then nobody knows.”