Internet has evolved significantly during the Arab Spring to an extent that many started to ask if the revolutions were caused mainly by the digital media. But before going through how internet evolved during the revolutions in the Arab World: Syria in focus, and observing the online/offline factors that have affected these changes, we must take a brief look in the on the situation of internet in one of these Arab countries: Syria.
Internet was introduced to Syrian public on 2000. However, Syrians were banned from publishing and sharing content online, and blocking all content related to politics, minorities, human rights and foreign affairs. The ban of websites and any platforms that allow freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, that are also banned offline. By this, the Syrian government was violating articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant of Civil and political Rights¹. To avoid persecution and imprisonment, many Syrian users were keen not to write or share any content with sensitive nature especially from home. Proxy bypass programs were common to use by Syrians if they wanted to even browse newspapers or use any social media tool like Facebook. Adding to all what have been mentioned, the telecommunications in Syria was among the least developed in the Middle East in addition to its high cost and interrupted network².
After 2011 uprising, Syrian internet users increased to 19.8% reaching 4,469,000 ³. The changes of the nature of the struggle imposed different ways to use internet in Syria. I will divide the evolution of internet in Syria into two phases: The first phase is activism, civil journalism and documenting crimes against humanity, that was dominant till (and did not stop) the beginning of 2012. The second phase is relief work and uploading armed clashes that started excessively at the middle of 2012 and continued till today.
First phase: Online activism, civil journalism and documenting crimes against humanity:
Syrian activists used social media as a tool to exchange information, organize protests and report what is happening in the country. Social media came as a solution for the ban of assembly and freedom of speech offline. Surprisingly, the Syrian government lift the ban over Facebook and YouTube which doubled the number of users in three months⁴. This made many activists raise questions regarding this facilitation of access if it was a mean to monitor users and to reveal their identities. Hundreds of accounts and pages were set up by Syrians to spread the protests and activities to the world. Because there was divisions and barricades installed by the regime in many area, sometimes besiege a single neighborhood, Syrians resorted to the internet to cast their voice to other areas in Syria and to the world by creating a online pages. To avoid threats, many Syrians logged online anonymously to conceal their identities and avoid arrests. Activists were also forced to give their accounts information to security when they are imprisoned, the accounts of these activists were used by the security to spread viruses, malwares or spread mixed news and information. Therefore, many Syrians resorted to a number of methods to avoid online threats⁵; for example: they exchanged passwords with close colleagues and friends in case one of them was arrested and his account was breached, this will allow the account details holder to either inactivate the account or delete personal information. Another method used by activists was creating two accounts: one for public activities and the other is for more dangerous activities.
As a result for banning foreign journalists and reporter from covering what is going on in Syria, as mainstream media was absent, by using mobile devices citizens took matters in their own hands to transmit information⁶. Similarly, human rights groups are also banned from entering Syria, activists resorted to internet to document and share violations by the regime’s forces and afterwards the armed rebels.
Second phase: Relief and uploading armed operations:
As the war in Syrian became more violent, more aid needed for the displaced and the injured, the civil society resorted to raise funds and donations offline and online. The cyberspace was used to call for spreading information on areas needed relief and what kind of aid needed. Internet was also used excessively by rebels to upload video of operations and battles. Since many of the rebels used to be civilians and don’t have any experience in battle fields and warfare, websites like YouTube and Facebook for training on weapons⁷.
Internet was one of the sectors that underwent through a massive destruction of infrastructure. Internet services greatly deteriorated in most of Syrian rural and urban areas. Only few places under the regime’s control still enjoys interrupted connectivity. When no other options was available, civilians resorted to using satellite internet and cross the borders to neighboring countries. But the high cost can limit the exchange of information⁸.
Recently, Syrian civil community are using internet to denounce the actions of extremist fighters and demand them to stop their actions against civil activists⁹.
In my humble opinion, the main factors of the changes which internet underwent in Syria are two: necessity and war.
1 – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
2- Syria – Telecoms, Mobile, Broadband and Forecasts: http://www.budde.com.au/Research/Syria-Telecoms-Mobile-Broadband.htm
3- Internet World Stats
4- Seeking to Disrupt Protesters, Syria Cracks Down on Social Media, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/world/middleeast/23facebook.htm
5- Committee to Protect Journalists:
6- IPI News Innovation Platform: http://www.ipinewsinnovation.org/news/syrian-government-intensifies-crackdown-on-social-media.html
7-Syrian Rebels Use YouTube, Facebook for Weapons Training
8- Syrians turn to satellites as Internet shutdown continues:
9- Lahoon Wa Bas Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lahoon.wa.bas