Protests in Syria are getting intense. So has social media use by those seeking the latest news. But a more sinister brand of Twitter user has also taken to posting furiously under the same topic protesters have used.
A well-organized campaign with possible traces to the Syrian government has been drowning the #syria hashtag in spam—forcing Twitter to intervene and to block the spam accounts from appearing in searches. Shortly thereafter, at least one of accounts began threatening a well-known Syrian free speech activist.
The story broke when Anas Qteish, a Syrian expatriate "blogger, translator [and] tech enthusiast" based in the United States, noted at the GlobalVoices site that a number of Twitter spam accounts had popped up after the beginning of the Syrian protests. The accounts Qteish mentioned posted primarily in Arabic. These spam accounts, with names such as @thelovelysyria, @syriabeauty, @syleague, @karamahclub, @syhumor, @dnnnews and @mbking13 all regularly posted automated tweets full of nonsense unrelated to happenings in Syria with the #syria hashtag appended. One account, for example only posted old sports scores.
All of the accounts were set to post on a frequent automated loop—in most cases, new tweets were posted every two to five minutes. However, the content was puzzling to most outside observers. All the Twitter accounts named above posted a combination of old sports scores, links to Flickr pictures of Syria, links to Syrian television sitcoms online and—most puzzling—pro-regime news reports and threats against Syrian opposition figures and opposition sympathizers on Twitter. In many cases, the Twitter accounts appeared to have been hastily created; the accounts used no profile pictures at all or stock pictures (with watermarks) instead.
As of April 20, 2011, all of these accounts were still regularly posting to Twitter on a reduced schedule.
To an outside observer, this brings to mind Foreign Policy's perfectly nuanced prediction that social media could confuse protesters just as easily as it informs them. A less sophisticated version of this operation was just tried in Uganda this week.
According to Qteish, these Twitter accounts were variants of a less sophisticated spam account operation that he believes to have been run by the Syrian secret police:
First was the proliferation of what tweeps dubbed as the "twitter eggs, a group of newly created and mostly image-less twitter accounts that cussed out, verbally assaulted, and threatened anyone tweeting favorably about the ongoing protests, or criticizing the regime. Those accounts were believed to be manned by Syrian Mokhabarat [intelligence] agents with poor command of both written Arabic and English, and an endless arsenal of bile and insults. Several twitter users created lists to make it easier for the rest to track and reports those accounts for spam. [..]
Second, which is more damaging, is the creation of various spam accounts that mainly target #Syria hash tag; flooding it with predetermined set of tweets–-every few minutes—about varied topics such as photography, old Syrian sport scores, links to Syrian comedy shows, pro-regime news, and threats against a long list of tweeps who expressed their support of the protests.
Shortly after Qteish posted his findings, threats against him and insults were tweeted by one of the accounts, @thelovelysyria. Before his posting, the account only posted links to pictures of Syria on Flickr.
It appears that at least one of the spam accounts has links to a Bahrain-based company. Eghna Development and Support, which offers "political campaign solutions," lists both @dnnnews and @thelovelysyria as clients. Here is Eghna's description of their work for The Lovely Syria:
LovelySyria is using EGHNA Media Server to promote intersting photography about Syria using their twitter accounts. EGHNA Media Server helped Lovely Syria get attention to the beauty of Syria, and build a community of people who love the country and admire its beauty. Some of their network members started translating photo descriptions and rebroadcasting them to give the Syrian beauty more exposure. Lovely Syria is using their own installation of EGHNA Ad Center to generate the twitter messages, their current schedule is 2 messages every 5 minutes.
Eghna describes @dnnnews as "a citizen media news network operating in Syria." However, the Arabic-language content available on DNNNews' site, dearsyria.com, is exclusively pro-regime and paints the protesters as armed insurgents. The news presented on the site frequently contradicts portrayals of the same event on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya.
Radio Free Europe's Luke Allnutt, meanwhile, is strongly implying that the mystery Syria Twitter accounts are linked to the regime:
The Syrian authorities have thus far been fairly sophisticated in their attempts to manage the discourse. After the first calls for a "day of rage" in early February, the government lifted the firewall on Facebook (previously users inside Syria had to access through a proxy). This might have been simply a concession, or something more nefarious, which could actually aid the government crackdown by helping to identify activists.
At press time, Twitter appears to be blocking the sites from showing up in searches for the #syria hashtag.
[Image via Flickr user freedomania]