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Reuters got caught up in a Syrian war of disinformation

“On Sunday,” says Reuters, “it was a hijacked Reuters Twitter feed trying to create the impression of a rebel collapse in Aleppo. On Monday, it was another account purporting to be a Russian diplomat announcing the death in Damascus of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.” The latter was quickly labeled false by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

There have been other examples. The Harvard university website was defaced by the Syrian Electronic Army hacking group with a picture of Assad in full military uniform; and Syrian emails, including the personal emails of Assad and his wife, have been breached by both Anonymous and other Syrian activists. In April, Saudi-based broadcaster Al Arabiya lost control of one of its Twitter accounts, and messages were put out suggesting a coup in Qatar. In July, Al Jazeera was attacked, and one of its Twitter feeds was used to send a series of pro-Assad messages, accusing the Qatar-based channel of fabricating evidence of civilian casualties in Syria.

"Cyber attacks are the new reality of modern warfare," Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the US Naval War College, told Reuters. "We can expect more... from all directions. In war, the greatest casualty is the truth. Each side will try to manipulate information to make their own side look like it is gaining while the other is losing."

The report also quotes Imperva’s Tal Be’ery: "The problem with these attacks is that they are always quickly noticed and even if they are successful in grabbing headlines and fooling people for a short period of time, they have very limited effect.” They are not that technically sophisticated, he adds, “and my assessment is that they would most likely be from amateurs rather than the regime itself. That tells us that Assad still has some support amongst people able to do this both inside and outside the country, but that is about it.”

The real issue, says Reuters, “will be the cat and mouse game between government surveillance systems and the opposition networks they are trying to track.” It quotes Alexander Klimburg, cyber security expert and fellow at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs,: “It is hard to estimate how successful they are tracking the protesters, but it seems they are much better at it than the former Tunisian or Egyptian secret police, and seem just as good as the Iranian security forces in this regard.”

This should be no surprise. Assad is known to take an interest in the potential of the internet. Before becoming President, says Reuters, “he was president of the ‘Syrian Computer Society’, a group now widely believed to have been something of a precursor to the ‘Syrian Electronic Army’.”

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