On Sunday, 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.
As the situation on the ground becomes ever more bloody, both sides in Syria are also waging what seems to be an intensifying conflict in cyberspace, often attempting to use misinformation and rumour to tilt the war in reality.
On Friday, Reuters was forced to temporarily shut down its system for posting blogs on Reuters.com after the appearance of a series of unauthorized, and inaccurate, reports citing opposition military reverses in Syria.
On Sunday, the company took similar action to suspend the @ReutersTech Twitter account after it appeared to have been seized, renamed and used to send a series of false tweets apparently designed to undermine the rebel Free Syrian Army. Both incidents remain under investigation.
The attacks were not the first time a major media or other organization had been targeted apparently by supporters of Assad. Some – including the defacement of a Harvard University website last year to post a picture of Assad in military uniform – have been claimed by the “Syrian Electronic Army.”
But Assad’s government too have had their own embarrassments in cyberspace. Hacker group Anonymous claimed credit for stealing thousands of internal Syrian government e-mails including personal communications between Assad and his wife. The entire tranche was later published online by Wikileaks.
“It’s not surprising that Syria has attempted to develop a cyber warfare capability. It’s in line with their chemical and biological warfare programs and their aspirations as a regional power,” said John Bassett, former senior official at British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“But the regime’s technical capabilities look pretty basic, and the opposition hacking of the personal e-mails of Assad and his wife earlier this year show the regime’s cyber defences have serious weaknesses.”
The opposition too, many suspect, have been doing what they can do to spread rumours about their opponents. On Monday afternoon, a Twitter account purporting to be that of a senior Russian official said Mr. Assad had been killed in Damascus, prompting a flurry of speculation and telephone calls by agencies such as Reuters before the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the news was fake.
“Cyber attacks are the new reality of modern warfare,” said Hayat Alvi, lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at the US Naval War College. “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.”
With Mr. Assad’s opponents desperate to attract defectors – such as Prime Minister Riyad Hijab who fled on Monday – and the government keen to avoid further foreign support for rebels already backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the stakes are undoubtedly high. The Alawite-dominated government needs to demonstrate it can survive, while the rebels must present themselves as a coherent government in waiting and keep down talk of potential Al Qaeda infiltration.
In recent months, the “Syrian Electronic Army” (SEA) in particular looks to have adopted a strategy to target media outlets to spread disinformation helpful to the Damascus government or harmful to its foes.
In April, Saudi-based broadcaster Al Arabiya briefly lost control of one of its Twitter accounts, which was then used to spread a string of stories suggesting a political crisis in Qatar. Tweets included claims that the Qatari prime minister had been sacked, his daughter arrested in London and that a coup orchestrated by the army chief was underway.
In July, Al Jazeera suffered a similar attack, with one of its Twitter feeds used to send a series of pro-Assad messages including accusing the Qatar-based channel of fabricating evidence of civilian casualties in Syria.
Such exchanges, experts say, are increasingly becoming part of any conflict. During the 2008 Georgia war, Russian and Georgian hackers – either state-backed or operating independently – each mounted a range of attacks on each other’s official websites.
In reality, however, there seems little sign such incidents made a significant difference either on the ground in Syria or to the wider geopolitical picture.
The assorted Reuters blog postings on Friday published through a now closed vulnerability in the WordPress software used to manage the site, bore a superficially convincing resemblance to other genuine entries.
But the written style – as well as some of the grammar and style – were notably different to real Reuters reports, which continued to be posted without difficulty and disseminated to Reuters media, financial and other clients.