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 rumor to tilt the war in reality.
On Friday, Reuters was forced to temporarily shut down its system for posting blogs on www.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 program 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 emails of Assad and his wife earlier this year show the regime’s cyber defenses have serious weaknesses.”
The opposition too, many suspect, have been doing what they can do to spread rumors about their opponents. On Monday afternoon, a twitter account purporting to be that of a senior Russian official said 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.