Amal Hanano is one of the most recognized names in the Syrian digital underground. She was an early online voice in the uprising, tracking each battle and connecting across the world on Skype.
Hanano, the alias for a Syrian woman who found an unexpected career as a writer, is one of many activists, rebel fighters — as well as regime hackers — who have caught up with a new digital reality: Skype is a new battleground.
Over the 19-month conflict, the internet has become the operations center for Syria’s opposition, as forces fighting the regime use it to plan and document battles, then share information with the public.
“When the uprising began Skype is what people were familiar with, so Skype is what they used. Today it is a communications backbone,” said John Scott-Railton, a doctoral student at UCLA and expert on internet freedom.
Hanano estimates there are several hundred private rooms on Skype where access is by invitation only and the conversation unfolds in real time as battles happen. Many of the rooms are organized by city – Aleppo, Rastan, Homs, and Hama. By crossing from one to the other, rebel forces can coordinate in ways they have never been able before.
“Skype is how people in one part of Syria figure out what’s happening in another,” says Hanano. “It may not be secure, but it’s the only way, and it’s where a lot of information first gets out.”
Like many Syrian activists online, Hanano adopted an alias to protect herself from a Syrian regime, with its history of arresting and abusing bloggers.
“From the first days of the revolution I knew I had to take a stand,” she said.
Hanano now lives in the U.S. but still writes under her alias, preserving what has become one of the most recognized names in the online revolution.
Activists, civilian and armed fighters, use Skype rooms to organize and plan their moves. Media activists, organized by city, village, or neighborhood set up a chat room to distribute images and news. It’s often on Skype that videos first go public.
The popular opposition Sham News Agency has an English chat room to brief journalists, and another room where they monitor Western media coverage of the revolution. Many rooms don’t allow users to comment because the activists running them want to maintain a clean stream of information.
Outside of Skype, YouTube remains a critical force, the primary channel for disseminating content. As for Twitter, Hanano describes it as microphones: amplifying pieces of information or kicking off a conversation around it.
Bambuser, a Swedish site that allows video from cell phones or PCs to broadcast straight to Twitter or Facebook, has been a key tool for transmitting live video like the siege of Homs on June 11. As bombs fell on the city they were broadcast live from a Bambuser user on the ground, then carried by CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.
With every new tool comes a new set of safety risks for Syrians online. Hanano says Bambuser feeds have led Syrian authorities to locations where users are broadcasting, ending with their capture.
“One of my contacts in Homs, the user HomsLive, got picked out while he was broadcasting,” Hanano said. She and her friends watched as HomsLive was shot at, likely by government forces, while he was transmitting pictures to the world.
As for Skype, internet security experts say that pro-government hackers, notably the Syrian Electronic Army, can infiltrate computers and access a user’s Skype data. And Skype can be an entry point for viruses, with hackers using the network to get users to click on links or content that lets malware in.
“You can’t answer the question of whether Skype is safe without knowing whether the computers of both people involved in a Skype conversation are safe,” said Scott-Railton. “Given the repeated attacks using Trojans by the Syrian Electronic Army, and their apparent success, it’s hard to answer.”
What’s happening with Syrians online is shaping their attitudes offline, while connecting a community of Syrians at home and abroad. For progressive Syrians, technology has become the training ground for a new mindset in Syrian society.
“The information revolution has changed us radically,” said Rami Nakhle, an early prominent voice of the revolution online. Nakhle is now working with the U.S. Institute of Peace on The Day After Project, a study of challenges facing post-conflict Syria.
Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert based at the University of Oklahoma, said the impact of social media has been more profound in Syria than it was in other countries in shaping a new mentality.
“I don’t think you can underscore enough what a dramatic game changer social media has been,” said Landis. “A whole generation of youth in Syria had been completely depoliticized before the Arab Spring. Assad had managed to turn Syria into a bunch of sheep.”
Armed with connective technologies, they are sheep no more. Nakhle sees Syria’s Facebook generation learning how to openly question a regime’s account that had been presented as the one single truth all their lives.
“Our generation is accepting the truth that we’ve been brainwashed, that we have been victims all this time. The older generation, I don’t think they’re there yet,” he said.
With so many perspectives now vying for position in the information war around Syria’s war, there’s no longer any one storyline to believe. Nakhle says it’s like seeing the same world through different eyes.
“Our generation doesn’t believe anyone but Google. Not our leaders, not our teachers,” he said. “Because when you look for answers, Google gives you choices.”