By Lisa Newman
Damascus, SYRIA – Since its creation in 2004, Facebook has evolved into a popular and effective means of social networking, political campaigning, and collective organizing around the world. But in Syria, it is seen as a weapon.
Along with other social networking sites such as MySpace and Blogspot, the Syrian government has blocked Facebook since November 2007. Mohsen Bilal, Syria’s minister of information, said the threat of Israeli communication is the reason behind the block. He oversees all media coming in and out of Syria, including the Internet.
“Our greatest problem is the occupation,” Bilal said. “The conflict with Israel is not limited to fighting on the ground. Israel is using all sorts of networking to fight.”
The minister added that Lebanon has already found Israeli spies trying to gain footing by using Facebook. He said that he believes Israel has engineered opposition networks through certain sites that his nation’s youth should not have access to.
“We do not live in security. Israel is not limited to the occupation. They are waging wars using spy networks,” Bilal said. Israel and Syria were engaged in indirect peace talks up until Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in December of last year. The two countries have been warring since Israel occupied The Golan Heights, fertile land along Syria’s southwestern border, in 1967.
Although Syria’s government suggests it is most concerned with enemy spy networks, media scholars elsewhere speculate that there are other motivations.
“The Israeli spy network claim doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t think the Mossad needs Facebook,” said Laurel Leff, professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on free speech in the United States. The Mossad is Israel’s national intelligence agency.
Rather, she and other experts say that the threat with these sites is in their capacity to unite people behind a cause – perhaps an opposition cause. In Syria, that would be seen as dangerous to the state.
For example, after Barack Obama successfully used Facebook to campaign for his presidency, the world community recognized the various potentials of the social networking site.
“The Internet in general represents a huge threat to the world, which is why countries such as China and Myanmar put so much effort into censoring it,” Dan Kennedy, professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said in an e-mail. “Social media connects like-minded people in ways that unpopular governments attempting to hold on to power would find especially threatening.”
Another example can be seen in Iran, which recently lifted a three-day Facebook block. The motivation behind the shut-down, some believe, was an attempt by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to slow opposition support in advance for the upcoming June 12 elections.
Students from Damascus University expressed their thoughts on the block in their country and explained, during a meeting with Northeastern University students last week, what they believe is behind it.
“I saw a group on Facebook that was against the Syrian government and I think that’s the main reason why Facebook is blocked,” Yeman Shattar said.
Almost all students admitted to using a proxy site such as hotzoneshield.com that essentially employs a small, easily downloadable program to navigate around the block and allow access to any sites.
But even with the proxy program, Internet connections are often slow in Syria, meaning pictures and video are difficult to upload. Many students said they feel this defeats the purpose of Facebook, which emphasizes posting photos, and so aren’t bothered that they can’t access it.
Rula Karahamad, a student at Damascus University, had a Facebook account before the block went into place and said she felt cut off from the rest of the world when access was denied. It is her main source of communication with friends in Dubai, and in other cities.
Karahamad said she sees the block as a fearful reaction to the idea of freedom of expression.
“Facebook is something you can use without limitations,” Karahamad said. “That’s scary for our society at this point.”