Thursday October 20, 2016

The digital front line in Syria's civil war is a click away

When Mariam Hamou encountered online threats and harassment as the North American media director for the Syrian National Coalition — an umbrella group of activists and rebel groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad's regime — she was ultimately forced to walk away from her position.

When Mariam Hamou encountered online threats and harassment as the North American media director for the Syrian National Coalition — an umbrella group of activists and rebel groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad's regime — she was ultimately forced to walk away from her position. (Chloë Ellingson/OpenCanada.org.)

Listen 23:31

Read story transcript

In 2011, Syrians flocked to social media when the internet opened up in the war-torn country.

When the Arab Spring arrived, Syrians both inside and outside the country, came to Facebook as a way to join the conversations about what many saw as the arrival of democracy and some measure of freedom. But Syria has long been a surveillance state and the arrival of the internet ended up being one more way for the regime to watch citizens and, as the revolution went on, to detain, torture, and sometimes kill activists and journalists.

In the last five years, the internet has become critical not only in the propaganda wars fought by the various parties to the conflict, but also to ordinary people who use it to find resources for survival and stay in touch with one another. 

Ordinary people like Mariam Hamou. The young mother from London, Ont., had a personal connection to Syria — her father was arrested and tortured under the regime of al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad. 

Family affair

Mariam Hamou's father was arrested and tortured under the regime of al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

Hamou's enthusiasm for change drove her to become the North American media director for the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group of activists and rebel groups opposed to the al-Assad's regime.

The work, however, was psychologically devastating. She developed post-traumatic stress disorder from looking at pictures of dead children day after day.

"A lot of them were coming from the activists on the ground, people that were just taking photos of the wreckage, the scorched earth," Hamou told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. Some days she would have to sift through as many as 200 pictures.

"I was like 'No no no no!' because they were so graphic and bloody. So much death and destruction."

And then there was the online trolling. Pro-Assad hackers broke into her cell phone and social media accounts. They sent out disturbing messages to her contacts, pretending to be Hamou.

"They sent e-mails to my parents to anybody with my last name saying that I had relations with other men; very very demeaning stuff," she said. "They try to embarrass you."

After five years, she had enough. Hamou quit her position with the the Syrian National Coalition.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

For more on how digital technology creates vulnerability among populations connected to the Syrian war, see Life in the digital shadow of the Syrian war. That feature article is part of a series by OpenCanada.org called The War is Just a Click Away, which investigates conflict in cyberspace, and the way that ordinary people may be targeted or affected. 

The OpenCanada series includes tips on what you can do to stay safe online, including when you want to make contact with people in insecure places like Syria. It also includes a debate about the innovations in cyber-space that have been fostered by the Syrian war —from ISIS' online branding strategy to the digital tools developed by humanitarian organizations.