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Syria's online troops wage counter-revolutionary cyber war

AFP  |  Paris 

Sometimes, attacks in Syria's bloody civil war start not with a bullet or a bomb blast, but with an innocuous-looking email.

A message pings into an inbox, apparently from a friend or colleague. The recipient clicks a link, and suddenly hackers are one step closer to snatching sensitive information - including passwords to a company's social media sites.

It's an old trick, but one effectively deployed time and again by the Syrian Electronic Army in recent months. The supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime have duped numerous Western media outlets into handing over the electronic keys to their Facebook, Twitter and other accounts, leaving many organisations red-faced and scrambling to regain control of their social media streams.

The group's aim: to spread counter-revolutionary propaganda and hit back at outlets it says slant their reporting of the conflict that began in March 2011 and has so far claimed an estimated 94,000 lives and displaced millions more.

"We have literally hacked the planet when it comes to organisations," a spokesman for the group told AFP in an email exchange. "There only remains a few untouched social media targets that we fully intend to pay a visit to soon."

All sides in Syria's war have used social media to try to drum up support and document atrocities being inflicted on an almost daily basis. Opposition groups were quick to build pages and post videos depicting gruesome acts by regime forces, but the Syrian Electronic Army - or SEA, as it calls itself - has pushed back in the high-stakes battle to shape public opinion in the West.

The most notorious hack was of The Associated Press's Twitter stream, resulting in a false tweet saying President Barack Obama had been injured after two blasts at the White House. The message saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffer a "flash crash" before traders realised the tweet was false.

Other victims of SEA hacks include the AFP photo department's Twitter account, the BBC, Al Jazeera, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Even US satirical site the Onion was hijacked, and on Wednesday the SEA said it had hacked into a Turkish government site.

Compromised accounts often link to images or reports of abuses apparently carried out by opposition forces. The SEA was quick to try to capitalise on gruesome videos filmed this year apparently showing opposition fighters executing regime troops. Another video purportedly shows a rebel cutting out a dead soldier's heart and biting into it.

First Published: Sun, June 09 2013. 09:35 IST