“There is a war itself going on in cyberspace,” said Wissam Tarif, head of the Middle East human rights organization Insan, whose Web site has been attacked.
Syria offers just one example of the online backlash in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Although social media sites have been lionized for their role in the Arab Spring protests, governments are increasingly turning the technology against the activists.
“In the same way that, a few years ago, it became commonplace to talk about Web 2.0, we’re now seeing Repression 2.0,” said Daniel B. Baer, a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed alarm about the trend, which began years ago in places such as China and Iran and has spread recently. “In a number of countries, democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their e-mails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke. Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords,” she said last month.
For several years, Congress has given the State Department millions of dollars annually to provide technology to help activists evade Internet censorship by oppressive governments. But diplomats are increasingly realizing that the threat goes beyond blocked Web sites.
In several Arab countries where popular rebellions have erupted, activists have discovered anonymous death threats arriving via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
In Bahrain, Mohammed al-Maskati, a 24-year-old human rights defender, became the target of a smear campaign on Facebook. Government supporters posted his home address and picture on various forums and urged that he be killed, Maskati said in an interview.
“Some people say, ‘We will kill you, and we will do this and this’ — bad words — ‘if you don’t stop [defending] human rights,’ ” he said in a telephone interview.
Maskati is hardly alone. “A lot of leading, moderate bloggers have had to flee the country because of threats to their person online,” said Robert Guerra, head of the global Internet program at Freedom House, a pro-democracy group.
The Bahraini Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
When it faced swelling protests earlier this year, Egypt’s government effectively shut down Internet access across the entire country. Other governments have taken to the Web with their own campaigns. China has the “50-cent party,” named for the fee its members allegedly receive when they flood sites with propaganda. The Iranian Cyber Army, run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, hacks into opposition and news sites, according to
Freedom on the Net 2011, a report by Freedom House.