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When Internet access becomes a weapon

- February 24, 2015

Credit: REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts drawn from a new Journal of Peace Research special issue on “Communication, Technology, and Political Conflict.”  The entire special issue has been made available by Sage Publications here.
Social Media has rightly been celebrated as an empowering tool for ordinary citizens to mobilize against repressive rulers, and make marginalized voices heard. But a crucial question remains unanswered: why should power-hungry states, with de facto control over access to the Internet, impassively concede to defeat? The simple answer is: they do not. Behind the scenes, autocratic governments across the world have been extremely active in developing and refining a whole arsenal of tools to surveil, manipulate and censor the digital flow of information in their own country.
The ongoing civil war in Syria that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives is a vivid example. Experts have called it the most socially mediated civil conflict in history, with events being painstakingly captured, documented and communicated via the Internet. Thousands of YouTube videos record the images of killed and injured people in morgues, hospitals and market places. Activists use Twitter and Facebook accounts to inform each other about military operations and massacres, and to organize and coordinate.
The Syrian regime has actively expanded its virtual presence, from employing an Electronic Army of hackers to using an array of spying software against its entire population. It even maintains a lively Instagram account with no sign of the ongoing war. To intercept Syrian Facebook users’ information and communication, the regime has reportedly launched attacks that allow a third party to access and modify the user’s content. Cruder forms of interception, such as torturing people to obtain their Facebook passwords, have also been used. On several occasions, the regime has gone all out and shut down the entire Internet. Figure 1 shows how two such outages occurred in May 2013.
In a forthcoming study in a new special issue of the Journal of Peace Research, I argue that governments fighting to maintain political control have an incentive to implement such Internet blackouts in conjunction with larger military offensives. Regime forces are likely to utilize these shutdowns as a tactical advantage when facing intense confrontation from violent opposition groups.
For opposition groups, the Internet allows fast and cheap communication and coordination that is harder to manipulate than more traditional, centralized media types such as the radio or newspapers. A recent article interviewing Syrian rebels reports that:

Every fighter seems to have at least one mobile phone, used to speak with families, Skype […], and even advise Syrian soldiers how to defect to the opposition. Some note the difference a generation can make to the fate of their challenge against the government — and providing video evidence of atrocities and war crimes that are corroding the legitimacy of the regime.

Apart from coordination, rebels in Libya and Syria have also been found to use their smartphones’ location-based services to accurately locate military targets and calibrate their weapons.
The threat posed by these increased abilities to coordinate, fight, and even incite military soldiers to join the rebellion is something autocratic leaders are painfully aware of. As a response, a campaign aimed at repressing and possibly even eliminating the opposition is likely to include the shut down of these communication channels. Regimes can expect that the reduced opportunities for military coordination of attacks will improve their own fighters chances of regaining the upper hand. If a blackout is implemented in response to increased opposition resistance, state forces are likely to be involved in heightened fighting directly prior to, and during the blackout. An increase in regime violence should therefore be visible prior to and during such outages.
My results show that network blackouts are accompanied by significantly higher levels of state killings. The change in violence is particularly strong in regions where the government and opposition forces are directly confronting each other.
An alternative reason attributed to the states’ use of Internet blackouts is that they are part of a cover-up campaign to commit atrocities that remain hidden from international scrutiny. I estimate the degree of under-reporting of conflict fatalities on days with and on days without Internet to investigate whether a cover-up is happening. I find no systematic change in hidden violence on days without Internet, which means that the regime is not using it to conceal massacres (or at least that the strategy is not working).
Instead, it looks like Internet blackouts form a part of the Syrian regime’s arsenal of tools aimed at crushing the opposition. Digital censorship — in its most extreme form represented by full blackouts — is part of a dangerous new repressive strategy in the 21st century.
Anita Gohdes is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Mannheim (Germany), and a Consultant for the Human Rights Data Analysis Group.