Critics of Twitter often accuse it of being too much noise and not enough signal
. Following any breaking news on Twitter can sometimes be frustrating: too many retweets, misinformation, unconfirmed stories, or snapshots of other people's conversations. If you add in all the spam, when a topic trends it can be like trying to eavesdrop on someone else's party when you're passing in an express train.
The Syrian government seems to understand that dynamic very well. Syrian blogger Anas Qtiesh has a fascinating post looking into some of the annoyances facing people following the #Syria hashtag:
First was the proliferation of what tweeps dubbed as the “twitter eggs,” a group of newly created and mostly image-less twitter accounts that cussed out, verbally assaulted, and threatened anyone tweeting favorably about the ongoing protests, or criticizing the regime. Those accounts were believed to be manned by Syrian Mokhabarat[intelligence] agents with poor command of both written Arabic and English, and an endless arsenal of bile and insults. Several twitter users created lists to make it easier for the rest to track and reports those accounts for spam. Here are a couple of examples.
Second, which is more damaging, is the creation of various spam accounts that mainly target #Syria hash tag; flooding it with predetermined set of tweets- every few minutes-about varied topics such as photography, old Syrian sport scores, links to Syrian comedy shows, pro-regime news, and threats against a long list of tweeps who expressed their support of the protests.
Qtiesh follows up and identifies some of the accounts, before concluding:
Relying on the available data it seems that the regime is upping it’s information warfare game. Instead of generating bad PR by blocking websites or solely relying on going after online activists and attempting to hack their accounts. The regime at first attempted bullying and intimidation online by seemingly independent twitter accounts. That failed miserably and ended up being an embarrassment.
Now, they are effectively diluting the discussion and making it much harder to find any info about the protests by bombarding the popular relevant hash tags with badly disguised spam. Those spammy accounts have already been reported by many twitter users for spam, but Twitter has been slow to respond and apply their TOS (terms of service) that clearly prohibit “overloading, flooding, spamming, mail-bombing the Services, or by scripting the creation of Content in such a manner as to interfere with or create an undue burden on the Services.”
The Syrian authorities have thus far been fairly sophisticated in their attempts to manage the discourse. After the first calls for a "day of rage" in early February, the government lifted the firewall on Facebook
(previously users inside Syria had to access through a proxy). This might have been simply a concession, or something more nefarious, which could actually aid the government crackdown by helping to identify activists.