Why are Syrian hackers targeting Western media Twitter accounts?

The nation's deadly civil war has prompted a digital propaganda campaign to correct foreign media "distortion"

The logo for the Syrian Electronic Army
(Image credit: Syrian Electronic Army)

Syria's bloody civil war has spilled over to an unlikely arena: Twitter.

Over the weekend, the Syrian Electronic Army, a mysterious collection of hackers who support embattled President Bashar al-Assad, took control of several Twitter accounts belonging to The Guardian and its staffers.

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The attacks, which resulted in several bogus tweets being sent out from various Guardian accounts, are the latest round in an escalating assault on Western media organizations. Over the past month, at least half a dozen news groups have had their social media accounts taken over by hackers claiming to be part of the SEA.

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"We will keep hacking #Twitter accounts and cause for you problems if you keep suspending our accounts #SEA," one tweet from a Guardian account, since deleted, read.

The BBC, NPR, CBS, and the Associated Press have all been attacked in recent weeks. Most notably, the SAE claimed credit for sending a bogus AP tweet last week that claimed President Obama had been wounded in an attack on the White House. That tweet sent stock markets tumbling, albeit briefly, as investors scrambled to verify whether bombs had, in fact, erupted in the White House.

Formed in 2011, the SAE has a nebulous relationship with the Assad regime. The SAE describes itself as "a group of enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria."

However, there's little hard evidence to tie the group directly to Assad. One researcher who has followed the SAE since its inception told CNN it clearly seemed like the two had some link, though he cautioned that the relationship was mostly one of "tacit support."

While social media has increasingly played a role as unrest continues in the Middle East, the SAE is unique in that it is working to defend the government, not to topple it.

From the Guardian's Luke Harding and Charles Arthur:

But unlike Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — whose former regimes were caught badly off guard — Assad's government has been fighting back. It has created an increasingly rambunctious group of counter-revolutionary hackers. These hackers have a twin function: To punish western news organizations seen as critical of Syria's regime, and to spread Damascus's alternative narrative. This says that the war in Syria isn't a popular uprising against a brutal, despotic family-military dynasty but rather an attempt by Islamist terrorists to turn Syria into a crazy al Qaeda fiefdom. [Guardian]

The group hasn't been too explicit in revealing why it's gone after each news organization, though it has hinted that it's because of unfavorable coverage of the Assad government's crackdown on dissidents. In addition to news groups, the SAE claimed credit for hacking the Twitter account of Human Rights Watch, which has conducted extensive — and highly critical reports — from Syria.

And as The Guardian itself noted in acknowledging it had been hacked, reporters there have frequently covered alleged crimes committed by the Assad regime, and even published leaked e-mails from his close advisers.

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