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A few weeks before the first mass protests ensued across Syria in March 2011, the Regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad lifted a large number of bans on social networking platforms, including Facebook and Youtube. Up to that point, the Regime had controlled the most regulated media landscape and telecommunications market in the Middle East, which is why the move towards providing access to social media sites not even permitted in China was not something to be expected. Why, after all these years of extreme censorship, does a government suddenly permit free access to, and generation of, information?
The ability to connect via large social network platforms has been celebrated as an important way for ordinary citizens to collectively organise protest in light of repressive rulers. The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have spurred a new and important research area on the effects of digital communication technology on citizen’s propensity to voice dissent and organise protest and resistance. The fact that anyone with a working network connection can now access, generate, and exchange content on the internet has been termed a ‘game changer’ for authoritarian regimes intent on maintaining control in light of mass popular protest.
What has remained largely unanswered, is how regimes resolved to stay in power can make use of their ability to surveil, censor, and limit the flow of information in an age where the majority of communication has been relegated to the inter- net and mobile phones. Understanding the way in which this new form of control feeds into more traditional means of repression, such as the use of extreme forms of physical coercion, is a crucial part of this process. In this talk, I will discuss under which conditions the free flow of information is likely to prove helpful in conducting effective state repression, and under which conditions the censoring of information access is likely to be more beneficial.
Regimes intent on maintaining power against all adversaries have long since combined the use of censorship with physical violations of those deemed threatening to their position. The introduction of digital communication technology has, however, altered the costs and benefits of limiting the flow of information when conducting coercive campaigns. When Syria’s government decided to unblock social networking sites, it might thus have simultaneously increased its intelligence for counterinsurgency operations, while also providing new ways of collective action for the opposition. Investigating these changes and how they affect the tactics of state violence is a crucial first step in understanding how contemporary and future governments are likely to incorporate their control of communication technology into strategies of repression.
I use supervised machine-learning to analyze over 60,000 records of killings perpetrated by the Syrian Regime in the ongoing conflict, and classify them according to their event circumstances, to arrive at a categorization between targeted and untargeted acts of repression. I find that higher levels of information accessibility are consistently linked to an increase in the proportion of targeted repression, whereas areas with little or no access witness more indiscriminate campaigns of violence.