Beware patriotic Syrian hackers holding a media grudge.
That's one takeaway from the ongoing exploits of the Syrian Electronic Army, a self-described group of grassroots Syrian hackers who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During the country's two-year -- and counting -- civil war, the Syrian Electronic Army has been deployed as a propaganda tool to correct perceived slights or misinformation being disseminated via media outlets that the group sees as sympathetic to Syrian rebels. Its modus operandi is to compromise the Twitter and Facebook accounts of its targets, which are predominantly media outlets. The group's most well-known exploit to date was seizing control of multiple Associated Press (AP) Twitter feeds, then using them to issue bogus messages, including the following alert on April 23: "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured."
In the wake of that tweet, the White House confirmed that the president was unharmed, that there had been no explosions and that the FBI was investigating the hoax tweets. Due to automated high-speed trading systems set to monitor Twitter feeds, however, the news triggered a temporary downturn in the U.S. stock market that briefly erased $200 billion in value. According to Th3 Pr0 (pronounced "the pro"), the self-described 18-year-old "leader of special operations department" for the Syrian Electronic Army -- personal website tagline: "proud to be pro-Assad hacker" -- the hack was in retaliation for Network Solutions having seized the group's domain names, as well as for the United States "supporting the terrorist groups in Syria."
"We generally target the most malicious media, especially those who refuse to cover both sides of the war," a member of the SEA's "Special Operations Division," known as the Shadow, told Vice magazine.
Other media outlets targeted by the group have included CBS, AFP, Sky News Arabia and E! Online, with the hackers using a seized Twitter feed at the celebrity news site to announce earlier this month that Justin Bieber was gay, before telling Bieber fans they'd been "trolled." That followed its March compromise of multiple BBC Twitter accounts, which the group used to post anti-Semitic rants as well as to offer the following report via the BBC's Twitter weather feed: "Saudi weather station down due to head-on collision with camel."
In May, meanwhile, the group seized control of the Twitter account for satire site the Onion. "UN retracts report of Syrian chemical weapon use: 'Lab tests confirm it is Jihadi body odor,'" reported one hoax tweet. Another said that the Onion's CEO said he regretted "taking Zionist money to defame Syria."
Obviously, the hacking group has its own perspective on not only the Syrian conflict, but what constitutes balanced reporting. For example, another hoax tweet -- posted to a hacked a Reuters Twitter account last year -- read: "White house spokesperson says financial and technical support given to #AlQaeda operatives in #Syria."
As that tweet illustrates, the Syrian Electronic Army persistently attempts to reframe the country's civil war as a conflict perpetrated by foreign powers that are arming terrorists and bringing them into the country in a bid to overthrow the legitimate Syrian government.
The hackers' perspective parallels more widespread, pro-Assad propaganda based on accusing many Western media outlets of not just bias, but also "persistent media warmongering, faking news and fabricating … stories." That's according to a report on the Syria News website, which claimed that "terror NATO sponsors" were "airlifting, training, arming, financing and smuggling Al-Qaeda terrorists" into Syria.
Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Christiaan Triebert.