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On Facebook and Twitter, spreading revolution in Syria

Social networks are playing a central role in fueling protests in Syria, where demonstrations Friday were the largest since anti-Assad activists took to the street last month.

By Correspondent / April 8, 2011

Protesters gather in a square in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, on April 8, in this still image taken from video. Social media has played a central role in protests in Syria with protesters posting videos and photos, often documenting government abuses, when traditional media has been shut out.

Amateur Video via Reuters TV/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

Five years ago, Malath Aumran was a normal young Syrian man with little interest in politics and, like millions of his fellow countrymen, a passive supporter of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

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But a brutal act of violence set him on a path of political activism that today has turned him into an exile hiding in Beirut. Now, surrounded by laptop computers and Internet cables, the young, technologically savvy activist is using social networking tools to help build and sustain the popular uprising that has convulsed Syria and shaken the regime in the past three weeks.

Mr. Aumran has joined the growing ranks of Internet activists playing a critical role in the Middle East uprising. Not only have they organized protests via Twitter and Facebook, they are using YouTube and Flickr to post videos and photos, often documenting government abuses, when traditional media has been shut out. While many factors gave rise to this new Arab spring, the Internet and social media helped it spread quickly.

“The regime is ready to do anything against us, including committing massacres,” he says. “But we are telling the regime that if you shoot and kill people the pictures will be online and on television five minutes later.”

Although the Syrian government has offered some concessions in recent days, including a promise to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds and end the draconian state of emergency law by April 25, protestors gathered Friday for the largest demonstrations since unrest began last month. At least 10 protesters were reportedly killed by government forces, which have been responsible for shooting more than 100 people in a bid to quell the uprising.

An online revolution

From his cramped apartment tucked into a narrow street in east Beirut, Mr. Aumran, lean with a chiseled face and intense gaze, monitors the protests closely using Facebook, Twitter, and Skype as his eyes and ears, allowing him to track developments and disseminate information.

Foreign journalists presently are banned from reporting in Syria, meaning the dozens of Facebook pages that have sprung up since the uprising began March 18 and the daily Twitter feeds from activists have become vital sources of information that provide a glimpse of conditions in the country.

“We are using Skype to communicate because the authorities often block the cellphone lines and then we tweet the information,” Aumran says. “We have to be the journalists.”

Malath Aumran is not his real name but a pseudonym he adopted when he began his activism to avoid being identified by the Syrian authorities (Malath means “shelter” in Arabic, and Aumran was the name of his younger brother). Even the profile picture he uses on his Facebook page is artificial, a composite of 32 male faces.

“It looks like everyone but it is no one,” he says.

The catalyst that drove him to pursue the potentially hazardous path of civil rights campaigning in Syria began five years ago when a female friend was victim of an “honor crime,” beaten to death by a relative for an alleged sexual misdemeanor that brought “dishonor” upon her family.

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