Several hundred people attended the première of “The Social Network” at Damascus’s only English-language cinema last month. The crowded theater highlighted the wide use of the film’s subject – Facebook – despite the Syrian government banning the site in 2007. Since then, Facebook’s popularity has surged in Syria.
Syrians access Facebook via proxy servers that subvert the government’s fire wall, which also blocks YouTube, Blogspot, Israeli newspapers, and a range of other sites. In the capital’s Old City, where foreigners and Western-minded youths congregate, Internet cafe owners tout their shops’ ability to access banned sites.
The government mostly overlooks Facebook use, and, in some cases, embraces it. Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, maintains a Facebook page with more than 2,500 friends.
And when a video posted to Facebook in September showed two Syrian teachers beating students, the Ministry of Education removed them from their positions.
A technology specialist employed at a Damascus-based magazine says he created the Facebook group featuring the video and calling for the teachers’ firing after a local news site asked him to help them circulate the footage anonymously. The viral nature of Facebook gives whistle-blowers a measure of protection in a country where criticism of government or its employees often leads to arrest.