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This article was published on March 15, 2012

Assad emails reveal a close watch on social media – and the need for Twitter to clarify some of its policies

Assad emails reveal a close watch on social media – and the need for Twitter to clarify some of its policies

Last night, The Guardian revealed that it had obtained a cache of over 3,000 emails giving an insider’s look at correspondence between Syrian president Bashar al Assad, his wife Asmaa, and their entourage.

The emails, which have been verified by The Guardian, show a Syrian leadership that is not only extremely aware of social media, but also doing its best to twist and manipulate it to its advantage.

Between having Twitter accounts suspended, the Syrian regime is also keeping a close eye on so-called “Facebook scams“, while reveling in the success of their own scams. One of Assad’s advisers, Sheherazad Jaafari, boasted “CNN has fallen for a nom-de-guerre that she set up to post pro-regime remarks” on Twitter.

Going after Twitter accounts

One of the emails also reveals that Syria’s first lady had a hand in having several Twitter accounts shut down for impersonating both her and her husband.

One in particular, however, was clearly marked as a parody account. The name and bio of the account @SyrianPresident, while now suspended, left no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was a parody account.

The bio read:

Parody account of #Syria president #Bashar al-#Assad. I am not really the president of #Syria, but you wish I were.

Despite that, it is one of several accounts which Twitter has shut down, while also telling one of Assad’s aides via email, “We do suspend accounts that are clear attempts at impersonation. Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary and fan accounts”.

The problem with Twitter’s guidelines

This is not the first time Twitter has been accused of bowing to presidential requests. Last month Twitter made headlines when several accounts impersonating French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, were shut down. Twitter responded in a French blog post clarifying its guidelines for parody accounts.

The blog post wasn’t shared on Twitter’s main blog in English for reasons we don’t entirely understand. It stated that “parody is tolerated and encouraged on Twitter, as long as it respects not some, but every condition set out publicly in [Twitter’s] guidelines”.

However looking at those guidelines, the wording is far too ambiguous. It states that users must include expressions like ‘fake’, ‘fan’ and ‘parody’ in the username, name and bio, but describes them as ‘suggestions’, and certainly doesn’t imply that all three guidelines are a must. Only in a French blog post that will undoubtedly not have been read by the majority of its users, does Twitter clarify its stance.

Even in the case of Twitter accounts impersonating Bashar al-Assad, Twitter’s approach has been haphazard at best. While a clearly marked parody account is suspended, two other accounts that were reported have been left untouched.

While the account @Bashar_Alassad hasn’t tweeted since April last year, in its Arabic bio and name, the words, ‘parody’, ‘fake’ and ‘fan’ are nowhere to be seen. @Plaid_Alassad has also been spared, despite not adhering to Twitter’s ‘suggestions’.

It is worth noting, however, that the aide who was communicating directly with Twitter did misspell the username, reporting it as Plaid-alassad. So clearly, dictators’ minions need to be more aware of pesky little details like underscores and hyphens, when navigating the wilds of Twitter.

YouTube, iTunes and Amazon

The rest of the emails reveal a dictator who appears to be completely oblivious to the state of his country, unless he happens to be sharing videos mocking the massacres taking place in Homs.

Assad seems more concerned with purchasing songs on iTunes, and Gawker has kindly created a dictator’s playlist over on Spotify. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). As for his wife, she appears to be busy feeding her online shopping addiction.

All of the emails that have been made public are currently available here.

We have contacted Twitter for comment on the matter of parody accounts, and we will update this post if and when we receive a response.