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Syria Field Notes: Digital Resilience for Better Lives

Countering scams and misinformation, delivering digital-safety training, reaching out to Deaf communities: a glimpse at SalamaTech’s everyday efforts to boost Syrians’ digital resilience.

In a fragile context like today’s Syria, digital tech can be both a cure and a curse. Most Syrians use mobile devices now to access life-supporting information, plug into the economy, build networks, and connect with loved ones. But this new space of opportunity comes with a new world of digital risk. And today’s conditions make many Syrians especially vulnerable.

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That’s why the SalamaTech team exists: to help Syrians communicate more safely and effectively online. When they launched in 2012, their priority was to help people facing dire digital emergencies. In those early days of civil war, the devices that had empowered people were suddenly being weaponized against them. But as the conflict has evolved, so has SalamaTech—toward more proactive digital-safety training and awareness campaigns.

Emergency response is still a vital service, as we saw so clearly after February’s earthquake. But even then, the team’s post-quake debrief stressed the critical value of helping strengthen people’s digital resilience before crisis strikes. And that’s exactly what they’ve continued to do. So today, we’re sharing some frontline stories—from the period right after the quake crisis—that show what goes into this. All of this comes from the team’s April-June 2023 field notes.

Combating tension-fuelling misinformation

In fragile contexts, misinformation often inflames existing tensions among communities. In this last quarter, for instance, a disturbing video started circulating on social media in a neighbouring country. It purported to show a Syrian refugee carrying out a deadly attack.

Caricature of three young people surrounded by loud, confusing messages.Across the region, welcoming refugees from the Syrian conflict can be a divisive issue. Many people support it, but there are some who strongly oppose it. And the video tapped directly into stereotypes about dangers that refugees represent. SalamaTech learned about the video from a journalist who was investigating the incident. And with some analysis, the team helped establish that it was a deeply-edited fake. The journalist dropped the video and the story.

These interventions matter: when news outlets unwittingly re-air crowdsourced fake news, that can lend it the legitimacy it needs to go ”viral.” And this is not the first time the team has helped keep fake news off the air. They’ve also used social media platforms’ complaints processes to get toxic misinformation removed there. But every hard-won success, team members say, also reminds them that direct intervention can’t solve the bigger problem.

The key here, again, is digital resilience: helping more and more people learn to recognize and resist misinformation. So that has become a core element of SalamaTech’s training sessions and awareness campaigns. And in a new development we’ll share soon, SalamaTech is growing a new “YouthTech” team: young people who train other youth in digital safety, with a special focus on the misinformation that’s disrupting their online world.

Tackling “authority” scammers

We’re all familiar with scammers impersonating authorities, online or by phone. In Canada, for instance, we’ve seen social engineers often posture as tax officials—either offering surprise tax refunds (they just need your banking information!) or threatening court action unless you pay forgotten back taxes (now!). Of course, in Syria, these scams take shapes that reflect the unique contexts people face there.

Screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation

Another scammer from “Security Intelligence” tricks someone into sharing an SMS-based two-factor authentication code—allowing him to take control of her WhatsApp account.

In one recent case, a woman in Damascus told SalamaTech she’d been receiving urgent messages from someone claiming to represent security and intelligence services. They said she was under suspicion of contacting drug dealers—and this agent was requesting access to her WhatsApp account to assess her contacts and conversations. Otherwise, he said, his seniors would summon her downtown for interrogation.

Now, after a decade of civil conflict, the prospect of interrogation by anyone can be terrifying. Fortunately, a friend connected her with SalamaTech before she could relinquish her WhatsApp account (full of personal information and photos that could be used for  blackmail). The team helped her block the attacker. But they also helped her strengthen protections on all her accounts and shared other digital-safety advice. After connecting this incident with several others, they posted an online alert to warn others.

The case shows how social engineers often work—and why people in fragile contexts can be especially vulnerable. Like many similar attacks, this one blended three key ingredients: fear (of interrogation), trust (of an authority figure; this time, a “good cop” to his “bad cop” seniors) and urgency (to act now to avoid the feared consequences). This was one of 81 emergency-response cases the team handled in his three-month period. And like many others, it has become a useful case study for digital-safety training and awareness-raising.

Digital safety for Deaf Syrians

SalamaTech has increasingly prioritized outreach to people with disabilities, who often have unique vulnerabilities to digital harm. In this last quarter, for instance, they reached out to the Deaf community in new ways—working with a Syrian organization that’s challenging and changing media narratives around disability.

Still image from an Akkazeh video featuring a narrator using sign language

Videos using sign language welcome Deaf Syrians to the digital safety conversation.

Together they developed public resources on issues that connect directly with the Deaf community’s experience: cyberbullying, two-factor authentication, misinformation, and reporting digital threats. Those resources included digital safety guides and infographics, plus six digital safety videos featuring sign-language narration. Together, those resources drew more than 10,000 user engagements as well as media coverage. The team also received important validation on the value of adopting sign language in outreach to the Deaf community.

We’ve heard it asked: If this communication is all Internet-based, can’t everyone—hearing or Deaf—just read about digital safety? There’s a two-part answer to that question, and it’s  worth laying out carefully.

First, in fact, no: not everyone can read about digital safety. In Syria, for instance, nearly 20 percent of women are not conventionally literate. That includes many active Internet users who are highly adept at sharing imagery and communicating through new Internet-oriented lexicons. This is why SalamaTech’s outreach materials have often used audio and video (if not sign language).

Second, strengthening digital resilience is a long-term cultural process. To endure and spread, the language of digital safety needs to embed itself in everyday discourse. That’s why our Salam@ program—working in several MENA countries—often adopts local Arabic dialects in outreach. And that’s why, to include the Deaf community in this conversation, adopting sign language matters.

NEW: Sign-language DS dictionary

Salam@ DS sign language dictionary logoAs the terminology of digital safety (DS) has evolved in Arabic, there has been no widely-accepted sign-language equivalent across the MENA region. That's why another Foundation-supported program, Salam@, has been developing the first-ever united Arabic sign-language dictionary of DS terms. » learn more.

The daily grind of digital resilience

Week in and week out, SalamaTech team members are logging the hours it takes to help at-risk people and small organizations strengthen their digital resilience. That includes handling emergencies that arise, but it especially means helping people proactively protect themselves from digital harms. Sometimes, that means showing people how to secure their devices, conversations and identities. Other times, it means helping people learn to recognize misinformation or to empower themselves in the face of online gender-based violence.

This work rests in the hands of around 15 SalamaTech First Responders (SFRs), supported by pockets of community volunteers across Syria. In this last quarter alone, their frontline accomplishments included:

Caricature of a woman hugging a WhatsApp logo - from a SalamaTech awareness campaign on online scams.

Imagery from a SalamaTech awareness campaign on scams targeting women on WhatsApp

  • Direct support: Handled 562 digital-safety support request from at-risk people and civil-society organizations, including 81 emergency calls (e.g. for compromised accounts, blackmail or hacking)
  • Training/awareness: Supported 562 people through 49 digital-safety training sessions—and 819 more through awareness sessions on specific digital-safety issues, including misinformation.
  • Online engagement: Tracked 99,189 engagements with SalamaTech’s online digital-safety materials—from how-to guides to urgent alerts to awareness-raising videos.
  • Recruitment: Engaged and trained 10 new Community Outreach Ambassadors (doubling their ranks) to take digital-safety sessions to their own communities, including internal-refugee camps.

Behind every number you’ll find real people. Real people who, each in their own way, are becoming more capable of protecting themselves online. And from that place of safety, they’re using digital space to build better lives for themselves and their communities.