If you were to check out this Columbia University Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon, you would find not the expected chattering of students and alums, but hundreds and hundreds of messages staunchly in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al Assad. As a Columbia spokeswoman pointed out, the page isn't the official Columbia University page (that's here), but it sure looks like it, it has more than half the fans of the official one, and it turns up first in a search (at least it did for us). So a spammer aiming to attack the university's page could easily target this one by mistake.
That's what appears to have happened with the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-government online force that Assad has praised as "a real army in virtual reality." As The Atlantic Wire's Uri Friedman pointed out in July, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency says the group "monitor[s] what is being published on Arab and foreign web pages and then leaving hundreds of thousands of messages on these pages," what Friedman called "comments commandos." Googling some of the comments has them showing up verbatim elsewhere, which suggests they're part of a spam attack. But Columbia University seems like a weird target choice, especially given that the group's past targets have included Facebook pages of President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and ABC News.
The Washington Post's Elizabeth Flock suggested targeting Columbia could have to do with a professor's comments in this Wall Street Journal story about the Arab Spring's threat to Iran. "This whole arrangement between Syria and Iran is in deep trouble because of the Arab Spring. The geopolitics and the Arab street are changing and it's leaving them exposed," Iranian Studies professor Hamid Dabashi told the Journal. One apologetic poster on the unofficial Columbia page suggested it was a misunderstanding regarding the difference between the nation of Colombia and the university.
A Google translation of the call to action on the Syrian E-Army's Facebook page does have some language that could support that:
But the Colombian government hasn't done much involving Syria in recent days and weeks that could incur the wrath of the E-Army. More likely, the Syrian E-Army was shooting for the Columbia University page, and missed.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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