According to the latest available statistics, there are more than 7.6 million Internet users in Syria (Internet world stats, December 2019), with a penetration of 43.5 percent of the population. However, reliable Internet connectivity remains a major challenge throughout the country.
In 1994, after the sudden death of his older brother Basel, Bashar al-Asad came back from London to become the future successor of his father Hafez. In the same year, he founded Al-Jam‘iyya al-‘ilmiyya al-ma‘lumatiyya al-suriyya ( Syrian Computer Society -SCS, ) with the declared aim to “diffuse the computer culture in Syria.” Six years later, when Bashar took the reins of power after the death of Hafez al-Asad, there were only around 7,000 computers connected to the Internet in the country, with all portals connected to a single government-run server that kept track of every password. Syrian authorities restricted licenses to institutions and a few professors and business owners, while Internet cafés were not permitted. In 2010, prior to the outburst of the revolt, the country had almost four million Internet users (17.7 percent of the population), but only 861,000 subscribers, according to the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE). The majority of Syrians used to access the Internet from cafés and even satellite Internet was forbidden and required a security license. The Syrian authorities in fact transformed their Internet into an intranet by preventing access to a long list of websites. In 2009, at least 150 websites remain blocked, including the majority of sites run by ethnic minorities or political movements perceived to be opposed to the authorities in Damascus. Social networking sites including Facebook and YouTube remain blocked, but Syrians have become adept at using proxy servers to circumvent the ban. At this regard, Amjad Bajazi - author of a study titled Syria's Cyber Wars points out that many news services and youth magazines have started on Facebook. These journals are specialised in providing news on Syria and they have a larger margin of freedom than printed magazines. He quotes journalist and analyst Wael Sawah about the important role played by new media in “campaigns, as several were launched in 2009 by civil society actors and people eager for change simultaneously. […] A number of smaller campaigns have been taking place since 2006, benefitting from the latest Internet and telecommunications technology. […] All these campaigns shared certain features: they were all apolitical; they embraced different groups from Syrian society; and they relied on new tools such as blogs, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter.” At the end of 2009 a Facebook page of the Jamal al-Atasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue appeared on Facebook after it had been physically closed in 2005. “Our goal is simple,” said Suhayr al-Atassi, the forum’s president. “We want to pursue the dialogue that had been interrupted, in order to reach a deeper understanding of our causes and find solutions together.” In the same days, Syrian authorities arrested blogger and high school student Tal al-Malluhi after she published poems and articles commiserating Palestinian refugees. Some weeks before, in September 2009, blogger Karim Arbaji was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of spreading “false information that can weaken national sentiment.” Arbaji was the moderator of Akhawia.net, a popular online youth forum that contained criticisms of the government.
In more recent times, especially after 2011, some Internet websites were unblocked and become highly accessible to a large sector of the Syrian public, however new blocks were imposed during the last two years.No formal reasons have been provided for many past decisions to block or unblock websites. For example, as reported by Freedom House 2019 Report, a number of pan-Arab media sites were unblocked without explanation by the end of 2017, including Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Asharq al-Awsat, Al-Arab and Al-Hayat; and even the block on the Israeli country domain (.il) was lifted. According to Alexa global ranking system (June 2020), the most visited websites in the country are Youtube, Facebook and Wikipedia. Among the media pages, the media outlet that ranks highest (8th) is the Russian state-controlled English-language RT site, which “brings the Russian view on global news”, as stated on its website. After it, on the 12th position, comes al-Alam TV, an Iranian pro-government Arabic-speaking news site and only 18th SANA. Trend wise, the vast majority of local and independent media, both pro- and anti-government, do not possess a website, but only pages on Facebook. The mobile phone has becoming increasingly widespread in the years as a news source and is now probably the main source of information for many Syrian people. This tendency might be due to the already mentioned exclusive presence of the majority independent media outlets on Facebook, but also to the total censorship imposed by the government on many opposition websites and on those that in someway sympathise with their stances. This means that visitors inside Syria can only access these websites using proxy servers, but, as their traffic is routed through IP addresses in a second country, such visitors’ access is not registered as coming from Syria. In general, the Internet as a source of information is seen less trustworthy than other forms of traditional media. However, few Syrians use all kinds of online advanced verification tools to check information. The explanation for this digital distrust can be twofold: Online media are a relatively new or unfamiliar technology for a large part of the audience; or the online content does not match their perceptions as much as traditional media content. According to the mentioned 2016 FPU et al survey, Facebook is the highest-rated application for verifying information, topping the list at 33 percent, followed by Google (14 percent) and SANA website (12 percent).
In general, there are many Syrian websites completely devoted to news, but no one could be considered unbiased and fully reliable as each one is promoting a partial narrative. For instance, on the opposition-aligned side there is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and on the other side, the Iranian-dominated Military Media Center. Among others, there are: the long-standing pro-opposition and secular website Kulluna Shuraka’ (AllForSyria) founded in the early 2000s by the then-exiled dissident Ayman Abd al-Nur and now active only on Facebook; the conservative Shaam.org created in 2011, the pro-opposition Enab Baladi, Zaman al-Wasl, Durar al-Sham, Tahrir suri news platform and the website of opposition Al-Jisr TV. In the pro-government sphere, besides the website of SANA news agency, probably, the most influential media outlet on Facebook is Damascus Now, with more than 2.9 million followers, and also: Syria-News.com and SyriaNow. Other sources of news online are local media platforms (as Yawmiyyat Qadhifat Hawun or Focus Halab), which mainly function on Facebook.