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YEMEN: Anti-government Facebook groups, Web services under attack from "e-thugs", activist says

March 9, 2011 |  7:15 am

Picture 2 Battles between anti-government demonstrators and supporters of the Yemeni regime are apparently not only taking place in the country's streets but also on the Internet, where activists claim bands of pro-government electronic thugs, or "e-thugs", are aggressively attacking Facebook pages calling for the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime and recently spammed a pro-revolution Web service until collapse.

After hearing complaints from administrators and members of Yemeni pro-revolution groups on Facebook about some members trying to hinder the group from reaching its goals, harassing other members and at times even trying to steer the group into becoming supportive of President Saleh, Sweden-based Yemeni analyst and Web activist Walid Saqaf decided it was time to act.

On Yemen, Yemen's first news crawler and search engine that Saqaf set up a couple of years ago, he created a special service that allowed the public to report and blacklist members of Facebook groups that are known to be supporters of the Yemeni regime and users who may have attempted to sabotage groups calling for the ouster of President Saleh.

"This service allows users to report such members directly ... and involves the verification of the status of the reported user and upon verification of his/her pro-Saleh bias, the name is listed in a public database or list," said a press release issued by Saqaf on Monday. "The list could be used as a discretionary measure by group administrators to assess the risk before accepting certain members based on their history of posts that may have disrupted other groups."

But when Babylon & Beyond spoke to Saqaf on Wednesday, three days after the launching of the new service, he claimed that e-thugs had spammed the site so badly that he had been forced to take it offline.

"Unfortunately, the list has been temporarily suspended because of an attack by so many people reporting different pro-revolution members," he said in an e-mail. "The same thugs have used the service against the revolution. E-thugs are still springing up everywhere. It is a really distressing phenomena."

Saqaf, however, hasn't thrown in the towel, saying the project has only been put on hold until he and his colleagues figure out a way of thwarting the attacks. 

"Now we have to change tactics.... I'm reaching out to some Facebook activists to see how to counter their attacks," he said.

Last month, Yemen Portal rolled out a special aggregator and search engine for posts from Facebook groups and pages calling President Saleh to step down. According to Saqaf, the aggregator tracked more than 120,000 posts and comments from more than 60 Facebook groups and other pages promoting Facebook-based efforts by Yemeni youth.

The battle continues.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Yemen logo. Credit: Yemen Portal website