The Russia-backed campaign to link the volunteer rescuers with al-Qaida exposes how conspiracy theories take root: ‘It’s like a factory’
The Syrian volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets have become the target of an extraordinary disinformation campaign that positions them as an al-Qaida-linked terrorist organisation.
The Guardian has uncovered how this counter-narrative is propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government (which provides military support to the Syrian regime).
The White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, is a humanitarian organisation made up of 3,400 volunteers – former teachers, engineers, tailors and firefighters – who rush to pull people from the rubble when bombs rain down on Syrian civilians. They’ve been credited with saving thousands of civilians during the country’s continuing civil war.
They have also exposed, through first-hand video footage, war crimes including a chemical attack in April. Their work was the subject of an Oscar-winning Netflix documentary and the recipient of two Nobel peace prize nominations.
Despite this positive international recognition, there’s a counter-narrative pushed by a vocal network of individuals who write for alternative news sites countering the “MSM agenda”. Their views align with the positions of Syria and Russia and attract an enormous online audience, amplified by high-profile alt-right personalities, appearances on Russian state TV and an army of Twitter bots.
The way the Russian propaganda machine has targeted the White Helmets is a neat case study in the prevailing information wars. It exposes just how rumours, conspiracy theories and half-truths bubble to the top of YouTube, Google and Twitter search algorithms.
“This is the heart of Russian propaganda. In the old days they would try and portray the Soviet Union as a model society. Now it’s about confusing every issue with so many narratives that people can’t recognise the truth when they see it,” said David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century. How conspiracy theories take root.
The campaign to discredit the White Helmets started at the same time as Russia staged a military intervention in Syria in September 2015, supporting
President Bashar al-Assad’s army with airstrikes bombarding opposition-held areas. Almost immediately, Russian state media such as RT and Sputnik started falsely claiming that Isis was the only target and throwing doubt on the bombings of infrastructure and civilian sites.
The same propaganda machine scooped up fringe anti-American activists, bloggers and researchers who believe the White Helmets are terrorists, giving them a platform on state TV and amplifying their articles through social media.
There is no evidence to suggest that these activists and bloggers are knowingly spreading disinformation, although the stories are often thinly sourced.
Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, describes the overall campaign as “agitation propaganda” but said that some of its participants don’t realise they are being used as pawns.
“The most effective propaganda is when you find someone who believes it then give them support – you don’t create them from scratch,” he added. How conspiracy theories take root.
Why the White Helmets?
The White Helmets play two roles within Syria. The first is their rescue work: providing an ambulance service, fire service and search and rescue in conflict areas where infrastructure has been decimated.
The second role is the documentation of what is taking place within the country via handheld and helmet cameras.
“This is the thing that has annoyed not just the Assad regime and Russian authorities but a lot of the propagandists who work in their orbit,” said Amnesty International’s Kristyan Benedict, a crisis response manager who specialises in Syria.
Their footage has helped organisations like Amnesty and the Syria Justice and Accountability Center corroborate testimony they receive from people in Syria via phone, Skype and WhatsApp. It allows them to check the aftermath of airstrikes to see whether civilians were targeted and whether there was any military presence or checkpoints.
“That’s really been damaging to the war narrative of Syria and Russia,” said Benedict.
It was the White Helmets’ footage that documented the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April, which killed at least 83 people, a third of them children. UN war crimes investigators later concluded the attack was carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people. Russian state media and a network of supportive alternative news sites continue to cast doubt on investigators’ findings, describing it as “illogical” and “deliberately staged” by militants. The alt-right site Infowars repeated the conspiracy theory, describing the attack as staged by the White Helmets, who were described as an “al-Qaida affiliated group funded by George Soros”. The White Helmets have never received funding from George Soros or any of his foundations.
Some of the most vocal sceptics of the UN’s investigation include the blogger Vanessa Beeley, the daughter of a former British diplomat who visited Syria for the first time in July 2016; a University of Sydney senior lecturer, Timothy Anderson, who described the April chemical attack as a “hoax”; and Eva Bartlett, a Canadian writer and activist who said the White Helmets staged rescues using recycled victims – a claim that’s been debunked by Snopes and Channel 4 News.
“They are basically excusing the inexcusable,” said Lucas.
“They have a range of websites that will publish whatever nonsense and Russia Today will have them on TV,” he added. How conspiracy theories take root.
The Russian strategy has been very successful at shaping the online conversation about the White Helmets. By gaming the social media algorithms with a flood of content, boosted by bots, sock puppet accounts and a network of agitators, propagandists are able to create a “manufactured consensus” that gives legitimacy to fringe views. Even Russia’s official channels, such as its UK embassy Twitter accounts, post memes discrediting the organisation.
“If you scroll through tweets about the White Helmets, pretty much every other conversation is equating them with Isis, calling them terrorists. It looks like they are the bad guys,” said Sam Woolley, who studies computational propaganda at the University of Oxford.
“It’s all part of an effort to delegitimise western efforts to stabilise Syria,” he said.
His colleague Samantha Bradshaw adds: “The more confusion there is, the easier it is to manipulate people.”
The research that shows the link
The Guardian spoke to several researchers studying the spread of disinformation and propaganda online who have found evidence of a targeted Russian influence campaign against the White Helmets.
Fil Menczer, a computer science professor at Indiana University, has developed a tool called Hoaxy to chart the spread of misinformation online. Searching for “White Helmets” reveals a handful of sources generated hundreds of stories about the organisation. “It’s like a factory,” he said.
The same handful of people are quoted as “experts” in articles that are repackaged and interlinked to create a body of content whose conspiracy claims gain a semblance of legitimacy.
The analytics firm Graphika has spent years analysing a range of Russian disinformation campaigns including those around the Macron leaks and the Russian doping scandal. In research commissioned by the human rights group the Syria Campaign, it found that the patterns in the online network of the 14,000 Twitter users talking about the White Helmets looked “very similar” and included many known pro-Kremlin troll accounts, some of which were closed down as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the US election. Other accounts appeared to generate more than 150 tweets per day (more than 70 is seen by scholars studying bots as suspicious).
Graphika also found evidence of coordination of timing and messaging around significant events in the news cycle relating to the White Helmets.
Separately, both Graphika and Menczer’s Hoaxy tool identify Beeley, the British blogger, as among the most influential disseminators of content about the White Helmets. How conspiracy theories take root.
Their findings also correlate with work done by Kate Starbird from the University of Washington in Seattle, who asserts that Beeley and the alternative news site 21st Century Wire have dominated the Twitter conversation about White Helmets over the last few months, along with Sputnik and RT.com. How conspiracy theories take root. How conspiracy theories take root.
Beeley frequently criticises the White Helmets in her role as editor of the website 21st Century Wire, set up by Patrick Henningsen, who is also a former editor at Infowars.com. How conspiracy theories take root.
In 2016, Beeley had a two-hour meeting with Assad in Damascus as part of a US Peace Council delegation, which she described on Facebook as her “proudest moment”. She was also invited to Moscow to report on the “dirty war in Syria”; there, she met senior Russian officials including the deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, and Maria Zakharova, director of information and press at Russia’s foreign ministry. How conspiracy theories take root.
The mannequin challenge
To understand the propaganda machine in action, you only have to look at what happened when the White Helmets posted their version of the mannequin challenge, a viral internet video trend where people would film themselves frozen mid-action. The rescue group filmed themselves in a staged rescue and shared the video on social media with the hashtag #MannequinChallenge.
The video, posted in November 2016 by the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, was immediately stripped of its context and reshared as evidence that the organisation uses “crisis actors” in staged rescues designed to make the Russian and Syrian armies look bad.
One Twitter user, retweeted hundreds of times, stated: “Unbelievable! Must watch video showing White Helmets fakery.” How conspiracy theories take root.
RT reported on the incident, including some of the tweets, and cited Beeley as an independent researcher asserting that the video fuelled suspicion around the “already questionable credibility” of the organisation. The following day Beeley wrote a story on 21st Century Wire in which she argued that the video caused “widespread doubt, even among diehard supporters, as to the veracity of their much edited slick video reports”.
The White Helmets later issued an apology, saying they had hoped the viral video would create a connection between the horror or Syria and the outside world, but acknowledged it was an “error of judgement”..
“It was a stupid thing to do,” said Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative reporting collective Bellingcat, “but it was then completely misused by people who have an agenda.”
A year on and the White Helmets’ mannequin challenge video is still widely circulated as evidence that they stage rescues.
There have, however, been isolated rogue actors within the White Helmets who are used to discredit the entire group. One former White Helmet was fired after he was filmed assisting armed militants in disposing of the mutilated corpses of pro-Assad fighters, and others have been photographed with guns despite marketing themselves as unarmed. There is also footage of White Helmets taking a body away from an execution carried out by rebel militants, which critics claim shows they are “assisting” executions.
“These are isolated incidents at the volunteer level – there has never been any kind of incident involving anyone in the leadership,” added Saleh, the White Helmets leader, looking down at his phone as he received a breaking news notification about a British politician resigning over sexual harassment allegations. “No one is saying that the government of the UK is a predatory organisation just because of this one incident.”
Meanwhile, Beeley’s influence continues. In April 2017, she gave a talk at a conference alongside ministers in Assad’s cabinet (who spoke via video conference) titled “White Helmets: Fact or Fantasy?” Her briefing paper and slides on the topic were then submitted to the UN security council and UN general assembly by the Russian government as “evidence” against the White Helmets.
“These leaked documents offer cast-iron proof that the Russian government is doing what it can to elevate Vanessa Beeley as a key player in its propaganda campaign,” said James Sadri, executive director of the Syria Campaign. “A blogger for a 9/11 truther website who only visited Syria for the first time last year should not be taken seriously as an impartial expert on the conflict.”
The Guardian contacted Beeley several times asking for comment and she declined to respond to specific queries, saying that the questions put to her were “a disgrace” containing “no relevant facts and are reminiscent of a McCarthyite interrogation”.
The Guardian also contacted Eva Bartlett, who said she had “no interest in participating in your quite evidently already-decided ‘story’ (an odd term for a journalist to use for an article)”.
Shortly after the requests for comment, Beeley appeared on a 40-minute-long YouTube programme in which she discussed the emailed requests for comment and criticised the Guardian’s coverage of Syria, alleging “faux reporting” based on footage provided by “al-Qaida affiliates” the White Helmets. Beeley said that the “majority consensus” was that the White Helmets were a fraudulent terrorist organisation.