How Russia is fuelling a disinformation campaign to cover up war crimes in Syria
This report sets out fresh evidence of Russia’s campaign to mislead the public and undermine democratic institutions around the world. It reveals how the Russian government is conducting a major multi-pronged propaganda campaign to spread false information about Syria’s humanitarian workers in an effort to cover up its role in some of the most heinous war crimes of our time.
New research shows that bots and trolls linked to Russia have reached an estimated 56 million people with tweets attacking Syria’s search and rescue organisation, the Syria Civil Defence – also known as the White Helmets – during ten key moments of 2016 and 2017.
Many of these smears are linked to efforts to promote false information about the sarin chemical attack of April 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun, which UN investigators concluded were carried out by Russia’s ally, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
This report examines how a concerted disinformation campaign was able to dominate the reporting of one of the most important events of the Syria conflict. When nerve agent was dropped on a civilian area, Russia’s far-fetched claims were shared so widely, they became the number one trending topic on Twitter in the US.
The White Helmets have saved more than 100,000 lives over the past four years, prompting them to be twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded accolades such as the Right Livelihood Award and the Arab Hope Makers Award. They have provided crucial evidence to the United Nations (UN) Security Council on three occasions, as well the US Congress and European, British, French, German, Dutch and Swedish parliaments.
In parts of Syria where most media outlets cannot reach, their videos and photographs of aerial attacks have done more to reveal the reality of the conflict and humanitarian crisis than any other group. Their work has featured in more than 78,000 media reports, including on the front pages of The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, Le Monde, TIME and many other international outlets besides.
The White Helmets are being killed for daring to operate outside the control of the Syrian regime and showing the world what is happening in Syria. Two hundred and ten volunteers have been killed since 2013 at the time of writing. Their centres and teams of volunteers have been hit by missiles, barrel bombs and artillery bombardment 238 times in just over 18 months between June 2016 and December 2017.
As frontline humanitarians, they are protected by International Humanitarian Law. Although they work exclusively in areas outside of government control, they have saved lives from all sides of the conflict, including that of government soldiers.
False accusations, abusive language and violent threats all chip away at the volunteers’ morale. However the vicious smearing of the White Helmets, especially false terrorism claims, are designed to undermine the evidence they collect and legitimise their killing.
Blogger Vanessa Beeley, at the heart of this Russian-backed disinformation campaign, has stated repeatedly in public that these humanitarians can be legally killed. “White Helmets are not getting it. We know they are terrorists. Makes them a legit target,” she said on Twitter.
Whilst most of the individuals involved in spreading the conspiracies are usually dismissed as cranks and extremists by the vast majority of the policy makers and opinion formers, their reach online has inarguably been extraordinary. Twitter activity during news peaks such as the Aleppo offensive in 2016 and the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack in 2017, shows that far right groups in the United States (the so-called “alt-right”) and Russian networks are reaching more people with manufactured stories than any other group.
“Alternative” news sites, rooted in fiction more than fact, have become more influential in these critical online discussions than reputable news sites. This has profound implications for how democratic states can publicly debate and respond to crises such as Syria, a conflict the UN has called “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time”.
The report finds:
• Online smears have received the highest state backing from Russia. Official channels RT and news site Sputnik News have repeatedly hosted fringe bloggers at the heart of the disinformation campaign, such as Vanessa Beeley
• Russia submitted a report by Beeley entitled “The White Helmets: fact or fiction” to the UN Security Council as evidence against the group
• Beeley and some of her followers are part of a cluster of users that tend to retweet the same critical content simultaneously – a solid indication of a coordinated disinformation campaign
• Fifty percent of the accounts analysed appear in at least one other Russian disinformation campaign, while 11 are on a public list of accounts known to be controlled by the most famous of Russian troll farms, the Internet Research Agency.
The international community has done little to stop the bombing of Syrian civilians since the government of Bashar al-Assad started its aerial campaign in earnest five years ago. Now governments around the world and social media companies are allowing Russia a free hand to target rescue workers and cast doubt on the evidence of war crimes they are collecting. This must be challenged and resisted.
Social media users, technology companies, traditional media organisations and governments can all help stop the campaign to smear humanitarian workers in Syria and cover up war crimes. The need could not be more urgent – this disinformation campaign has deadly consequences.
• Technology companies
○ Provide users with a way to report accounts that look suspicious
○ Consider a peer-verification system where users can vouch for others they have met offline
○ When an account is suspended, notify all users who have come into contact with that disinformation. Users have a right to know that they have been misled.
• Social media users
○ Examine the sources and evidence behind the news you consume
○ Avoid sharing content which is not from trusted sources.
• News organisations
○ Recognise that the aim of disinformation is not to win an argument but to cloud the truth. Do not give conspiracy theorists a platform in the name of balance
○ Be careful who you recognise as journalists. It can be used as a label to legitimise propagandists who do not follow any journalistic code of conduct.
• Democratic governments
○ Hold technology companies to account. Disinformation on Syria, as well as in other well-documented areas, is polluting the public debate central to any healthy democracy
○ Invest in educating people about this new threat. Publics should be more aware of organised efforts to confuse them on key issues.