As the war in Syria nears its seven year anniversary, the fighting continued on the ground and information space. Disinformation is being used to discredit search and rescue workers and cause confusion around the illegal use of chemical weapons. Disinformation, like the ongoing fighting, continuously puts civilian lives at risk.
One recent example was an article published by the Kremlin-funded RT on February 13. The article described an anonymous “tip-off” allegedly received by the Russia’s Center for Reconciliation in Syria, which accused the White Helmets of working with Al-Nusra and planning a chemical weapon “provocation”. The White Helmets are a volunteer search and rescue group made up of Syrian civilians, which has been attacked by the pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad media on numerous occasions. Al-Nusra, currently known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, is a de-facto al-Qaeda affiliate in the Levant.
The anonymous caller claimed that the White Helmets and Al-Nusra brought “three cars packed with more than 20 cylinders of chlorine along with personal protective equipment to Serakab.” The source went even further and alleged, “representatives of the local branch of the White Helmets, wearing individual means of protection, conducted rehearsals of ‘giving first aid’ to ‘local residents’ who were supposedly suffering from poisoning.”
The call was reportedly received by the Reconciliation Center, which is part of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. The Center believed the anonymous caller proved the White Helmets and Al-Nusra were planning another provocation aimed at accusing the Syrian authorities of using chemical weapons against Idlib’s civilians. However, no evidence exists to corroborate the claim that the White Helmets have ever carried out attacks, as their mandate is to respond to and save people from attacks.
Apart from the alleged phone call from a local resident, there was similarly no evidence to corroborate these allegations.
@DFRLab did find evidence to disprove RT’s reporting. James Le Mesurier, the director of Mayday Rescue, a Dutch not-for-profit, which supports and trains the White Helmets shared a list of incidents that Saraqib’s White Helmets have responded to on February 12, the day the alleged rehearsals occurred. Mayday also provided a publicly available Google Drive with images confirming the authenticity of the incidents listed below, which can be accessed here.
The list showed the White Helmets in Saraqeb responded to incidents between 7:30am and 5:00pm local time with short breaks in between. According to the anonymous caller, he witnessed the alleged “first aid rehearsals” “in the afternoon”. According to Mayday’s data, the White Helmets spent the afternoon clearing debris from the latest bombardment that targeted the city and its outskirts.
This was not the first time the White Helmets were accused of plotting chemical weapons attacks. In fact, the Kremlin and pro-Assad propaganda machines have targeted the search-and-rescue group with disinformation and smear campaigns since 2013. This instance was one of many Kremlin attempts to accuse the White Helmets of staging chemical weapon attacks. RT alone has published at least four similar stories between 2013 and 2017.
RT’s latest article that alleged the White Helmets worked with al-Nusra to stage a chemical weapon “provocation” was immediately amplified by other pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad media outlets.
Among the seventeen outlets that spread the unfounded claim were two Iranian state-funded news outlets — Press TV and Mehr News Agency. Pro-Assad media outlet Al-Masdar News and Russian state-funded Sputnik News and TASS were also instrumental in spreading the #SyriaHoax story previously covered by the @DFRLab.
The amplification showed Iran, Russia, and pro-Assad forces form a united front not only in the battlefield, but in the information environment, by collectively smearing a shared enemy — the White Helmets.
Spread on Social Media
The articles generated limited shares on social media. In total, articles that alleged White Helmets worked with Al-Nusra were shared over 8,000 times. Most shares were on Facebook.
On Twitter, the keywords “White Helmets” and “Chemical attack” generated 2,319 mentions, which according to a social media tool Sysomos reached 11 million users. The mentions did not have a unifying hashtag, but a small number of accounts did use the #FalseFlag and #SyriaHoax hashtags. Both hashtags were used during the #SyriaHoax campaign in April 2017 when pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad media outlets and Twitter accounts attempted to deny that a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun took place.
There was no apparent bot involvement or automation in the spread of the story, as the top 20 most engaged users that amplified the story exhibited human, or organic, social media behavior.
While the story did not reveal the White Helmets as the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks, the story did reveal how Russia, Iran, and Assadists preemptively created uncertainty about future chemical weapon attacks. This fit well with Russia’s broader strategy of polluting the information environment when it comes to the conflict in Syria, illustrated recently with Russia’s decision to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution that would extend the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism into the use of chemical weapons.
Should another chemical weapons attack in Idlib take place, the claim made by the alleged anonymous caller will likely be Kremlin, Assad, and Tehran’s top talking point. Irrespective of the real perpetrator, the White Helmets will be blamed first. This case study offered a glimpse into how well the three propaganda machines can work together to disseminate their messages.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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