A report released by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has identified a series of social media profiles, individuals, media outlets, and organizations that have peddled false information about the realities in Syria, specifically against the White Helmets. The conspiracy network, which was revealed to be coordinated with Russian campaigns, has sent thousands of disinformation posts on social media sites Twitter and Facebook, left to be seen and consumed by millions.

Since Syrians demanded their freedom from a longstanding autocracy 11 years ago, the current regime has utilized violence and disinformation to cull the voice of the opposition. The ISD research identified 28 entities who have been observed to spread false information regarding the Syrian conflict. These channels have disseminated about 47,000 tweets and 817 Facebook posts to peddle an inaccurate depiction of Syria from 2015 to 2021.

These social media posts reached over 1.8 million individual accounts, not accounting for how many times individuals shared these. Three primary false narratives were being presented among the network. One was the misrepresentation of the White Helmets, a volunteer group that helps Syrian refugees evacuate the country.

The White Helmets

The White Helmets officially called the Syria Civil Defense, is a 3,400-volunteer strong humanitarian organization. Their volunteers are mostly former professionals who have now committed their lives to rescuing civilians from the aftermath of airstrikes on Syrian cities.

The group has documented, through first-hand video footage, several incidents of war crimes in the country. This included rescue operations for those experiencing the effects of sarin, a nerve agent used in various attacks in Syria. However, they specifically helped during a sarin attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun in 2017. Chemical weapons watchdog, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a report confirming the presence of the substance in samples taken from the blood and urine of the victims.

The attack killed 92 civilians, over a third of which are minors. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the claim as “biased” and “doubt,” but was later found on reasonable grounds by the United Nations. Unsurprisingly, the volunteer group’s involvement in spreading the truth about the horrors of what’s happening on the ground made them a target of Russian propaganda. 

“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,” Amnesty International’s Kristyan Benedict said. He referred to the group’s unique opportunity to capture first-hand footage of the atrocities while doing their volunteer work.

“That’s really been damaging to the war narrative of Syria and Russia,” Benedict said.

The Russian propaganda machine has targeted the White Helmets across multiple social media outlets, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. One accusation against the volunteers is tied to the international terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda. How these conspiracies are manipulated to reach the top pages of these websites proves to be an interesting model of how information wars are being fought.

“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,” author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century, David Patrikarakos said.

Fake Journalists

One account observed by the ISD researcher was that of Vanessa Beeley, a self-proclaimed independent journalist. Her work had been cited as evidence by Russian envoys at the UN Security Council. One of her reports in 2015 accused the White Helmets of being in the same sphere as Al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations. She further claimed that the footage the volunteers had been gathering against the Syrian regime had been staged.

“At first we really thought this could just be someone who didn’t have enough correct info, and we should contact her to explain. But then with some research, we realized it’s deliberate and systematic,” White Helmets deputy manager said.

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Another supposed independent journalist, Canadian Eva Bartlett, represented the Syrian government at the UN. She claimed that the White Helmets faked their rescue missions. One video of her talk has reached 4.5 million views on Facebook.

“It’s insulting that a group of western conspiracy theorists think they hold a higher moral standard but just spread their lies,” founder and chief executive of Karam Foundation Lina Sergie Attar said.

The ISD report reveals that most of the disinformation tweets, over 21,000 out of 47,000, target the White Helmet volunteers.

“The [Syrian] regime and Russia makes our lifesaving work extremely risky through double-tap attacks. When we go to save people from a bombed site, they re-target the same area to kill the first responders,” a volunteer from north-west Syria, Hamid Kutini, said.

The barrage of disinformation campaigns to sow confusion among the domestic and international population has created real-world problems for civilians and volunteers. Moreover, these attacks have enabled anti-refugee policies, harassment of social workers, and pro-regime opinion and have encouraged Vladimir Putin to employ a similar strategy in Ukraine.

“Syria was a testing ground for this type of disinformation activity and the lessons learned from this case can inform action on Ukraine and beyond,” a former US Department of State official said.