Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a huge spike in the number of online stories which question the bravery of the White Helmets, or suggest that the recent chemical attacks were suspicious, or make some other claim that seeks to confuse you about the war in Syria.
We’ve written this short list to help you understand why this is happening.
1) Russian trolls
Did you know that Russia employs hundreds of people to flood Facebook with comments about the war in Syria? This is a key part of how the Kremlin tries to influence public opinion. This story in The Guardian takes a look inside one these ‘troll farms’. It’s a fascinating read.
Our advice: before liking or sharing someone else’s comment, have a look at their profile. Do they seem like a real person with genuine friends, or a fake account?
2) Heroes are a problem for Assad
The White Helmets have saved thousands of lives in Syria and twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. They rush to the scene of bombings and show the horrific reality when women and children are trapped under the rubble.
Because of this, they’ve become a big problem for President Assad and his Russian allies. These governments are now doing everything they can to smear their reputation on social media and through Russian state outlets like RT and Sputnik news. This article in The Washington Post explains what’s happening.
Our advice: before sharing a video, have a look at who is behind it. Does it come from a reputable source like The Guardian, AJ+, or Channel 4? If not, think carefully before posting.
3) War crimes are bad for business
Even a murderous dictator like Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t admit to war crimes. If found guilty he could be tried at the International Criminal Court and sent to jail. Because of this, he is trying to shift the blame onto others, or deny that these horrible attacks even happened.
After the poison gas attack in Idlib, he claimed that the rebels did it. Or that it never happened. Or that the victims were ‘acting’. In fact, between Assad and the Russian government there are all kinds of stories swirling about, but the truth is that the regime killed those children. This excellent factcheck from The New York Times debunks the various claims.
4) Pro-Assad bloggers
Some left wing activists believe that Assad isn’t such a bad guy, that he has been unfairly targeted in the media. The real villains, they say, are the US and Europe who should just leave Assad and Russia alone.
These people are so blinded by their hatred of the west that they now openly support the Assad regime and ignore his attacks on civilians. Some have visited Damascus and praised him openly. One of the most prominent of these activists is Eva Bartlett, who often appears on Russian state media. Check out this Channel 4 News fact check on Bartlett’s recent claims.
Alt-right websites like Infowars share a lot of the same misinformation, motivated by the same pro-Assad bias and sometimes blatant Islamophobia.
Our advice: Keep an eye out for pro-Assad bias. Anyone who attacks civilians deserves criticism, whatever side they are on. If someone is ignoring the war crimes of the Assad regime, ask them why.
5) Because they can
The massive growth of social media has opened up a new front in modern warfare. Russia — a close ally of Bashar al-Assad — is spending millions of dollars trying to influence public opinion around the world. Like it or not, we’re all in their sights.
They’re making Facebook videos, writing posts and paying trolls to spread doubt and suspicion — even interfering in foreign elections. If you want to go really deep, check out this MIT Technology review story on how this works.
We know all this can feel daunting. But here at The Syria Campaign we try to work with outlets and people who we trust. For us that means our Syrian partners on the ground, as well as journalists at major outlets who care about getting the facts right.
Ultimately, it all comes down to trust. Try to think carefully about who is behind what you’re sharing, and feel free to ask us if you need advice.
Thank you for reading, and please share this post with others if you found it useful.