Syria’s Disinformation Activists

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"Sarah Abdallah", one of the vocal --- and sometimes mysterious --- disinformation pro-Assad accounts on social media

“The danger we face is, unreliable information is now being taken up by more established – and what we would think of as – more reliable outlets”


BBC Trending reports, with a contribution from EA:


As the investigation continues into another alleged chemical attack in Syria, one group of influential online activists is busy spreading their version of events.

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are attempting to access the previously rebel-held town of Douma, where medical organisations and rescue workers say President Bashar al-Assad’s forces dropped bombs filled with toxic chemicals in an attack on 7 April, killing more than 40 people.

The Syrian government and its key ally, Russia, say the incident was staged. But the US, UK and France – who support the opposition to Mr Assad – say they are confident that chlorine and possibly a nerve agent were used.

Despite the uncertainty about what happened in Douma, a cluster of influential social media activists is certain that it knows what occurred on 7 April.

See also Russia’s Helpers — Disinformation and Conspiracy Trolling After Assad’s Latest Chemical Attacks

They’ve seized on a theory being floated by Russian officials and state-owned media outlets that the attacks were “staged” or were a “false flag” operation, carried out by jihadist groups or spies in order to put the blame on the Assad government and provide a justification for Western intervention.

The group includes activists and people who call themselves “independent journalists”, and several have Twitter followings reaching into the tens or hundreds of thousands.

“Anti-War” But Pro-Conspiracy

The activists call themselves “anti-war”, but as they generally back the Syrian government’s military operations against rebel forces seeking to overthrow Mr Assad and Russian air strikes carried out in support, it might be more accurate to describe them as “anti-Western intervention” or “pro-Syrian government”.

According to their narrative, international media organisations across the political spectrum, along with human rights organisations, are somehow covertly aligned with Western governments, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda and taking part in a secretive plot to take over Syria.

The network of activists includes people like Vanessa Beeley. She has more than 30,000 Twitter followers and writes for a news outlet that the website Media Bias/Fact Check calls a “conspiracy and conjecture site” that has “an extreme right bias”.

In response to a list of questions, she called BBC Trending’s story a “blatant attempt” to “silence independent journalism” and repeated unsubstantiated claims about alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Mystery Activists

Beeley gives talks to fringe groups and makes appearances on media outlets including state-owned Russian channel RT.

But in the online conversation about Syria there are more influential activists, about whom much less is known.

Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo on Twitter) has more than 125,000 followers, among them more than 250 journalists from mainstream media outlets. Her follower count is comparable to BBC journalists who regularly report on Syria, such as BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen (167,000) and BBC Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet (142,000).

In addition to pictures of herself, Sarah Abdallah tweets constant pro-Russia and pro-Assad messages, with a dollop of retweeting mostly aimed at attacking Barack Obama, other US Democrats and Saudi Arabia.

In her Twitter profile she describes herself as an “Independent Lebanese geopolitical commentator” but she has almost no online presence or published stories or writing away from social media platforms. A personal blog linked to by her account has no posts.

Her tweets have been quoted by mainstream news outlets, but a Google News search indicates that she has not written any articles in either English or Arabic.

She refused to comment several times when approached by BBC Trending and did not respond to specific requests to comment on this story in particular.

The Campaign Against the White Helmets

The Sarah Abdallah account is, according to a recent study by the online research firm Graphika, one of the most influential social media accounts in the online conversation about Syria, and specifically in pushing misinformation about a 2017 chemical weapons attack and the Syria Civil Defence, whose rescue workers are widely known as the “White Helmets”.

The White Helmets operate in rebel-held areas. They have been one of the sources that Western media outlets, including the BBC, have quoted about alleged chemical attacks in Syria. With regard to the incident in Douma, the BBC has not been able independently to verify the group’s reports.

Graphika chief executive John Kelly says his company’s analysis showed distinct patterns emerging.

“When you’re looking at these disinformation campaigns, a lot of the same characters show up for every party,” he told BBC Trending.

Graphika was commissioned to prepare a report on online chatter by The Syria Campaign, a UK-based advocacy group organisation which campaigns for a democratic future for Syria and supports the White Helmets. The White Helmets have been the subject of two Oscar-nominated documentary films and have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Graphika 20 million messages about the White Helmets, split between tweets in support and in opposition. Among the opponents, Kelly says, Sarah Abdallah was “by far the most influential”, followed by Vanessa Beeley.

The firm found that Sarah Abdallah’s account was primarily followed by a number of different interest clusters: supporters of pro-Palestinian causes, Russians and Russian allies, white nationalists and those from the extremist alt-right, conservative American Trump supporters, far-right groups in Europe and conspiracy theorists.

These groups were instrumental in making the hashtag #SyriaHoax trend after the chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017.

That hashtag, pushed by Sarah Abdallah and influential American conservative activists, became a worldwide trend on Twitter. Many of those tweeting it claimed that the chemical weapons attack was faked or a hoax.

Beeley said the 2017 attack had “been debunked by a number of highly respected analysts and experts.” She alleged that evidence “points to the White Helmets as a propaganda construct” and asked, via email: “Why has the BBC never carried out an investigation into the White Helmets?”

Experts from a joint UN-OPCW mission said in October 2017 that they were confident a Syrian Air Force jet dropped munitions containing sarin on Khan Sheikhoun, dismissing statements from Russia that the jet had fired conventional munitions at a rebel chemical weapons depot.

“None of It is Journalism”

The difficulty in reporting on the ground in Syria has opened up an information vacuum which has been partially filled by highly partisan sources, according to Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham and editor of news and analysis site EA Worldview,

“None of it is journalism; none of it is really based on solid independent reporting,” Lucas says.

“It is absolutely right to question all narratives, including official narratives of what is happening,” he says. “The key is that you don’t actually start with a narrative, you start with the facts and you establish what may not be true and what may even be disinformation.

“The danger we face is, unreliable information is now being taken up by more established – and what we would think of as – more reliable outlets,” he says.

And although the activists’ follower accounts continue to grow, there is one indication that their influence online might be on the decline compared with last year.

In the hours after the alleged attack in Douma, “Syria” was a top trending term on Twitter, but the messages by pro-Assad activists were drowned out by reports from a range of news outlets.

The hashtag #SyriaHoax was used around 17,000 times in a week (compared to more than 280,000 times in April 2017), and mostly failed to make Twitter’s lists of top trends.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. But the US, UK and France – who support the opposition to Mr Assad – say they are confident that chlorine and possibly a nerve agent were used.

    Confident is just code for no evidence. Macron said he had intelligence then it turned out his intel was just social media. The UK and US said they bombed CW production and storage facilities. If true, this begs the question as to how long they knew about these and why they waited this long to react or to call for OPCW inspections of them.

    According to their narrative, international media organisations across the political spectrum, along with human rights organisations, are somehow covertly aligned with Western governments, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda and taking part in a secretive plot to take over Syria.

    And they are right. White Helmets and MAS are western financed. Washington, London and Paris don’t hide their policy of regime change in Syria

    Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo on Twitter) has more than 125,000 followers, among them more than 250 journalists from mainstream media outlets.
    Like it or not Scott, no one is forced to follow accounts like Abdallah’s. The reason she has so many followers is because her Tweets are considered informative and compelling.

    In the hours after the alleged attack in Douma, “Syria” was a top trending term on Twitter, but the messages by pro-Assad activists were drowned out by reports from a range of news outlets.
    Right, so what’s your point Scott? When news breaks, the main stream media is usually out front with those reports. What is clear is apparent is that that trend has been reversed and those pushing the official narrative are being drowned out by sceptics.

    • Thanks, Andre. Before proceeding further:

      1. You need to learn what “confidence” and “high confidence” mean as terms for intelligence services when they make assessments.
      2. You need to learn about the wide sources of finance and support for the White Helmets’ civil defense and rescue work.
      3. You need to learn about how disinfo and even fake Twitter accounts are established and how “followers” are generated.
      4. You need to learn about how Twitter trending is used to propel disinfo, including through the hashtags.

      • 1. You need to learn what “confidence” and “high confidence” mean as terms for intelligence services when they make assessments.

        You might be right Scott, but these appear to be vague terms and what’s more, we have never been provided with examples of intel looks like that warrants “confidence” and “high confidence”. In other words, up to this point we have been asked to trust the government and we know that never ends well.

        2. You need to learn about the wide sources of finance and support for the White Helmets’ civil defense and rescue work.

        It usually helps to begin with who the largest financiers are and what their agenda is. There might be some benign sources like misguided celebrities, but they are not the ones setting the agenda.

        The fact that senior members of the White Helmets as still refused entry to the united states, including during the Academy awards is a good indicator of their true nature.

        3. You need to learn about how disinfo and even fake Twitter accounts are established and how “followers” are generated.

        Fake Twitter accounts don’t have much longevity Scott, especially with the Twitter moderators being unltra ruthless these days and banning accounts for merely appearing like Russian trolls. If Abdallah’s account was fake, it would have been suspended long ago and never reached anything close to 128 thousand followers. It’s not like there are not armies of anti Assad trolls ready to pounce on and report any Tweets that appear sympathetic to Assad.

        4. You need to learn about how Twitter trending is used to propel disinfo, including through the hashtags.

        That can work both ways and use just as effectively by pro opposition groups.

    • I follow Abdullah. I like to reply with snide comments, like “Are these the same people who faked the moon-landing?”

      There are a lot of nutters on her feed, though…

  2. The strongest evidence that a gas attack did occur is the determined blocking by the Assad regime of any independent inspection.
    The other thing that makes it likely is that it is just the most recent of a long series of such attacks.

    • Yes, the strongest evidence it did occur and that the Assad regime is responsible…

      And as the Brits would say, Assad and the Russians “have form” in this area.

    • The strongest evidence that a gas attack did occur is the determined blocking by the Assad regime of any independent inspection.

      The OPCW inspectors are held up by the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) which has a say about any movement of UN aligned organizations in areas that might be dangerous. The UNDSS is led by an Australian police / intelligence officer. The holdup seems to be intended.

      Hope that helps

          • The most likely bet would be Al-Nusra. I would bet they do not want the OPCW to confirm that either no CW attack took place, or that emergency attention to dust inhalation/asphyxiation victims was staged to look like a CW attack. I guess Assad could have staged a false-flag opp to make it look like Al-Nusra, but no respectable Westerner believes that sort of conspiracy theorizing.

            • “Dust inhalation victims” — you mean they died not from the shelling or bombing but from the dust?

              Did the rebels also shell and bomb themselves and their families, so they would die from dust??

              How stupid can you get?

              • Did the rebels also shell and bomb themselves and their families, so they would die from dust??

                That’s not the point. F,U.K.U.S. didn’t justify their strikes because fo Assad shelling and bombing, though JAI did fire mortars at SAA positions.

            • Can you stop pumping bullshit in here Matt2?? Al nusra was not present in Douma !!!! 2 cents propaganda as usual.

  3. 1. The OPCW sent an advance security party on Tuesday to examine the two sites they wanted to visit.

    2. The Syrian government has okayed the fact-finding team to enter Douma but the UN insisted that a reconnaisance team first enter the city.

  4. “No evidence…” The phrase drives me nuts. Whether it is Syria’s chemical attacks or Trump’s collusion, every time I hear the claim, I instinctively call bullshit.

    Because in both cases, there are mounds of evidence. The relevant questions are: how good is the evidence (how much confidence should we have in each piece)?; and when we assemble the evidence (weighting for quality) do we arrive at a compelling conclusion?

    It is possible to receive several weak signals (evidence that is difficult to verify) but that all point to the same conclusion,. Witness testimony is notoriously unreliable, but 3 independent witnesses telling similar stories is compelling (if they tell exactly the same story, word for word, it isn’t).

    It is also possible to assemble the evidence incorrectly: for example, the US had evidence they thought was of Iraq’s WMD program, but was actually evidence of something else.

    However, the frequently claimed “No evidence whatsoever” is frequently bullshit.

  5. They call themselves “anti-war”, but as they generally back Russian intervention to prop up Butcher #Assad war against Syrians aspiring to freedom and justice, it might be more accurate to describe them as “anti-Western intervention” or “pro-Assad”.

  6. Douma resident tells CBS that rebels staged the chemical attack: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/syria-chemical-attack-inspectors-opcw-douma-russia-bashar-al-assad/

    “At the scene of that contested April 7 attack, a man who said he lives next to a building struck by one of the alleged chemical-laden canisters brought Doane and his team into the basement, where he described what said had been a “horrible smell.” But Ziad al-Kahhal told Doane that the “chemicals were dropped here by the terrorists. It’s not the regime. The terrorists who were here did this.”

    • Ah, so there was a chemical attack now. Whereas 24 hours ago, there wasn’t a chemical attack, according to the Russians and the pro-Assad outlets.

      Got it.

      • This is a CBS news report, not SANA or Sputnik (you know, the one you thought upset the narrative). The last report filed on Monday did interview residents who claimed that they smelled something like chlorine. The Syrian and Russian governments believes there was no chemical (sarin/nerve agent) use in Douma, but they have always suspected that the rebels might have used chlorine or ammonia to create a panic: German chlorine, UK smoke bombs found in Syria’s Ghouta: http://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/04/19/559045/Russia-Syria-Eastern-Ghouta

        • Well, your link is Russia/Assad disinformation — which puts the interview with the 11-year-old and its promotion by Russian and Iranian media into proper light.

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