Home » Online conspiracy theories helping the Syrian regime – Catherine Cornet

Online conspiracy theories helping the Syrian regime – Catherine Cornet

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Online conspiracy theories helping the Syrian regime – Catherine Cornet

June 30, 2022 5:17 pm

Since the first months of the revolution, Syrian activists have used their phones as defense weapons. In the context of a dictatorial regime where independent information was totally absent, social networks represented a formidable tool of communication with the world that belied state propaganda.

The enthusiasm for the power of social networks and for the citizen journalism was very important in Syria: for the first time, the importance of mobile phones was discovered to document violence against the population live and to reveal the war crimes of the regime, of the Islamist militias and since 2015 of the Russian offensive in support of the president Bashar al Assad.

However, since 2015, another war, based on online disinformation and conspiracy theories, has discredited and endangered numerous Syrian activists and organizations. A study entitled Deadly disinformation promoted by the Syria campaign and carried out by the Institute for strategic dialogue (Isd), analyzed tens of thousands of English-language tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts that targeted Syrian activists and humanitarian organizations, attacking them with powerful disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories between 2015 and 2021.

The case of the Syrian White Helmets
The group of Syrian volunteers called White Helmets was the first to provide relief after the bombing. When volunteers began wearing go-pro cameras on their helmets to document the horrors of the conflict in real time “they became a real threat to the Assad regime and as such, they became the main target of disinformation campaigns,” explains the report, “with over 21,000 conspiratorial tweets thrown at them.”

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The more the White Helmets attracted attention, such as when they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 or when the Netflix documentary about them won an Oscar in 2017, the more violent the disinformation campaigns became. Gradually, the White Helmets became heroes to be described as terrorists. And even for those who didn’t fully trust conspiracy theories, doubt had crept in.

Disinformation also makes it possible to justify the inertia of the international community

The research group used Brandwatch, an online data storage platform that allows us to analyze consumption and behavior, and CrowdTangle, a research platform owned by the Meta, to search for content published on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by the actors selected among the January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2021 (approximately 900 thousand tweets).

Following this methodology, the research has identified the functioning of the network of conspiracy theorists. It begins with 28 journalists justifying Assad, such as freelance Vanessa Beeley or journalist Aaron Maté of Greyzone who “advocate many Kremlin topics: an article written by Maté questions the investigation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Opcw) “. And it was the most shared link online between 2020 and 2021. Both journalists were also invited from Russia to the United Nations per defend the Syrian government from allegations of use of chemical weapons.

The double hit
From these 28 journalist accounts, the report continues, the second phase of online disinformation starts: a total of three million accounts of which 1.8 million with a single follower. Thus, the 19,000 original tweets of these conspiracy theorists have been retweeted more than 671,000 times.

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In addition to bogus accounts, an important source of disinformation comes from official Russian government accounts. The researchers monitored three – that of the Russian embassy in Syria, that of the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom and that of the Russian mission to the United Nations – and found that “they played a particularly important role during the disinformation spike after the chemical attack on the Duma in April 2018 ”, the month in which these three accounts accumulated 13,000 retweets, 13 percent of all disinformation retweets in that period.

The most crucial point to emerge from the research is the impact of conspiratorial retweets on people’s real lives. Defining a “terrorist” who can immediately testify what happened at the bombing sites allows you to disqualify witnesses of potential war crimes but above all allows the practice of “double strikes”, explains Hamid Kutini, a White Helmets volunteer in northwestern Syria: the regime and Russia bomb a second time shortly after the first bombings to kill rescuers. It is certainly easier to justify these bombings if the rescuers are “terrorists”.

Disinformation also allows us to justify the inertia of the international community, explains a former Western diplomat interviewed by the researchers: in this way countries further away from the conflict, such as India and Brazil, will not take strong positions on Syria at the UN by accepting the “Complexity of the situation”.

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For rescuers, victims of chemical weapons attacks or survivors of war crimes in Syria, online hatred is “salt on the wounds”. A denial of everything they endured, “a denial of the very facts that devastated their lives,” the report concluded.

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The conspiracy theories that have caused so much damage in Syria, Syrian activists warn, will have repercussions in Ukraine: the Russian media have already accused the White Helmets of having sent terrorists to Ukraine.

Lina Sergie Attar, founder of the Karam foundation, which deals with Syrian refugees, warns: “Today’s heroes are tomorrow’s enemies. Russia is playing the same game in Ukraine. The Western media is on the ground now, but when the cameras turn away and people lose interest, Russia will be able to question everything and then people will wonder: what is really going on in Ukraine? ” .

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