Russian trolls attack Syrian humanitarians to cover up war crimes

·      New research reveals violent disinformation campaign against the White Helmets

·      Conspiracy-theorist bloggers threaten to legitimise killing of frontline volunteers

A new report reveals how bots and trolls linked to Russia have reached an estimated 56 million people with tweets attacking Syria’s search and rescue organisation, the Syria Civil Defence – also known as the The White Helmets – during ten key moments of 2016 and 2017.

Media analysts found that half of the Twitter accounts most active in conversations about the White Helmets appear in at least one other Russian disinformation campaign.

British, Canadian and American bloggers are being used and amplified by an army of Russian bots and trolls in order to discredit one of the Syrian conflict’s most valuable sources of information. The White Helmets have come under direct attack 238 times over the past two years and 210 volunteers have been killed since 2013. Russia is targeting these humanitarians in an effort to cover up its role in some of the most heinous war crimes of our time.

Director of The Syria Campaign, James Sadri, said:

“Online attacks on the White Helmets are an extension of the targeted killings of their volunteers on the ground. The White Helmets have documented dozens of chemical attacks perpetrated by the Russian-backed Syrian regime. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Assad and Putin want these heroes smeared and silenced.”

The White Helmets have saved more than 100,000 lives over the past four years, prompting them to be twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded accolades, such as the Arab Hope Makers Award. They have provided crucial evidence to the United Nations (UN) Security Council, as well the US Congress and European, British, French, German, Dutch and Swedish parliaments. They were the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary and Raed al Saleh, elected head of the group, was named as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2017.

The forthcoming report by The Syria Campaign reveals how Russia’s concerted disinformation campaign was able to dominate online reporting of one of the most important events of the Syria conflict. When nerve agent was dropped on a civilian area of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, Russia’s fabricated claims were shared so widely, they became the number one trending topic on Twitter in the US.

Online smears have also received the highest state backing from Russia. Official channels RT and news site Sputnik News have repeatedly hosted fringe bloggers at the heart of the disinformation campaign, such as Vanessa Beeley.

The Russian ambassador to the UN even submitted a dossier by Beeley entitled “The White Helmets: fact or fiction” to the UN Security Council as evidence against the group. Beeley has repeatedly tweeted that the White Helmets are legitimate targets for military attack.

Sadri said:

“The White Helmets are first responders in one of the most dangerous places on earth. They have saved countless civilians from bombed-out schools, hospitals and markets. The world has done little to stop the bombing of Syrian civilians and now it seems Western governments and social media companies are allowing Russia a free hand to target rescue workers on our screens. This coordinated campaign threatens to make it legitimise the killing of the White Helmets and bury the truth of the conflict in Syria.”


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Notes to editors

1. Read The Syria Campaign’s report Killing the Truth here.

2. The Syria Campaign commissioned US-based social media intelligence firm Graphika to research who is attacking the White Helmets on Twitter and how their tweets are shared. Graphika, which has investigated other disinformation campaigns, analysed more than 12.6 million tweets from close to 2.65 million accounts. They looked at ten peak moments of activity between June 2016 and October 2017 when Syria was greatly discussed on the platform – for example during the Aleppo offensive or when the White Helmets documentary won an Oscar.