To many the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated White Helmets are known as a heroic force of volunteer humanitarians, who have worked tirelessly to aid civilian victims of the awful conflict in Syria. Their work was documented in a Netflix film which scooped Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars.
However, an online campaign that has been running for more than two years – and which aligns closely with the aims of the Russians and their client state, the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad – has sought to tarnish them as an Al Qaeda-linked organisation.
The group, whose official name is Syria Civil Defence (SCD), were formally instituted in 2014, bringing together search and rescue efforts from across the country in response to the bombing of heavily populated urban areas by state security forces loyal to Mr Assad.
There are believed to be around 3,400 members of the SCD, and their dangerous work, which involves pulling injured people from the wreckage of homes and transporting them to hospitalthat have been bombed from the air or hit by artillery, has seen more than 150 White Helmets killed.
An investigation by The Guardian has discovered that a two-pronged attack on the White Helmets has been in full swing since September 2015, when Russian forces joined the conflict in Syria, claiming that they were striking solely against areas held by Isil.
Television footage and reports of White Helmets rescuing people from apartment buildings in civilian areas of cities such as Aleppo appeared to give the lie to this claim, which was pushed into the narrative by Kremlin-friendly media organisations such as Russia Today and Sputnik.
Alongside these channels there have been online attacks by a loose coalition of vocal activists and trolls, including anti-Western bloggers and far-right conspiracy theorists railing against the MSM [mainstream media], as well as evidence of Twitter bots furthering the reach of the smears.
Footage from the White Helmets of the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, which killed more than 80 people, was widely circulated. United Nations investigators laid the blame for the attacks at the door of the Syrian government.
The network of propagandists swiftly cast doubt on the veracity of the UN report, calling it “illogical” and saying that the attack had been “deliberately staged” by Syrian militants. A notorious American website, Infowars, went so far as to claim the White Helmets themselves had carried out the attack.
A Google search for the White Helmets confirms the efficacity of the information war being waged against the group; On the first page of results for videos, there are anti-SCD report from Russia Today, alongside items with titles such as ‘White Helmets discovered beheading Syrian soldiers and taking part in executions’ and ‘This Isis video proves White Helmets work for Isis’.
Among the bloggers discovered by The Guardian attacking the White Helmets are Vanessa Beeley, the daughter of a former British diplomat, who visited Damascus in 2016 and met with Mr Assad, later describing the encounter as her “proudest moment”.
“This is the heart of Russian propaganda,” David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century, told The Guardian. “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.”
Scott Lucas, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham, calls such campaigns ‘agitation propaganda’ and noted many of the people propagating the stories realise they are being used. “The most effective propaganda is when you find someone who believes it then give them support – you don’t create them from scratch.”