Russian Fake News Ecosystem Targets Syrian Human Rights Workers

Kremlin linked news sites like RT and Sputnik figure prominently in an online disinformation campaign portraying Syrian humanitarian workers (“White Helmets”) as terrorists and crisis actors, according to an analysis by researchers at University of Washington and Harvard. 

An online “echosystem” of propaganda websites including Russia backed news outlets Sputnik and RT is attacking the credibility of humanitarian workers on the ground in rebel occupied Syria, according to a new analysis by researchers at The University of Washington and Harvard University.

Online rumors circulated through so called “alternative” media sites have attacked the Syrian Civil Defence (aka “White Helmets”) as “crisis actors” and Western agents working on behalf of the U.S. and NATO. Statistical analysis of the online rumors reveal a tight network of websites sharing nearly identical content via Twitter and other social media platforms, wrote Kate Starbird, an Assistant Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at University of Washington and a leading expert on so-called “crisis informatics.”

The work of Syrian Civil Defense workers (aka “White Helmets”) has been the target of online disinformation campaigns that portray them as terrorists and “crisis actors.” Russia-backed news outlets figure prominently in the campaign according to researchers.

After the work of the White Helmets to help Syrian civilians in areas targeted by pro-government forces garnered sympathetic coverage in Western media outlets, an online effort to smear the volunteers ramped up. Articles posted a small cluster of websites were critical of the White Helmets,  accusing them of being terrorists, propagandists for the US and NATO and denying the reality of what the White Helmets were documenting (“crisis actors”).

[Listen to our podcast interview with Kate on her work in “Crisis Informatics.”]

An Echo-System of Sites

Starbird said her lab began analyzing online rumoring targeting the Syrian Civil Defence in June 2017. She and her team have spent hundreds of hours analyzing online rumors spread via Twitter as well as the accounts, articles, and website that back up those rumors.

Kate Starbird is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) at the University of Washington.

She said that online rumors and disinformation targeting Syrian “White Helmet” volunteers is concentrated in a tight ecosystem (or “echo system”) of websites that appear to share information and link to one another, amplifying the seeming prevalence of rumors and false stories.

“The same article might appear on several and sometimes dozens of different websites. In fact, much of the content shared across this network originated in just a few places,” Starbird writes.

Mainstream news outlets like Newsweek appear as peripheral nodes, often after publishing factual articles that in some way support the alternative narratives. For example, Newsweek ran an article that was critical of two White Helmets volunteers who were photographed mishandling mutilated bodies of Syrian soldiers. The Newsweek story explained that the two had been fired for those acts.

In activity reminiscent of the disinformation campaigns that roiled the U.S. Presidential election in 2016, articles by what Starbird describes as “a few prominent journalists and bloggers” writing for self described “alternative” news sites like 21stCenturyWire, GlobalResearch, MintPressNews, and ActivistPost are picked up by other, smaller and more niche web sites including both left- and right-leaning partisan news sites, “clickbait sites” and conspiracy theory websites.

Heavy Russia Influence

Government funded media outlets from Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia figure prominently in the Syrian disinformation campaign, Starbird’s team found. In particular, “Russian government-funded media outlets (i.e. SputnikNews and RT) play a prominent and multi-faceted role within this ecosystem,” she wrote.

For example, articles that appear on RT, the government-linked media network, also appeared on other web domains in the disinformation graph, Starbird’s team found. Often, authors of misleading stories were interviewed by RT or Sputnik with video of those interviews are further circulated.

Starbird’s team graphed the links between “alternative news” and disinformation sites. (Image courtesy of Kate Starbird.)

Shades of 2016 Campaign

The broad outlines of the online disinformation campaign are similar to those seen in the U.S. during the 2016 election, Starbird writes. For example, the websites sharing and promoting disinformation about the White Helmets “are often sharing the same content, but enclosed in very different wrappers, so that the content appeals to different identities.” Content is adjusted to appeal to politically right or left audiences, libertarians, military veterans, pro-Russian, anti-Semitic, anti-imperialist, pro-Muslim, anti-Muslim, and so on, she wrote.

That’s similar to how Kremlin-linked groups used social media ads on platforms like Facebook to target messages to target American voters with wide ranging interests and agendas. Democratic lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee yesterday released copies of more than 3,500 Facebook ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm with ties to the Kremlin. According to research, over 11.4 million American users were exposed to these ads between 2015 and 2017.

“One way to look at this is that there are efforts by geopolitical actors to cultivate different online communities to spread their messages. We’ve documented this previously in the U.S.-focused discourse related to Black Lives Matter activism,” she wrote.

While media attention has focused on the use of bots to promote false narratives online, Starbird said the accounts promoting anti- White Helmet narratives were not necessarily automated “bot” accounts.

“These efforts have ‘organic’ components,” she wrote. “(They) consist of diverse individuals and organizations who are driven by a variety of different motivations (including political, financial, and ideological.”

The effect for those who are drawn into the “echo system” is the same however: a hermetic environment that reinforces the legitimacy of false narratives by, among other things, “triangulating” readers caught up in the network, with each propaganda vouching for the authenticity of the false stories posted on other sites. The system also “distributes responsibility for the political messaging across the network,” Starbird notes, refuting the notion that the false narrative is being coordinated or overseen by some central actor.