The Russia-backed campaign to link the volunteer rescuers with al-Qaida exposes how conspiracy theories take root: Its like a factory
The Syrian volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets have become the target of an extraordinary disinformation campaign that positions them as an al-Qaida-linked terrorist organisation.
The Guardian has uncovered how this counter-narrative is propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government (which provides military support to the Syrian regime).
The White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, is a humanitarian organisation made up of 3,400 volunteers former teachers, engineers, tailors and firefighters who rush to pull people from the rubble when bombs rain down on Syrian civilians. Theyve been credited with saving thousands of civilians during the countrys continuing civil war.
They have also exposed, through first-hand video footage, war crimes including a chemical attack in April. Their work was the subject of an Oscar-winning Netflix documentary and the recipient of two Nobel peace prize nominations.
In spite of this positive international recognition, theres a counter-narrative pushed by a vocal network of individuals who write for alternative news sites countering the MSM agenda. Their views align with the positions of Syria and Russia and attract an enormous online audience, amplified by high-profile alt-right personalities, appearances on Russian state TV and an army of Twitter bots.
The way the Russian propaganda machine has targeted the White Helmets is a neat case study in the prevailing information wars. It exposes just how rumours, conspiracy theories and half-truths bubble to the top of YouTube, Google and Twitter search algorithms.
This is the heart of Russian propaganda. In the old days they would try and portray the Soviet Union as a model society. Now its about confusing every issue with so many narratives that people cant recognise the truth when they see it, said David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the 21st Century.