Who was behind the 4 April sarin gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria? If you read about that attack only on the Kremlin-linked website Baltnews.ee, you might not know it was Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. You might even doubt whether the attack took place —or wonder whether the videos of victims were staged by the “White Helmets”—a volunteer civil-defense organization that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria and was formed to deal with the war’s consequences for civilians. Its members extricate bombing victims, evacuate civilians from dangerous areas and provide emergency medical treatment. The disturbing claim that the White Helmets staged evidence of an attack and that it may not have happened at all were facilitated by a well-established technique of Russian propaganda, which disguises the true source of fake news and disinformation. What is new in this case is the increasing use of fake outlets targeting American readers in order to launder stories in Estonian media.
The gas attack, followed by President Donald Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike against Syria, sparked painful reactions from the Kremlin, false news stories from Russia’s state media, and outrage from U.S. alt-right groups—the latter two claiming that the gas attack was a hoax. The fake news on the White Helmets’ alleged staged attack reached Estonia via Kremlin-liked media channel Baltews.ee on 8 April.
The Baltnews.ee story, citing Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, stated that the White Helmets murdered children for the sake of realistic propaganda videos. KP, in turn, referred to the U.S. website Veterans Today. The Komsomolskaya Pravda story is no longer available online, but the VT story relies on an RT news program covering a Russian Foreign Ministry press briefing. That briefing cited observations by the Swedish Doctors for Human Rights (SDFHR) of White Helmets videos after the gas attack in Sarmine, Syria, in March 2015. The SDFHR says these videos were found to be staged, and that the lifesaving procedures they depict were actually performed on dead children. VT interprets these observations as “children murdered for propaganda videos”—a claim the SDFHR later disproved. But even after the SDFHR rejected the claim, both VT’s and Baltnews.ee’s stories remained unchanged.
In act, RT picked up the story a few days later, interviewing an SDFHR official who said that even though no evidence yet proves who was responsible for the 4 April gas attack, the previous videos prove that the White Helmets rescue operations had been staged. The RT story was in turn picked up by Sputnik-news.ee, whose story left no doubt that the White Helmets are not trustworthy, and that, just as in 2015, the 4 April chemical attacks were staged. The Sputnik piece, titled “White Helmets fabricated the consequences of Syrian chemical attack,” appeared later on two minor Estonian-language websites, Pilguheit.ee and Uudis.eu.
It is difficult to say whether the SDFHR observations are credible. More can be said on the White Helmets: The Atlantic Council report has found that even though “the White Helmets … could, when verified against other sources, be relied upon, the organization is consistently portrayed as a group whose evidence should be dismissed unregarded," and they had deliberately been placed in a negative light both by Kremlin officials and media channels.
Outside of the Kremlin propaganda network, social media and news organizations are fielding awareness campaigns about fake news. One of the most recent is Facebook’s guideline, “Tips to Spot False News”—a useful tool for general audiences. But would they help readers in the VT example? Here, the answer is overwhelmingly yes.
The VT story fails in five aspects using Facebook’s fake news guidelines for readers. For starters, its headline—“Ordered Censored by Trump: Swedish Medical Associations Says White Helmets Murdered Kids for Fake Gas Attack Videos” contains shocking claims that sound unbelievable. Second, there are no real-life references on the Contact section. Real-life references such as the authors’ names, editorial team’s street address and phone numbers of are the signs that real people stand behind the stories. The absence of such information is a sign that the publication is not taking responsibility for the published content.
Third, the story mentions no dates. This misleads the reader; even though SDFHR’s observations were based on videos made after the 2015 chemical attack, these were presented as recent ones. Fourth, its sources or the interpretation of kits sources are not reliable. For example, the Swedish Medical Association’s observations was misinterpreted without any correction, and the objectivity of RT—which is funded by the Russian government—is doubtful due to Russia’s interests in Syria and its close cooperation with the Assad regime. Finally, even though several other sources repeated the story, no trustworthy media channels paid any attention to it.
This chain—RT/Veterans Today/Komsomolskaya Pravda/Baltnews.ee/RT/Sputnik-news.ee—formed to distribute fake news about a staged chemical attack in Syria, is an example of how the Kremlin ping-pong disinformation technique works. With this technique, two or more Kremlin-linked media channels refer to each other’s articles repeatedly, so that the story goes back and forth, eventually filling Google and social media pages with hundreds of fake stories. The resulting quantity of different versions of the same—or slightly modified—story not only helps to create an information bubble but also tends to convince readers that since the story is confirmed by so many sources, it must be real. In this particular case, “ping-pong” is combined with another disinformation technique, narrative laundering, using minor Western websites like VT to confirm Kremlin viewpoints.
But what matters here is what can be learned. Intentional counterparts of “Kremlin ping-pong” might not want to take Facebook guidelines seriously. Trustworthy websites should do so. This is yet another tool to stop this particular ping-pong game—or at least to avoid becoming a part of it.
Photo: REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin