White Helmets (1): We’re not terrorists, we’re victims of fake news
by Suhaile Md
The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.
YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”
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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.
“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
Accusations and rebuttals
Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.
One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.
Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”
Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.
More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.
We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets
It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.
But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.
Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.
And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.
The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?
Short answer: war and politics.
In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.
The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)
The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.
Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”
But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists. “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
The mechanics of fake news
Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.
First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.
Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”
So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.
This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”
What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles
The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.
Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.
It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.
The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.
“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”
Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.
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