Disinformation and Conspiracy Trolling in the Wake of the Syrian Chemical Attack

Kremlin propaganda led to questions and charges that an attack in the city of Douma that killed scores of civilians was a hoax.

Published April 12, 2018

 (ART production /
Image Via ART production /

On 7 April 2018, reports began emerging from the opposition-held city of Douma east of the Syrian capital of Damascus that scores of civilians had been killed and hundreds injured in a chemical attack. In response to mounting global criticism, the Russian government, which has allied with the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, ramped up its military-grade propaganda machine in an ongoing to attempt to obfuscate facts.

Although no blame has yet been officially ascribed, this latest deadly attack in the now 7-year Syrian civil war is not unique in that the Assad regime has for years been condemned for using chemical weapons against civilians. In 2013 the regime was accused of using sarin, a nerve agent, in an attack that killed more than 1,400 people in Ghouta.

Reports from the ground in Douma indicate there were at least two strikes, one at 4 P.M. and another at 7:30 P.M. local time. Canisters found at the scene along with symptoms exhibited by victims appear to implicate chlorine gas and "organic phosphorus compounds in the sarin gas category."

U.S. President Donald Trump has openly blamed the Syrian regime and threatened a missile strike. After the Russians voted down a U.S.-authored United Nations Security Council resolution to investigate the attack, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley accused the Kremlin of "protecting a monster."

The disinformation machines have cranked up their propaganda offensive in response to criticism. Russia's state-funded networks like TASS and RT began churning out stories reflecting the government's talking points. Both outlets reported on 8 April 2018 that despite witness reports and graphic camera footage from Douma, Syrian government aid workers found "no evidence" of a chemical attack — a conclusion that to no one's surprise, the Russian government corroborated:

The Russian defense ministry also refuted reports that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in Douma in Eastern Ghouta. According to Head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, the allegations that a chlorine barrel bomb had been dropped in Douma by the Syrian armed forces came from the so-called independent non-governmental organizations, including the White Helmets, which is widely known for its fake news.

The Russian embassy Twitter accounts have also revved up the obfuscation efforts:

Scott Lucas, a journalist and professor of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham, told us although Moscow became militarily involved in the Syrian conflict in 2015, they had a propaganda office at the presidential palace in Damascus since the beginning. "From the very start you could see how they were putting out muddled story lines just to make you uncertain about what's happening," he told us.

The White Helmets, also known by their official title Syria Civil Defense, are a non-governmental organization made up of volunteers who carry out rescue efforts in rebel-held territory while wearing small cameras. Aside from saving lives, they have been credited with documenting war crimes. Thus, they are targets of frequent (but unproven and unfounded) smears that they are terrorists who are staging "false flag" attacks.

Lucas told us attacking medical facilities and first responders then accusing them of terrorism is a Russian tactic, because first responders in Syria — where it's extremely difficult and dangerous for foreign journalists to enter — are often key reporters of atrocities:

The Russians would go after hospitals and first responders and the propaganda would come out that you shouldn’t trust information from White Helmets or doctors because they’re aligned with the terrorists. They were deliberately bombing the area but saying you can’t trust anyone who is reporting it.

Official Russian government channels are not the only sources of misleading information. Lucas pointed to a coterie of Western social media personalities and bloggers who have concentrated their efforts on running interference for the Assad regime.

Although their motivations are not entirely clear, they generally fall under three categories — people who cling to what they consider anti-imperialist views and fear potential Western-led regime change in Syria, people who equate current events in Syria with the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, and another group of activists who, without explanation, have migrated their activism from support for Palestinians in Gaza to support for the Assad regime.

These bloggers have actively participated in campaigns to denigrate the White Helmets, even opining the rescuers are legitimate military targets.

Pat Hilsman, a freelance journalist who covered the Syrian war from the ground from 2012 to 2015 for publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Vice, Middle East Eye and the Daily Beast told us although some of these bloggers may give an air to less media literate audiences of legitimacy because they have traveled to Syria to "report" there, they have in reality been escorted about by minders from a regime with which they are too friendly.

Hilsman pointed out that real foreign journalists only cover the war at great personal risk, citing the case of Marie Colvin, a storied Sunday Times reporter who, according to recent court filings, was targeted and killed by the regime in 2012:

With [the bloggers Vanessa] Beeley and [Eva] Bartlett] it's clear they’ve been given five-star treatment by the Syrian government and have embraced their propaganda fully without questioning it.

The other important thing about Beeley and Bartlett is their entire existence is based on this false notion that no other journalist has reported from the ground. Their target is a low-information audience.

Lucas noted that there has been an overlap between pro-Assad trolling, disinformation, and propaganda and support for the regime from the American alt-right and far right. As a case in point, notorious conspiracy trolls like Alex Jones and far-right figures like white supremacist Richard Spencer were promoting claims that the Douma attack was a "false flag," a common conspiracy trope positing that mass casualty incidents are engineered internally to provide pretext for either government repression or military action:

Hilsman pointed out that many of the same characters who regularly claim that American victims of mass shootings are nothing more than actors playing a role in a "staged" tragedy (as with mass shootings) repeat the same claims in response to Syrian war victims:

The aftermath of the Parkland shooting is a clear example of the propaganda techniques that have been deployed against Syrian children, being deployed against American children. Perhaps the most revealing aspects of this story is the similarity of the smear campaign against Syrian civilians and the survivors of school shootings, as well as the fact that they often originate from the same sources and are spread via similar methods. In one particularly revealing example a twitter account called WhiteHelmetsExposed(@whitehelmetsEXP) which traffics in propaganda against the Syrian rescue group, has been tweeting memes claiming the Parkland Survivors are actors.

We reached out to Beeley and Bartlett for comment and got no response from Beeley. Bartlett, instead of responding, posted our query to her Twitter page and accused us of "whitewashing al-Qaeda's rescuers."


Worrall, Patrick. "Eva Bartlett’s Claims About Syrian Children."   Channel 4. 20 December 2016.

Solon, Olivia. "How Syria's White Helmets Became Victims of an Online Propaganda Machine."   The Guardian. 18 December 2017.

Chulov, Martin. "Syria Attack: Nerve Agent Experts Race to Smuggle Bodies Out of Douma."   The Guardian. 12 April 2018.

Moore, Matthew. "Assad Regime ‘Assassinated’ Sunday Times Journalist Marie Colvin."   The Times. 10 April 2018.

Bellingcat. "Open Source Survey of Alleged Chemical Attacks in Douma on 7th April 2018."   11 April 2018.

Hubbard, Ben. "In a Syrian Town, People Started Shouting: ‘Chemicals! Chemicals!’"   The New York Times. 11 April 2018.

Porter, Lizzie. "'Beaten Into Confession': Missing Syrian Rescuer Filmed Denouncing White Helmets."   Middle East Eye. 15 January 2017.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.