It’s been less than a week since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for helping “liberate Aleppo.” But that isn’t stopping Russian propagandists—and their allies on the American fringe—from denying that civilians were bombed there at all.
Both Kremlin-backed networks and American far right websites have adopted and deployed the Western buzzword “fake news” for the very real bombings in Aleppo. Worse, they’re dubbing private American citizens “professional propagandists” for starting fundraisers in support of afflicted Syrian civilians.
Aleppo has been the home of a forced evacuation over the past several weeks—leaving traditional Western media reporters unable to gain firsthand access to the atrocities. But reports from nonpartisan, international human rights groups and videos from the scene show bombed-out buildings and dead civilians in the streets.
The narrative that Aleppo bombings are “fake news” are taking traditional paths to viral success in America—polished, easily shareable Facebook videos that have received pickup by mainstream American outlets and wide-reach Facebook pages. What those outlets may not realize is that the material was made with Kremlin money.
Still, the narrative of massive civilian casualties perpetrated by the Syrian government contradicts that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who yesterday applauded the Syrian army, saying “the result of [Syrian and Russian army] cooperation is a major victory in the fight against international terrorism.”
The most viral of the Aleppo denial claims comes from RT personality Eva Bartlett, who has been claiming that “the media is lying to you [about] Aleppo” for a year. (In August, she referred to the human rights group Amnesty International as “Shamnesty International” after the organization requested help in the Syrian city.)
Bartlett posted a video to a Facebook page called In The Now that has received over 2.5 million views in 12 days. In The Now is a Russian-backed viral news offshoot of RT meant to mimic BuzzFeed or NowThis News, and it mostly posts non-political lifestyle stories about things like cute animals and innovative technology.
In this video, however, Bartlett accused the civilians who were about to be killed if they did not evacuate Aleppo of being “activists.”
“What do all of these people have in common? They want you to think there’s one side to this story—one truth. That Assad is going from city to city killing his own people, for some crazy reason, with the help of Russia,” she says. “The question is, do you buy it?”
According to Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow Clint Watts, this is an example of a long-deployed Russian information tactic: sow doubt into every media institution, so that every fact—even if there’s definitive video from a mainstream outlet—becomes subjective.
“It’s not just an information war on America—it’s a war on information itself. The point of it is that you can’t trust anything. Then there’s no baseline. You can say and do whatever you want, and then deny it ever happened,” said Watts.
Watts believes this “just asking the question” narrative about the atrocities in Aleppo isn’t new—but those deploying it have been more successful since bloody videos and accounts of horror have made their way out of the Syrian city since the mandatory evacuation.
“This plays very much into the Russian-Syrian strategy from the beginning, to get rid of all journalists,” said Watts, who is also a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
“Part of the reason you do that is, if you later need to fight an information war, and you want to kill civilians, all you have to do is say, ‘There is no real reporting here! How can you trust second-hand accounts?’ That’s what they’ve done a masterful job of.”
The post has been reposted by RT’s own Facebook page, but has received pickup by large pro-Donald Trump Facebook groups in the past several days. The 31,000-person group “VOTE TRUMP ONLY - THE AMERICAN PARTY RISING” and the 11,000-strong group “TRUMP - SPEAK OUT AGAINST ISLAMIZATION OF AMERICA” each posted the video in the last several days.
To Watts, this is unsurprising.
Trump has hinted his administration will be closely tied to Putin and Russia, and even glowingly tweeted a quote from the Russian president about Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the election last week. In turn, Putin’s approval ratings among American Republicans has skyrocketed. According to Pew, 37 percent of Republicans view Putin favorably, and only 17 percent of Republicans view current U.S. President Barack Obama favorably.
“This would be appealing to a Trump supporter. It allows for alignment with Russia in a way that couldn’t be possible if [civilian bombings in Aleppo] were true,” said Watts. “Killing civilians and doing things that are, to most Americans, un-American—if you deny this ever happened, you can remove that from the narrative altogether. It allows you to be more open to supporting Putin.”
Last Tuesday, the BBC fact checked all of the claims in Bartlett’s viral video, noting that some events that were believed to be faked had direct links to other “videos of victims, including crying infants and the dead body of an elderly man [that] were posted on the same day, apparently without attracting disbelief.”
But the narrative that Aleppo had not been bombed at this point was already widespread. Videos of American conspiracy outlets like InfoWars started to take hold.
“Did the mainstream media’s ‘fake news’ about Russian atrocities in Aleppo inspire and radicalize the gunman in Turkey?” said InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson, referring to the Dec. 19 assassination of Moscow’s ambassador to Ankara.
The story even reached a segment on Atlanta’s CBS affiliate called “Reality Check with Ben Swann,” which has been shared over 61,500 times in the past six days.
“The reports from Aleppo Syria are incredible. The suffering. The humanitarian crisis,” said Swann. “But if that’s true, why are these people in Aleppo celebrating in the streets?”
This mirrors a narrative within several stories written by Kremlin state media outfit RT in the past several weeks.
“While residents of Aleppo are celebrating the liberation of their city, the mainstream media has been painting the opposite picture with sensational headlines decrying alleged atrocities and a ‘meltdown of humanity’ they claim is happening there,” Kremlin state media outfit RT wrote on its website.
“But what are their sources? Well, ‘someone told them.’ Most of their reports are unverified because MSM has no one on the ground in Aleppo.”
This extends not just to larger scale mainstream stories, but even human interest stories in forgotten newspaper pieces. Last week, Kremlin-funded propaganda website Sputnik proclaimed two Chicago women, Becky Carroll and Wendy Widom, who initiated the #StandWithAleppo hashtag in October were “professional propagandists.”
Sputnik’s reasoning? Carroll worked for the 2008 Obama campaign, and Widom is a “self-described social media editor for CBS Chicago, part of a broadcast television network whose recent coverage of the situation in Aleppo features the kinds of bias to be expected from mainstream media sources.”
“That’s exactly what they want. They want you thinking, ‘You just don’t know. You just can’t trust any mainstream outlet,’” said Watts. “If there’s no thermometer for what’s true, you can say anything.”