It’s Time To Raise the Level of Public Debate about Syria

These past six months I have been getting to know the inter-media. They’re not formally part of mainstream, and they’re not very social, so I call them inter-media. They are like the maintenance team for the mainstream. To explain this, I’ll first say how I came to meet them.

The context of these encounters is writing posts on Syria. Doing so, I rely entirely on what others say. But the fact that we hear directly contradictory narratives provides a rare opportunity to test whose tale is the truer. Lies, whatever some bluffers and braggers may think, are infinitely harder to sustain, over time, than is the truth.[1]

The impulse to write about Syria originated at a very specific moment, even if my curiosity had been piqued earlier by the Netflix White Helmets: Where are the fighters that are holding off the combined military might of Syria and Russia? How come they don’t mind you filming here? The moment, though, was when Eva Bartlett responded to a mainstream media critic’s question: “Sources on the ground? You don’t have them.” And when Eva pointed out that the White Helmets were embedded with the fighters, this simply made more sense than Netflix had. But then I learned “That woman has been debunked.” (Note the way she is spoken about.) So who by? Well, Snopes for one. Fine, but seriously? I was informed that the mainstream view was verified by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Here, now, was a reputable organisation that actually had doctors there on the ground risking their lives to save others under very dangerous conditions. Except, as it turned out, they did not, and so I came to write my first blog on Syria.

(MSF had the good grace to accept that I’d identified a problem, and invited me to their annual research conference this year to discuss the issues involved in relying on secondhand testimony.)

Channel 4’s alleged debunking of Eva prompted a subsequent blog. That involved studying their output, which was revealed to include much more than some unreliable witness statements. If MSF’s misleading testimony might be attributable to an insufficiently accountable communications operation, Channel 4 appeared to be engaged in a systematic programme of disinformation. There seemed to be a conscious commitment to presenting part of the same alternative reality that White Helmets and Bana feature in. It all appears to be produced by the Aleppo Media Center, which is actually in Turkey, but Channel 4 got some bespoke pieces, like the ‘Inside Aleppo’ series, and not just syndicated stuff. Hence we find Channel 4’s Aleppo films winning awards, like Netflix did with the White Helmets.

(Hence the channel will not publicly address what some there privately acknowledge are valid questions. And when you think about the investment involved you can understand their reluctance.)

Reflect on what must be involved here, and you start to realise that such a coordinated effort must have a deep and extensive organisational basis that goes way beyond the specific organisations that retail the information. Consider the preparation, work, time, and resources, material and human, that go into producing even a single scene in a movie, and then, after a whole feature has been shot, the audience still knows it is just a movie, not real. How much more preparation and resource must go into not merely producing a movie but actually persuading the entire public that reality is like the movie.

Nor is the effort to build that wall of disinformation the end of the challenge. It will require constant maintenance, for any big structure is liable to stresses, and cracks will appear. Here is where you need people ready with some filler. This is where we meet the inter-media. More fleet-footed, less constrained, than straight up media channels, but more disciplined and very much less social than social media, they are something in between.  Their function with respect to the dominant narrative seems to be akin to that of those hi-tech bacteria that mould themselves into ongoing repairs in cracked concrete: the inter-media are there to plug up the cracks where shafts of truth show through.

This week afforded some opportunities to encounter the inter-media at work. Early in the week, a great article by Piers Robinson was published in openDemocracy urging a more serious look at propaganda and its contribution to the regime change agenda that is destroying Syria. Getting published in this prominent outlet was something of an achievement, for reasons I’ll let one of the first responders illustrate:

“By amplifying this conspiracist drivel, you are polluting the public sphere. @OpenSociety & @boell_stiftung should reconsider their support”

That tweet has since been deleted, perhaps because its author agreed with me that it cast a worrying light on his idea of how public debate should be conducted, and on whose terms. But it had made me curious as to why the Heinrich Böll Foundation should have a particular interest in the matter[2] I only knew them as a research organisation linked to the German Greens. (I’d spoken myself at their headquarters one time in Berlin.) But now I was about to turn over another stone! A cursory look on twitter quickly turns up that Foundation’s Middle East communications person tweeting about Tim Anderson, a longstanding critic in relation to The Dirty War on Syria, and lecturer at Sidney University:

“When will @sydney_uni finally end this producer of #FakeNews contract? Smearing of civilians, pretending #Assad doesn’t use gas.”

Wow! She attacks a man’s reputation, campaigns for him to lose his job, and challenges academic freedom, while also asserting an unproven claim as if it were truth, all within 140 characters. I can see how she got the job as communications head.

Moving on from this inter-media filler of German precision we will shortly come to meet one with American pizzazz. But first there is some backstory to fill in, starting with some words of clarification.

I hope it was clear, when I a moment ago implied a certain admiration for the skills of the propagandist just mentioned, that I am not approving of what she uses them for. I should have been clearer on this score when giving credit to Bellingcat in a post last week. In order to establish that my engagement with him would follow academic norms, I exaggerated the courtesies.[3] This caused some genuine consternation amongst readers, given the awareness many have of Bellingcat’s role in the propagation of the US-UK narrative. A few individuals were so outraged that they launched a forceful public criticism at me.[4] Since the last thing I want to do is mislead people I revised the blog, stripping out the confusing niceties, in order to bring attention back to its actual point. I had already apologised.

That incident taught me a few things. One is that writing in public, unlike in academia, means being aware of a potentially wide readership, with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. So I should take more care to say only what I mean. Something else I learned, though, is what wonderful people there are who share the kinds of concern that I’m working through in these posts. Many people who I had already instinctively felt trust in revealed a depth of solidarity and integrity that is simply humbling. I really want to thank you all for your words of support. Thank you, also, for urging everyone to settle any differences like friends.

Like friends. That this expression comes so spontaneously to mind is my most important lesson.[5] There is actually a group of friends who are bound by a few simple ties: a desire that what we learn about the world is the truth; a conviction that whatever pressures of life may drive human beings into conflict with one another, we should do everything in our power to deal with them without being pushed into wars. Our power may not be great as individuals, but we all partake of a power that is ultimately indomitable. As embodied creatures of this real world we have evolved with a deep commitment to pursuing truth. If our ancestors could not discern the difference between a snake and a stick, we would not be here. If we were not able to make correct judgements about myriad things every moment of our waking life, aware of it or not, we would not survive long. We have an instinct for seeking true knowledge. We are predisposed towards it. To those who want to obscure it, we will seem like partisans for the truth.

With this in mind, I return to the American intervention on my twitter feed this week. The twitter storm provoked by my being too polite to Bellingcat had been watched with some amusement by Higgins himself and some of his friends. Here is one of them:

trouble-in-paradise-e1500653132802.jpg

I have anonymised this because, like the first tweet I quoted above, it comes from a person who works at a UK University. I highlight it not because I personally mind being grouped with the majority of people living in Syria who prefer their legitimate government to the murderous bands of foreign-backed sectarians attacking it. But it is intended as a smear, and for the sake of people who want to engage in constructive and serious debate, I shall stand up to this practice of the inter-media brigade of attacking any and every attempt at actual public debate about the truth in Syria (or, indeed, in many other places). If they want to behave like rude trolls, they’d best keep a respectful distance from academia when they do it. That is a message I would encourage them to embrace.

I don’t believe the public want to think their own or their children’s university education is entrusted to people who think it is appropriate public conduct to come out with productions like the follow up to that tweet. For in lieu of the requested apology from the waggish twitterer, there ensued a series of tweets including this flourish of creativity:

"Show Trial"

The inter-media brigade may think this is a bit of fun, a change from straight up abuse and intimidation (and from unreasoned dismissals such as we find with Padraig Reidy calling Piers Robinson’s piece in openDemocracy ‘disgraceful’ apparently because Piers has elsewhere defended Russia Today against irrational attacks). But I ask them, very seriously, what actually is there to be having fun about? Those who promote propaganda that has real consequences for real people should man up, and grow up, and own what they do.

Frankly, none of this should need saying, and I am not paid to be spending valuable time dealing with it. So to them I leave it at this: Meet us in an academic forum or on a public platform where norms of civil debate apply. You cannot have it both ways: you cannot go bruising it around the internet just making ad hominem slurs while also staking an implicit claim to academic backing.

As for friendly and open readers, especially beyond academia, I have this to say.  If in resisting propaganda you get called partisans, then let it be so. We are partisans for the truth. And resistance will work.  Perhaps the truth is ‘rarely pure and never simple’, but it is much less high-maintenance than the wall of misinformation that the inter-media team are perpetually trying to patch up, and it will out. Meanwhile, the resistance is growing.

And finally, just to illustrate the difference between the alternative reality and the world we live in, I leave you with a video released this week by the amazing journalist from Aleppo, Khaled Iskef. He shows us around the neighbourhood in Aleppo where the little Syrian girl called Bana actually lived, there alongside the HQs of the armed brigades whose men, alone, were able to make or send images from the place. You then get an idea of how the child used in the propaganda may have a true call on our human sympathies.

 

[1] I am willing to use the seemingly hyperbolic term ‘infinitely’ because the truth will be what it is forever, without any input from anyone, whereas a lie becomes increasingly high maintenance in the face of simple questioning. It is endlessly difficult to maintain the back story, and then the back story’s story, and so on, until the effort required to avoid self-contadiction simply becomes too much and the simple truth just comes out again, like a plant through cracked tarmac. That is why the propaganda campaign needs to be so vast and long term. It is a gargantuan feat that we only see the tip of. We see the movie, we don’t see the entire production process.

[2] A twitter contact, by way of answer, informed me that the ‘Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung was used by the CIA to influence culture in Europe. The financing was made via Ford Foundation’.  She sent me this video link (in German).  I have not investigated so I make no comment myself. A look at a longer sweep of tweets from the foundation’s spokesperson for Syria does reveal a pattern sufficiently familiar to anglophone inter-media agencies to warrant mentioning a possible concern here, but I emphasise the caveat that her twitter profile makes the disclaimer “Tweets my own”.

[3] In giving credit for his geolocation skills and responsiveness to my inquiries (which I’ve learned does not reflect everyone’s experience) I frankly laid it on too thick. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would think I misunderstood the nature of his operation, but that was my mistake. Notwithstanding my apologies, I can see my critics were justified in residual anger on the grounds that there would be readers at earlier stages of learning who could take it at face value. How much it then helped that those critics themselves proceeded to extract and broadcast precisely that misleading message, as if it really were my message to the world, I can only leave them to consider.

[4] I haven’t seen it myself, having opted out of interactions with its author and the initial instigator once it became evident they hadn’t accepted my apology. There have been replies on my behalf, and I also haven’t been reading these, but one was copied to me by a mutual friend on Facebook and I reproduce it below. One can tell from reading it that the debate had got heated, and such a forceful response needs to be seen in that context. Thank you, John Schoneboom, for your eloquent words:

Schoneboom on me on bellingcat

[5] The people I owe thanks to are far more than I shall even try to mention, but there is one person I do want to thank by name. Like Eva, she gets subjected to vast amounts of abuse for reporting a counter-narrative from Syria. Also like Eva, she is more than strong enough to take it. But frankly, she shouldn’t have to, certainly not from anyone associated with a UK university. Vanessa Beeley, I believe, has done more good for the prospects of ordinary people living in Syria than any of her trolls and detractors. If anybody in academia says I am wrong about this, I am ready to listen, but let them speak in terms that meet the standards of academic discussion.

 

Khaled & Bana

Amidst a cluster of (former) terrorist HQs.

Posted in Channel 4, disinformation, film, inter-media, journalism, media, MSF, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 8 Comments

It’s Time To Raise the Level of Public Debate about Syria

These past six months I have been getting to know the inter-media. They’re not formally part of mainstream, and they’re not very social, so I call them inter-media. They are like the maintenance team for the mainstream. To explain this, I’ll first say how I came to meet them.

The context of these encounters is writing posts on Syria. Doing so, I rely entirely on what others say. But the fact that we hear directly contradictory narratives provides a rare opportunity to test whose tale is the truer. Lies, whatever some bluffers and braggers may think, are infinitely harder to sustain, over time, than is the truth.[1]

The impulse to write about Syria originated at a very specific moment, even if my curiosity had been piqued earlier by the Netflix White Helmets: Where are the fighters that are holding off the combined military might of Syria and Russia? How come they don’t mind you filming here? The moment, though, was when Eva Bartlett responded to a mainstream media critic’s question: “Sources on the ground? You don’t have them.” And when Eva pointed out that the White Helmets were embedded with the fighters, this simply made more sense than Netflix had. But then I learned “That woman has been debunked.” (Note the way she is spoken about.) So who by? Well, Snopes for one. Fine, but seriously? I was informed that the mainstream view was verified by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Here, now, was a reputable organisation that actually had doctors there on the ground risking their lives to save others under very dangerous conditions. Except, as it turned out, they did not, and so I came to write my first blog on Syria.

(MSF had the good grace to accept that I’d identified a problem, and invited me to their annual research conference this year to discuss the issues involved in relying on secondhand testimony.)

Channel 4’s alleged debunking of Eva prompted a subsequent blog. That involved studying their output, which was revealed to include much more than some unreliable witness statements. If MSF’s misleading testimony might be attributable to an insufficiently accountable communications operation, Channel 4 appeared to be engaged in a systematic programme of disinformation. There seemed to be a conscious commitment to presenting part of the same alternative reality that White Helmets and Bana feature in. It all appears to be produced by the Aleppo Media Center, which is actually in Turkey, but Channel 4 got some bespoke pieces, like the ‘Inside Aleppo’ series, and not just syndicated stuff. Hence we find Channel 4’s Aleppo films winning awards, like Netflix did with the White Helmets.

(Hence the channel will not publicly address what some there privately acknowledge are valid questions. And when you think about the investment involved you can understand their reluctance.)

Reflect on what must be involved here, and you start to realise that such a coordinated effort must have a deep and extensive organisational basis that goes way beyond the specific organisations that retail the information. Consider the preparation, work, time, and resources, material and human, that go into producing even a single scene in a movie, and then, after a whole feature has been shot, the audience still knows it is just a movie, not real. How much more preparation and resource must go into not merely producing a movie but actually persuading the entire public that reality is like the movie.

Nor is the effort to build that wall of disinformation the end of the challenge. It will require constant maintenance, for any big structure is liable to stresses, and cracks will appear. Here is where you need people ready with some filler. This is where we meet the inter-media. More fleet-footed, less constrained, than straight up media channels, but more disciplined and very much less social than social media, they are something in between.  Their function with respect to the dominant narrative seems to be akin to that of those hi-tech bacteria that mould themselves into ongoing repairs in cracked concrete: the inter-media are there to plug up the cracks where shafts of truth show through.

This week afforded some opportunities to encounter the inter-media at work. Early in the week, a great article by Piers Robinson was published in openDemocracy urging a more serious look at propaganda and its contribution to the regime change agenda that is destroying Syria. Getting published in this prominent outlet was something of an achievement, for reasons I’ll let one of the first responders illustrate:

“By amplifying this conspiracist drivel, you are polluting the public sphere. @OpenSociety & @boell_stiftung should reconsider their support”

That tweet has since been deleted, perhaps because its author agreed with me that it cast a worrying light on his idea of how public debate should be conducted, and on whose terms. But it had made me curious as to why the Heinrich Böll Foundation should have a particular interest in the matter[2] I only knew them as a research organisation linked to the German Greens. (I’d spoken myself at their headquarters one time in Berlin.) But now I was about to turn over another stone! A cursory look on twitter quickly turns up that Foundation’s Middle East communications person tweeting about Tim Anderson, a longstanding critic in relation to The Dirty War on Syria, and lecturer at Sidney University:

“When will @sydney_uni finally end this producer of #FakeNews contract? Smearing of civilians, pretending #Assad doesn’t use gas.”

Wow! She attacks a man’s reputation, campaigns for him to lose his job, and challenges academic freedom, while also asserting an unproven claim as if it were truth, all within 140 characters. I can see how she got the job as communications head.

Moving on from this inter-media filler of German precision we will shortly come to meet one with American pizzazz. But first there is some backstory to fill in, starting with some words of clarification.

I hope it was clear, when I a moment ago implied a certain admiration for the skills of the propagandist just mentioned, that I am not approving of what she uses them for. I should have been clearer on this score when giving credit to Bellingcat in a post last week. In order to establish that my engagement with him would follow academic norms, I exaggerated the courtesies.[3] This caused some genuine consternation amongst readers, given the awareness many have of Bellingcat’s role in the propagation of the US-UK narrative. A few individuals were so outraged that they launched a forceful public criticism at me.[4] Since the last thing I want to do is mislead people I revised the blog, stripping out the confusing niceties, in order to bring attention back to its actual point. I had already apologised.

That incident taught me a few things. One is that writing in public, unlike in academia, means being aware of a potentially wide readership, with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. So I should take more care to say only what I mean. Something else I learned, though, is what wonderful people there are who share the kinds of concern that I’m working through in these posts. Many people who I had already instinctively felt trust in revealed a depth of solidarity and integrity that is simply humbling. I really want to thank you all for your words of support. Thank you, also, for urging everyone to settle any differences like friends.

Like friends. That this expression comes so spontaneously to mind is my most important lesson.[5] There is actually a group of friends who are bound by a few simple ties: a desire that what we learn about the world is the truth; a conviction that whatever pressures of life may drive human beings into conflict with one another, we should do everything in our power to deal with them without being pushed into wars. Our power may not be great as individuals, but we all partake of a power that is ultimately indomitable. As embodied creatures of this real world we have evolved with a deep commitment to pursuing truth. If our ancestors could not discern the difference between a snake and a stick, we would not be here. If we were not able to make correct judgements about myriad things every moment of our waking life, aware of it or not, we would not survive long. We have an instinct for seeking true knowledge. We are predisposed towards it. To those who want to obscure it, we will seem like partisans for the truth.

With this in mind, I return to the American intervention on my twitter feed this week. The twitter storm provoked by my being too polite to Bellingcat had been watched with some amusement by Higgins himself and some of his friends. Here is one of them:

trouble-in-paradise-e1500653132802.jpg

I have anonymised this because, like the first tweet I quoted above, it comes from a person who works at a UK University. I highlight it not because I personally mind being grouped with the majority of people living in Syria who prefer their legitimate government to the murderous bands of foreign-backed sectarians attacking it. But it is intended as a smear, and for the sake of people who want to engage in constructive and serious debate, I shall stand up to this practice of the inter-media brigade of attacking any and every attempt at actual public debate about the truth in Syria (or, indeed, in many other places). If they want to behave like rude trolls, they’d best keep a respectful distance from academia when they do it. That is a message I would encourage them to embrace.

I don’t believe the public want to think their own or their children’s university education is entrusted to people who think it is appropriate public conduct to come out with productions like the follow up to that tweet. For in lieu of the requested apology from the waggish twitterer, there ensued a series of tweets including this flourish of creativity:

"Show Trial"

The inter-media brigade may think this is a bit of fun, a change from straight up abuse and intimidation (and from unreasoned dismissals such as we find with Padraig Reidy calling Piers Robinson’s piece in openDemocracy ‘disgraceful’ apparently because Piers has elsewhere defended Russia Today against irrational attacks). But I ask them, very seriously, what actually is there to be having fun about? Those who promote propaganda that has real consequences for real people should man up, and grow up, and own what they do.

Frankly, none of this should need saying, and I am not paid to be spending valuable time dealing with it. So to them I leave it at this: Meet us in an academic forum or on a public platform where norms of civil debate apply. You cannot have it both ways: you cannot go bruising it around the internet just making ad hominem slurs while also staking an implicit claim to academic backing.

As for friendly and open readers, especially beyond academia, I have this to say.  If in resisting propaganda you get called partisans, then let it be so. We are partisans for the truth. And resistance will work.  Perhaps the truth is ‘rarely pure and never simple’, but it is much less high-maintenance than the wall of misinformation that the inter-media team are perpetually trying to patch up, and it will out. Meanwhile, the resistance is growing.

And finally, just to illustrate the difference between the alternative reality and the world we live in, I leave you with a video released this week by the amazing journalist from Aleppo, Khaled Iskef. He shows us around the neighbourhood in Aleppo where the little Syrian girl called Bana actually lived, there alongside the HQs of the armed brigades whose men, alone, were able to make or send images from the place. You then get an idea of how the child used in the propaganda may have a true call on our human sympathies.

 

[1] I am willing to use the seemingly hyperbolic term ‘infinitely’ because the truth will be what it is forever, without any input from anyone, whereas a lie becomes increasingly high maintenance in the face of simple questioning. It is endlessly difficult to maintain the back story, and then the back story’s story, and so on, until the effort required to avoid self-contadiction simply becomes too much and the simple truth just comes out again, like a plant through cracked tarmac. That is why the propaganda campaign needs to be so vast and long term. It is a gargantuan feat that we only see the tip of. We see the movie, we don’t see the entire production process.

[2] A twitter contact, by way of answer, informed me that the ‘Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung was used by the CIA to influence culture in Europe. The financing was made via Ford Foundation’.  She sent me this video link (in German).  I have not investigated so I make no comment myself. A look at a longer sweep of tweets from the foundation’s spokesperson for Syria does reveal a pattern sufficiently familiar to anglophone inter-media agencies to warrant mentioning a possible concern here, but I emphasise the caveat that her twitter profile makes the disclaimer “Tweets my own”.

[3] In giving credit for his geolocation skills and responsiveness to my inquiries (which I’ve learned does not reflect everyone’s experience) I frankly laid it on too thick. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would think I misunderstood the nature of his operation, but that was my mistake. Notwithstanding my apologies, I can see my critics were justified in residual anger on the grounds that there would be readers at earlier stages of learning who could take it at face value. How much it then helped that those critics themselves proceeded to extract and broadcast precisely that misleading message, as if it really were my message to the world, I can only leave them to consider.

[4] I haven’t seen it myself, having opted out of interactions with its author and the initial instigator once it became evident they hadn’t accepted my apology. There have been replies on my behalf, and I also haven’t been reading these, but one was copied to me by a mutual friend on Facebook and I reproduce it below. One can tell from reading it that the debate had got heated, and such a forceful response needs to be seen in that context. Thank you, John Schoneboom, for your eloquent words:

Schoneboom on me on bellingcat

[5] The people I owe thanks to are far more than I shall even try to mention, but there is one person I do want to thank by name. Like Eva, she gets subjected to vast amounts of abuse for reporting a counter-narrative from Syria. Also like Eva, she is more than strong enough to take it. But frankly, she shouldn’t have to, certainly not from anyone associated with a UK university. Vanessa Beeley, I believe, has done more good for the prospects of ordinary people living in Syria than any of her trolls and detractors. If anybody in academia says I am wrong about this, I am ready to listen, but let them speak in terms that meet the standards of academic discussion.

 

Khaled & Bana

Amidst a cluster of (former) terrorist HQs.

Posted in Channel 4, disinformation, film, inter-media, journalism, media, MSF, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | Leave a comment

More about Bana

I wept. During the previous fifteen minutes the video camera had shown us around the neighbourhood of rubble and damaged buildings on Bana’s block. About twenty different HQs of militant groups had been identified in that small space.

Interviews with residents, ordinary decent men who had been through a lot, answered questions about what it had been like there during the occupation. Arbitrary detention and beatings, if not worse, was what you’d expect if you tried to raise any concerns about amenities with the warlords in charge of the district. When the interviewees were asked did they take videos or photos of the area at the time, they looked askance. It had been strictly prohibited to anyone other than members of the terrorist groups to take any sort of photo or video.  You could see from their faces that they would not have been about to go against prohibitions.  Did they know a little girl called Bana? They didn’t seem to.

But as the camera roved around it captured scenes and camera angles that reproduce images and films we’d seen before.  And, at a certain point, towards the conclusion of this episode of his exploration, Khaled Iskef slowly walks to us in a familiar looking scene; and then the film cuts to a recording of the little girl coming towards us in that exact same place. At that moment, and even thinking about it now it happens again, I wept.

We are now seeing what the real life was for Bana.  May she be allowed to grow up now in peace. My heart goes out to that poor child.

Perhaps one day she may return to Aleppo.  There was no #holocaust aleppo, no massacre, once the government regained control of the area. The fighters left, and people began trying to rebuild lives.

I shall leave you with a picture of Aleppo from this summer. This is where Bana might have been playing right now, with her friends, if the rest of the world had left her country alone.

But first I want to thank Khaled Iskef – for your courage and dedication in the service of Syria and humans, everywhere. (The video is available on Facebook or Youtube.)

 

ddbdkgsw0aaz_ic

Photo from Syria Daily, 23 June 2017 @Syria_Daily

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

On Bellingcat, Truth, and War (revised)

This is a revised version of the original post.

Bellingcat has a difficult job. For those who don’t know, it is “to set the record straight” when US-UK foreign policy is challenged on the truthfulness of its factual premises. The difficulty lies in trying to sustain a reputation for reliable and truthful analysis at the same time. For facts are recalcitrant. They can only ever be spun for so long until a misleading narrative, the effort of maintaining it spent, subsides into acquiescence with the truth.

The founder of Bellingcat is Eliot Higgins. As well as leading the team at Bellingcat and being a Senior Fellow in research at Atlantic Council Higgins is Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London, a leading UK university. This provides Bellingcat a particular source of credibility it could not otherwise claim to have.

It also makes Higgins an academic colleague of people like myself and Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who has done considerable research on how propaganda about war has come to permeate our media, including a recently published analysis of how we were misled about Iraq.

(We do not get to pick and choose all our colleagues, of course, nor will we agree with all of them, or necessarily rate their work, even though we will treat them courteously.[1])

What binds the academic community is a commitment to discovering and disseminating truths about the world through credible sources of reason and evidence. To contravene those standards is to bring one’s profession and university into disrepute. Engaging in deliberate practices of disinformation risks doing that.

With this in mind, and with Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University I put a question to Higgins via Twitter. It was a simple question about whether the UK Government could actually rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun. Higgins was brought to admit, thanks to some careful supplementary questioning by Professor Piers Robinson that he could not. He accepted on behalf of Bellingcat that if the UK Government suggested the opposition in Syria had no access to sarin, then that was merely an opinion.

Bellingcat’s admission was duly noted by the journalist Peter Hitchens, the famously independent-minded and highly experienced journalist who had also been party to the Twitter conversation, having that same day published a piece in the Mail on Sunday (found half way down the page here) urging caution (as I had previously) about rushing to judgement concerning the Khan Sheikhoun incident. The next week after the Twitter exchange Hitchens was to write an even more powerful article. Its careful critical analysis of the OPCW report demonstrated the severe weaknesses of its evidentiary base, and he foregrounded the fact that the UK Government opinion was merely an opinion.

The government, of course, has opinions on many things that are not shared by all reasonable people. So we should not allow any rush to judgment about who was responsible for the incident on the basis of the UK statement relayed by Ambassador Adams. Aside from the many other reasons to be very cautious, there are good reasons to be critically alert on the specific matter of access to the chemicals analysed. There are abundant reports, analyses, testimonies and videos available from a variety of sources over the past five years that present at least circumstantial evidence, and potentially more than that, to suggest opposition access to the relevant chemicals. In fact, at times, there have been very grave concerns on the part of our governments’ intelligence agencies about the potential threat from opposition terrorists bringing chemical weapons back to our own lands. In the note beneath the text of this article I include links to some of those sources.[2]

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. This is a compelling reason for us to fight for truth to prevent war, as urgently and as long as we can.

Some people have fought for the truth at the cost of their lives. Such a person is Serena Shim.

If you have not heard of Serena Shim, that will not be surprising, given the priorities of our media, but I would recommend that you take at least a moment to find out something about the witness she was bearing to events in and around Syria. I wish here to honour her memory. Shortly before her untimely and unsatisfactorily explained death in 2014, she filed a report that was particularly germane to the question about the Syrian opposition and chemical weapons.

 

[1] In the original post I tried to be super polite to someone I am fundamentally critical of. In my choice of words I evidently over-compensated and conveyed a very misleading impression to some readers. Twitter went a bit berserk, even though both Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett intervened at a very early stage to urge some individuals to calm down. Higgins himself came along to have a laugh at a certain point, and the whole situation became ludicrous. I had not actually been under any illusions about Higgins or Bellingcat; but I evidently had been about some other people! Still, the vast majority of readers, even if they were a bit perplexed by my original tone, were either understanding or prepared to give the benefit of the doubt in light of everything else I have ever published. I thank you for this.

[2] This is just a small selection that I had readily to hand. There are very many more out there, and if readers mention others in the comments over the next week or so, I shall consolidate them into this list. Meanwhile, thanks go to all who have already sent links, including Qoppa

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/charles-shoebridge/syria-chemical-weapons-us_b_3443185.html

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/sarin-gas-materials-sent-to-isis-from-turkey-claims-mp-eren-erdem-34286662.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10039672/UN-accuses-Syrian-rebels-of-chemical-weapons-use.html

http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSBRE94409Z20130505

http://brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/responses-to-final-un-report-into-use_14.html

http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Alleged_Chemical_Attack_Khan_Sheikhoun_4_April_2017

 

 

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Serena Shim (born USA 1985 – died Turkey 2014)

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

We need to talk about #Bana

Bana is safe now in Turkey, and my dearest wish for her is that she be able to lead a peaceful and happy life. I hope her parents can make that possible.  In this piece I shall not be referring to a little Syrian girl, now 8 and settled in a new country. For her, my heart desires nothing but good things.

I shall be speaking of the internet phenomenon @AlabedBana and of the adults responsible for creating it. To speak of family members is unavoidable.

To start with a simple and quite obvious fact: the @AlabedBana Twitter account was not initiated or run by a 7 year old girl from Aleppo, even if one was used as its living avatar. Some intuitively doubtful elements of the tale – that were defended against ‘conspiracy theorists’ by the corporate media and its penumbra of disinformationists – can now be demonstrated. For since the fighting stopped in Aleppo, some verifiable truth about people, places and events there during the time of the occupation and siege has been coming out. It differs in many ways from what we were encouraged to believe by the massed corporate media of the world. The twitter account @AlabedBana is one conspicuous example. Another is the image of the little boy Omran, who we’ll return to at the end.

What I am going on to write here involves no in-depth research or analysis on my part. That has been done by Khaled Iskif, a journalist from Aleppo. (I commend his video about @AlabedBana and other videos covering previously unrecorded aspects of the situation in Aleppo. He regularly adds videos to his Youtube channel) He lives in the Western part of town that was protected by the government while the Eastern part was held hostage. He is now able to go across and track down various locations that have become familiar to us from the video reports earlier transmitted via the Aleppo Media Center (in Turkey) and onward through the world’s corporate media.

In this latest video, Khaled takes us on a short walk around the Alabed house and environs, accompanied by Nour Al Ali doing the filming and photography. They show us into the Alabed house, and then into the Al Nusra headquarters adjacent to it.

The proximity of the house to the Al Nusra headquarters is demonstrated – each a few meters from a shared street corner. This explains why the house was in an area being bombed. About 100 men were quartered in the basement of the adjacent building, according to a local witness interviewed.

We learn about the Alabed family. The paternal grandfather was running a weapons dealership and repair workshop for Al Nusra and other militant groups; his sons worked there; one of them had served a criminal sentence, even before the war, for gun smuggling; and we are shown a photo of the now famous granddaughter at about 3 years posing with a serious-looking weapon that is as big as her.

Her father Ghassan worked as a lawyer, before joining the armed groups. We see photos of Ghassan, armed, with the militant factions Al Nusra and the Islamic Safwat Brigade. We see documents showing he served in the Sharia Court based in the ‘Eye Hospital’. Admidst other papers strewn about the abandoned house is one that indicates he was ‘assistant director of the Civil Registry of Aleppo Council’ – a “rebel” organisation with links to foreign states and armed groups in the governorate. Another document shows he worked as a military trainer and investigating judge for the Islamic Safwa brigades. Prior to 2015 he had been working with ISIS in the Sharia court in the Eye Hospital. We see a photo of him brandishing an AK47 beneath an ISIS flag; and another of him in the midst of an armed Asafwa group. We see him with four brothers, each holding a serious weapon, outside the store.

Also lying around is a dog-eared piece of paper with one of Bana’s famous #StandWithAleppo messages on.

Outside, and a few steps just around the corner, we are taken into the basement. We are now inside the headquarters of Al Nusra. There we see rolled militant flags, Turkish supplies, and a prison.

On this and the other videos there is much more to see. So I recommend them. They don’t have the slick production values of Channel 4 and the other corporate media outlets. What they do offer is honest and dispassionate testimony.   Or as dispassionate as a participant observer can be under the circumstances.

As a resident of Aleppo, Khaled is visibly affected by the whole situation. He expresses something close to despair about “the exploitation of children in politically motivated attempts to distort the image of his government.” His fellow citizens in that part of town have confirmed on the video that they had been human shields for the militants.

Khaled also has a word about the little boy Omran who, photographed in the orange-seated ambulance, was another major media sensation in the West. We meet Omran today in videos with Khaled (and others, like this and this). He is in Aleppo, back in his original home, not Turkey. He was thrust into the world’s media spotlight against his family’s wishes. His family is glad Aleppo was liberated from the likes of those that made the propaganda for #Bana.

 

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Posted in journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

On Bellingcat, Truth and War

Because this post generated some misunderstanding I have replaced it with a revised version.  I leave here readers’ comments to the original post.

 

 

 

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 19 Comments

How like sarin is a sarin-like substance?

The OPCW has analysed samples from Khan Sheikhoun in April containing what they have identified as ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’. They know that much, even if they are not sure how it got there or who is responsible.

But how much actually is that? Throughout the OPCW report we find the cumbersome expression sarin or a sarin-like substance.  Why not just sarin, pure and simple?

All a non-chemist like me can understand from this is that we are dealing with some nasty stuff, but there is no definite confirmation it is sarin pure and simple. Of course, a non-chemist also has no idea how impure a sample or how different a molecule would need to be to count as merely of a substance like sarin; nor would we know how much more impure or different it could be before becoming unlike sarin.  So we non-chemists could easily be bamboozled in these matters.

One thing we do know is that the sarin the Syrian government produced and gave up for destruction in 2013 was referred to by all concerned as sarin, pure and simple. To produce sarin with military grade purity is not easy.  To produce improvised versions, however, is within the capacity of insurgents in Syria.

Given that there are already open questions about motive, means and opportunity, as I indicated in my previous blog, then if there is doubt about even the weapon as well, the case for blaming Assad looks decidedly uncertain. In fact, regarding the weapon, as I mentioned in the blog before last, the OPCW could not ascertain the method of delivery or therefore the ‘hardware’ used. So it becomes crucial for those who would prosecute a case against Assad to say that the chemical was one the opposition could not have had access to.  So crucial has it become that the UK’s Ambassador Adams has said it: ‘There is no evidence to suggest that any party to the conflict in Syria, other than the Syrian Government, has access to a complex nerve agent such as sarin.’

Still, just saying it does not make it true if the report you are relying on does not say it is true. And – it bears repeating – the OPCW does not say anything that clearly rules out the possibility of opposition responsibility for the incident.

It bears repeating because to accept the unsubstantiated claim as a pretext for sending more bombs, death and destruction against the people of Syria would be a heinous act. Anybody who pronounces on the matter without striving to be scrupulously honest and clear about what they are saying will be complicit in that act.

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Posted in disinformation, journalism, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 9 Comments