Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is writing a book on the war of narratives over Syria.
With the world relapsing into old rivalries, disinformation is emerging as the continuation of war by other means. Propaganda has always been used by authoritarian states to control populations at home — but technological advances are allowing them to also neutralize enemies abroad. None has been more aggressive and resourceful in this regard than Russia. And nowhere has this weaponized information been more lethal than in its coverage of Syria — vividly exemplified by RT, the Kremlin’s international broadcaster.
There is a virtual consensus among multinational bodies and human rights organizations that together, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russia hold the balance of responsibility for the killing and displacement in Syria. But hewing to the official Kremlin line, RT has cast Assad as the victim, his opponents as jihadists and his repression as a “war on terror.” The aim is less to persuade than to obfuscate. RT doesn’t have to tell a credible or coherent story as long as it can cast doubt on competing ones.
“There is no objectivity,” says RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, “only approximations of the truth.” Complete objectivity is indeed unachievable — yet it is a standard to which most journalists aspire. RT’s innovation is to dispense with objectivity altogether and make approximation of the truth its aspiration. News doesn’t have to be true as long as it feels true — and with truth thus relativized, fact becomes one with alternative fact.
The first major challenge for RT in Syria came in August 2013, when a chemical attack on opposition enclaves killed about 1,400 civilians. The broadcaster quickly set the tone, dismissing accounts of the attack as “Saudi war propaganda.” In the following days, the coverage veered between blaming Saudi Arabia, Britain, Turkey and Israel to insisting that the “alleged chemical attack … had been fabricated” and the footage was “fraud.” RT’s source for the latter claim was Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a regime-affiliated Lebanese nun; the Committee to Protect Journalists had earlier mentioned her suspicious role in the death of French journalist Gilles Jacquier.
In keeping with the bizarre tone, RT’s American host Abby Martin invited Mimi al Laham — a pro-Assad YouTuber usually found on Alex Jones’s conspiratorial website Infowars — to argue that it would be a “grave mistake” for Assad to give up his chemical weapons. She next encouraged American actor Ed Asner to question the veracity of 9/11’s “official story” before letting him blame the chemical attack on Syrian rebels.
A day earlier, Putin had personally joined the fray with an op-ed in the New York Times in which he insisted that “there is every reason to believe [poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later revealed that the source of Putin’s certainty was a report by Mother Agnes. He also insisted that the claims had been borne out in an open letter to President Barack Obama by a group of former diplomats and spooks calling themselves Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). In fact, the letter had been plagiarized from an article posted five days earlier on the Canadian conspiracy site Global Research. Soon thereafter RT received the dubious honor of being punished by the British broadcasting regulator Ofcom after one of its programs (titled “The Truthseeker”) advanced a conspiracy theory that the BBC had staged a chemical attack to malign Assad.
RT took a similar approach to the brutal siege and bombing of eastern Aleppo last fall. Though Russia had entered the war ostensibly to fight the Islamic State, it had devoted most of its resources to fighting Assad’s opposition. Unable to dislodge eastern Aleppo’s recalcitrant population, it had taken to systematically bombing the city’s medical facilities. It also continued the regime’s strategy of targeting first responders, who were all declared to be “al Qaeda.” When the civilian volunteer group the White Helmets was subsequently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, this correspondingly posed a serious threat to Russia’s official narrative.
In over three years since their founding in early 2013, the White Helmets had received only one mention on RT. But after shocking footage emerged of the group rescuing a dazed 5-year-old from his bombed home in Aleppo, the Russians launched a furious campaign to discredit them. RT has since posted nearly 40 articles and videos attacking the White Helmets, recruiting such improbable figures for its campaign as a Bolivian soap star, an ex-editor for Jones’s Infowars and a blogger for the pro-Kremlin conspiracy site 21st Century Wire.
RT’s real coup, however, was a presentation at the United Nations by the “independent Canadian journalist” Eva Bartlett, in which she claimed that there were no White Helmets in Aleppo, that the White Helmets were terrorists, and that they recycled children in their rescue videos. RT’s “In the Now” edited out the more fatuous parts of her presentation and turned the video into a viral hit.
Bartlett, however, is no journalist. She is a contributor to conspiracy sites like SOTT.net, the Duran and Global Research. She wears an “I ♥ Bashar” bracelet and had recently returned from a regime-chaperoned tour of Aleppo. Her presentation was organized by the regime’s mission at the U.N. But despite the absurdity of her claims, the diffusion of the propaganda forced serious journalists to waste time debunking her.
RT’s coverage may seem shoddy, at times even comical, but it serves its propaganda function efficiently. Media failures over the Iraq War and the financial crisis have disenchanted audiences, making them cynical and distrustful. The cynicism, however, has made them credulous toward those who present themselves as critics of the “mainstream media” — even if they are the official broadcaster for the Kremlin. The same people who distrust everything on CNN or the BBC are often eager to believe all they see on RT — simply because it poses as “alternative” media.
But a lot of RT’s success lies beyond fact or reason — it lies in feelings, in a will to disbelieve. RT delivers affirmation, not information. Its conspiratorial worldview confirms prejudices rather than encouraging curiosity. It doesn’t question falsehoods to reveal truth; it does it to oppugn the very notion of truth. The Guardian has called this “weaponized relativism.” Syria offers an object lesson in its lethal effect where RT has successfully blurred the difference between victim and perpetrator. Should such inversions of truth become commonplace, the very possibility of justice will be erased. We ignore this at our own peril.