As the Syrian army's operation to take back the city of Aleppo became a full-on siege over recent months, a 7-year-old girl named Bana al-Abed gave a voice to many civilians trapped in the city's rebel-held east. Aided by her English-teacher mother, Bana's Twitter account has been broadcasting scenes of daily life under the siege to what is now almost 300,000 followers.
As The Washington Post's Caitlin Gibson put it, Bana became “the Anne Frank of the Syrian civil war” — with the difference being that she was showing horrors in real time.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 2, 2016
However, in the online battle over alleged misinformation about Syria, Bana and her family soon became a target.
Online, critics asked how a 7-year-old was able to speak English so well or why her family still had power despite the frequent blackouts in Aleppo. In an interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suggested that her Twitter account was a “game” and “propaganda.” Anonymous online trolls soon attacked Bana and her mother, Fatemah, setting up fake accounts in an attempt to discredit and mock her.
The speculation about Bana quickly became so prevalent that it threatens to overshadow the account itself. In response, Bellingcat, a website dedicated to using open-source information and social media to aid investigations, decided to look into Bana's Twitter account — and found itself effectively fact-checking the life of a Syrian child.
The resulting investigation, written by former British army soldier Nick Waters with the aid of image analyst Timmi Allen, was published Wednesday afternoon. It offers an exhaustive look at the various aspects of Bana's life that her critics say don't add up; running to almost 3,000 words, with extensive use of pictures, maps and diagrams.
The article tackles many of the most popular theories about Bana.
She isn't really in Syria? Her videos posted on Periscope and Twitter quite clearly show her neighborhood, which can be geolocated using satellite imagery to east Aleppo. Her English is too good for a 7-year-old? Her account notes that her mother, an English speaker who has studied journalism, writes a majority of the tweets (many of which are clearly signed “Fatemah” or “Bana mom”) and helps her child with the rest. She shouldn't have electricity if she is living through a siege? The family has solar panels on their house that charge a battery used to power phones.
Waters and Allen were also able to find satellite imagery that supports the claims that Bana's family home was bombed on Nov. 27. They note that the neighborhood fell to the Syrian army Dec. 4, after which the account was temporarily deleted and has only posted sporadically afterward — probably as a result of legitimate concerns that the family could be targeted by forces loyal to Assad.
“By far the most likely scenario is that @AlabedBana is an account run by Fatemah which tells the story of her daughter, a young child in East Aleppo,” the Bellingcat authors conclude. While noting that there are obviously moments where the account has posted explicitly political and even rash messages, the attempts to discredit her “verged into the ludicrous.”
Speaking via email, Waters said the decision to launch an investigation came after they received a tip from a pro-Syrian government reader who thought the account may be fake. “We checked it out, and it became rapidly clear that not only was [Bana] real, but was the target of concerted and horrendous attacks by trolls,” he added. The investigation began in late November and took only four to five days, but its publication was delayed because of ethical concerns about showing where the family's home was.
The battle over Aleppo has prompted widespread claims of misinformation from both sides, in part a reflection of a broader global debate about “fake news” and bias. Even Bashar Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, fell into it this week after claiming that a photograph from Iraq actually showed government forces in Syria helping civilians.
It's hard to say whether the investigation will change anyone's minds. Bellingcat and its founder, Eliot Higgins, have already come under harassment from Russian activists for their investigation into the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Often, the critics have accused Bellingcat, a website largely devoted to refuting misinformation, of misinformation itself.
“I don't think it will change the minds of the trolls posting the horrendous comments about Bana,” Waters said. “But I think that we can influence those who know about Bana but are unsure about her veracity. Information warfare of the sort practiced by Russia doesn't require the imposition of a coherent narrative, but rather the undermining and delegitimization of all other narratives. We hope that by exposing the truth as openly as possible, we can put it beyond doubt.”
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