Chapter 7: An Online Echo System

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The information war over Syria was fought mainly on the internet. The explosion of social media during the previous few years meant almost anyone with the inclination could become a citizen journalist. Setting up a website was cheap and easy, and home-made videos could be posted on YouTube to compete for viewers alongside well-known TV stations. Amid the resulting cacophony of information, misinformation, disinformation and outlandish opinions a loose network of “alternative” websites — all seemingly independent but all broadly supportive of the Assad regime — promoted contrarian views of the chemical attacks in Syria. They worked separately to some extent but also collaborated, sometimes re-posting each other’s articles and often drawing on the same pool of writers.

A more detailed picture of this network can be gleaned through the work of Vanessa Beeley whose misleading reports from Syria were much celebrated in “alternative” circles on social media. Internet searches reveal a couple of hundred items posted under Beeley’s byline between 2015 and 2021, mostly articles and video interviews about Syria spread across more than 20 websites. Some appeared on more than one website and some had more than one author.

Beeley was Associate Editor at 21st Century Wire, a website that promoted a variety of conspiracy theories. It published 47 items under her name, but her most often-used outlet was Global Research, a Canadian website which published 90 items. Founded in 2001, Global Research had first attracted attention by claiming the CIA was behind the events of 9/11. According to the Toronto-based Globe and Mail the website was initially dismissed as “a relatively harmless online refuge for conspiracy theorists” but by 2017 information warfare specialists at Nato’s StratCom had begun to see it as part of “a concerted effort” to undermine the credibility of mainstream media and erode trust in governments and public institutions. StratCom identified it as “a key accelerant” in circulating false stories that happened to fit narratives being pushed by Russia and Syria. In the view of StratCom’s researchers, Global Research was part of a network that sought to improve the Google ranking of these stories through re-posting and thus “create the illusion of multisource verification”.

Some of the network’s narratives were also picked up and re-circulated by Russian and Iranian state-controlled media, though Beeley’s direct contributions in that area were relatively modest compared to the volume of her work published at Global Research, with only 26 items listed under her name at RT and ten at Sputnik News.

Beeley was also listed (on her own or jointly with others) as a contributor to 44 items for the American Herald Tribune, a website which sounded like a mainstream news organisation but wasn’t. Items with Beeley’s name on them included “White Helmets Use Covid-19 Crisis to Further US Coalition Regime Change Agenda in Syria”, “Did Paedophile Jeffrey Epstein Work for Mossad?” and “Macron Adopts Totalitarian State-Practices to Suppress Dissent”. The actual articles can no longer be read, however. The American Herald Tribune was shut down in November 2020 when the US Department of Justice seized its internet domain name, along with 26 others, on the grounds that it was a front for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Mint Press News

Based in Minnesota, Mint Press was established in 2012 by Mnar Muhawesh who was then still in her mid-twenties. She had previously studied broadcast journalism at university and worked for a local TV station in Minneapolis. In the beginning her website had ample funding — it employed six full-time staff while seeking to recruit more — and she talked optimistically of running it at a profit. The initial investment, she said, had come from “retired businesspeople”, though she declined to name them. The Mint Press company was registered in her name, though an email address and phone number given on the registration form were those of her father-in-law, Odeh Muhawesh, a substantial Minnesota businessman.

Jordanian-born Odeh was known in religious circles as “Sheikh” Odeh. During the 1980s he had spent five years in Iran, studying in the holy city of Qom. In the United States, aside from his business activities, he gave lectures on Islam, took part in inter-faith dialogues, and was an adjunct professor in the theology department at St Thomas University in Minnesota. He had no formal role at the Mint Press website but appeared to be acting as an adviser. He visited the office once a week and in the spring of 2013 staff were summoned to hear him give an hour-long talk on his political predictions for Syria, according to Joey LeMay, a former employee. LeMay had been enticed to join Mint Press with the offer of a reporting job but it turned out to be mostly desk work. “We weren’t out gathering the stories,” he told BuzzFeed News. It was usually a matter of putting a “Mint Press spin” on stories already reported by others.

The only time Mint Press made much impact (though for the wrong reasons) was in 2013, a few days after the sarin attack on Ghouta, when it reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons but neglected to tell the rebels what they were or how to use them. As a result, according to the sources, the rebels had handled the weapons “improperly”, accidentally causing mass deaths in Ghouta on August 21.

The story appeared to be based on rumours circulating in Damascus at the time and there was no real evidence to support it. Saudi Arabia was not known to have chemical weapons and the idea that it would supply them to rebels without instructions for use was highly implausible. Nevertheless, in an email to staff before publication, Mnar Muhawesh hailed the story as a scoop and it appeared on the Mint Press website with an “Exclusive” tag (plus a note at the end saying “Some information in this article could not be independently verified”). Other “alternative” websites excitedly took up the story, as did Russian, Iranian and Syrian state media. Russia later complained that UN investigators had failed to take the claims seriously.

Mint Press’s scoop had been published under the names of two writers, Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh, but three weeks after it appeared Gavlak, who was a regular freelance correspondent for the Associated Press, issued a statement denying she was an “author” of the story: “I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based.” Mint Press refused to remove her byline, saying she had “assisted in the research and writing process” but that her co-author, Ababneh, “was the correspondent on the ground”.

A biographical note attached to the Mint Press article described Ababneh as “a Jordanian freelance journalist … currently working on a master’s degree in journalism”. It continued: “He has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Libya. His stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News and elsewhere.” However, Google searches in Arabic and English failed to locate any articles published under his name apart from the one for Mint Press [ 1].

Amid the ensuing controversy several of Mint Press’s journalists were uncomfortable about its handling of the story. When one of them told Mnar Muhawesh he was “getting flak from people” and wanted to know how to respond, she assured him: “Don’t worry about anything … This is a storm that will pass, and the truth will shine.” Her father-in-law, Odeh, viewed the storm with similar equanimity, writing in an email: “In every story, each side will have advocates. In this story MPN [Mint Press News] and every one its current staff will have the world on their side, while the other side will look like the bullies they are.”

Mint Press’s initially-generous funding appears to have shrunk considerably shortly afterwards. Its office closed in 2014 and from then on the only way of contacting it was through a mailbox address or email. It encouraged regular donations from the public via Patreon and had occasional crowdfunding appeals. One of them, in 2018, had a target of $26,000 and was oversubscribed by $15,000.

In 2015 and 2016 Beeley wrote several articles for Crescent International, an Iranian-linked Muslim website where the byline photo showed her wearing hijab. Crescent said its editorial policy included support for Iran’s “God-conscious and moral leadership”, since Iran had “the only working Islamic state system that is truly independent of Zionism and imperialism”. One of Beeley’s contributions was about Nigeria, claiming that the Boko Haram jihadists there were “just another US terrorist brand”. Boko Haram, she wrote, “is effectively another terrorist trade name, brought into existence to destabilise a region that is daring to jailbreak from US colonialism and to explore alternative bilateral trade pathways that deviate from the US regional ‘road maps’.”

Other outlets for Beeley’s work included The Alt World, Arrêt sur Info (Switzerland), Australian National Review, BS News, The Corbett Report, Dissident Voice, Nexus Newsfeed, Ron Paul Institute, UK Column, Unlimited Hangout, Veterans Today, and Zero Hedge.

Awards galore

Beyond that, the award’s website gave no details of the nomination process, who the judges were, or how “uncompromised integrity” was assessed. The selection criteria became more apparent, however, from a look at the list of previous winners — of whom there were more than 40. Some were advocates for conspiracy theories, while numerous others were prominent defenders of the Assad regime.

The first person to receive a Serena Shim Award was Eva Bartlett, followed later by Vanessa Beeley. Besides Mint Press, prize-winning websites included Consortium News which disputed the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and The Grayzone which accused OPCW investigators of a cover-up. Individual recipients included Caitlin Johnstone, an Australian blogger who supported “false flag” theories about the chemical attacks, historian/journalist Gareth Porter who was a board member of Consortium News; Whitney Webb, a Mint Press contributor; and three of The Grayzone’s staff — Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton and Aaron Maté. One especially odd inclusion was Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria who described the White Helmets as “ jihadi auxiliaries” and said there was a “ mountain of evidence “ pointing to a fabricated chemical attack in Douma. Although Ford had written a few articles and given interviews he wasn’t really a journalist but more notably he was a director of the British Syrian Society — headed by Fawaz Akhras, President Assad’s father-in-law.

The Serena Shim awards came with a cash prize. The amount was not normally disclosed, though one winner revealed she had been given $5,000. If that was repeated for all recipients it would mean the organisers had handed out a total of $200,000 by the end of 2020.

The ultimate source of the prize money was a mystery and no one admitted to organising the awards but there were clear links to an obscure organisation based in California: the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees (AIPAC). Its name was designed to taunt Israel’s supporters by having the same initials as a much more prominent organisation — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The president of this less-known “AIPAC” was Kamal Obeid, a structural engineer and an active supporter of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth which promoted a conspiracy theory that the World Trade Center had collapsed in a “controlled explosion”. He was featured in several videos disputing the generally-accepted version of events.

The secretary and treasurer of “AIPAC” was Paul Larudee, proprietor of a piano-tuning business in California called Sharpe & Flatte. Aside from that, though, his main interest was Palestine — and he was a well-known activist of long standing. He had helped to establish the Free Gaza Movement which used boats to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian enclave, and he spent 10 years running the Northern California branch of the International Solidarity Movement.

Not surprisingly, his views on Israel had embroiled him in controversy but some of his activities embarrassed supporters of the Palestinian cause too. Larudee had appeared numerous times on Iran’s PressTV and in 2014 he travelled to Syria with a delegation of “independent” observers for the presidential election. They described it as “the legitimate, democratic expression of the Syrian people” — even though it was generally seen as a sham. Larudee later took part in a second delegation which was equally enthusiastic about the 2021 election.

“AIPAC” had been registered in the US as a tax-exempt non-profit organisation and it provided “fiscal sponsorship” for the Serena Shim awards together with several activist groups. It had been assigned a EIN number by the US tax authorities which was used in connection with fundraising by all the groups under its tax umbrella, and each year “AIPAC” submitted a combined return to the Internal Revenue Service on their behalf.

“AIPAC” was not very forthcoming about the groups it was sponsoring. An unhelpful note on its single-page website said: “We invite inquiries, but will not provide a list of sponsored projects beyond what we have described herein, except with the permission of the projects themselves, and only after a vetting procedure” [italics added].

Vetting aside, however, there were six projects that could be easily identified through an internet search for the “AIPAC” EIN number. Four were connected with Palestine: the International Solidarity Movement, the Free Palestine Movement, North America Nakba Tour and Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund. The other two were the Serena Shim awards and the Syria Solidarity Movement (and by an interesting coincidence their websites had the same IP address as the “AIPAC” website).

The Syria Solidarity Movement (SSM) was a pro-Assad group established in 2013. Serena Shim award winner Eva Bartlett was one of its founders and she was later joined on its steering committee by Vanessa Beeley, another Shim laureate. SSM’s first project was to organise a speaking tour of North America by Mother Agnes, the Syria-based nun who claimed that videos of bodies from the Ghouta nerve agent attack had been faked. In 2017, on behalf of the Syria Solidarity Movement, “AIPAC” paid Ohio politician Dennis Kucinich $20,000 to attend a pro-Assad conference in Britain and give a speech there.

SSM was also an organiser of the 2014 and 2021 election “observer” missions to Syria in which Larudee took part. On the second occasion they were joined by Aaron Maté, a Serena Shim award-winning journalist from the Serena Shim award-winning Grayzone website, though Maté didn’t sign their statement praising the election.

Public records showed that funding from donors channelled through “AIPAC” averaged $165,000 a year between 2012 and the end of 2018. The sources of funding were not identified by name and since the published accounts gave combined figures for all groups under the “AIPAC” umbrella it was not possible to see how much income or expenditure related to any particular group.

There was no mention of these sponsored groups in annual returns submitted by “AIPAC” to the Internal Revenue Service. In a section of the form which asked for a description of its activities, “AIPAC” said: “We are an all volunteer membership organisation established to help our community, regardless of religion, race or political beliefs, be aware of international human rights and social justice issues that are key to sustainable world peace.” Elsewhere on the form, “AIPAC” said it “arranges and conducts educational and informational programs relating to human rights and social justice, particularly in the Middle East”.

In 2018, according to the most recent annual return available, “AIPAC” received $197,000 and spent $176,000. General expenses and running costs accounted for $104,000 — including a whopping $45,000 listed under “travel”. Just under $72,000 was paid out in the form of grants.

Of the grant money, $26,869 was spent outside the United States. A sum of $14,999 was sent to two recipients in Syria for “research/publishing” and a further $2,500 to Britain, also for “research/publishing”. In addition, the 2018 accounts showed two payments relating to Palestine: one of $7,370 for “human rights” work and $2,000 described as humanitarian aid. Inside the US, the accounts showed a $5,000 payment to a company in Washington state called Onward and Upward, for “research and reporting”.

However, more than half the total grant money went to three recipients listed among winners of the Serena Shim award: $10,000 to Mint Press News, $10,000 to Gareth Porter, and $20,000 to Max Blumenthal.

Disinformation techniques

The network was sometimes referred to as a media ecosystem, though “echo system” was probably a better description. It sought to counter the loud voice of mass media with a mass of small media which individually had little influence but, acting together, could spread their message through constant repetition. Research had shown that the more often information was repeated the more likely people were to believe it — even if it had been shown to be false. According to one study, “as false claims are repeated, they become more familiar and thus may come to seem more true to people”. There was also evidence that repeating false claims in order to disprove them could have a similar effect, reinforcing belief in the original falsehood.

Using multiple channels in the online echo system to disseminate false or unverified claims also helped to make them seem more believable. Publishing on more than one website not only broadened the potential audience but created an impression that the claim had a substantial body of support. Russia had previously used the same technique with some success, notably in connection with Ukraine, and it became known as the “ fire-hose of falsehood “ — characterised by “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions”.

Twitter was an essential tool to keep the echo system alive and echoing, and repetition was key there too. Claims that had been long since debunked were constantly revived on Twitter and recycled regardless. One tale that never faded away was the Wesley Clark anecdote from 2001, still being circulated as evidence of current US military intentions two decades later. Meanwhile, Piers Robinson of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media had a habit of retweeting his old tweets when he had nothing new to say.

Other common tactics on Twitter followed the “ Four Ds “ propaganda principle: dismiss, distort, distract and dismay.

Those who blamed the Assad regime for chemical attacks were dismissed as “warmongers” and journalists who refused to blame rebels for them were dubbed “stenographers” — thoughtlessly regurgitating what western governments told them. The general idea was that no rational person would blame Assad unless they were being paid to do so or had connections with the CIA, MI6, al-Qaeda, IS, the Mossad or George Soros, the Jewish billionaire philanthropist.

On Twitter, where space was limited to 280 characters, shorthand terms developed for signalling approval or disapproval. Thus “regime change war” became a portmanteau phrase for denying the Syrian people’s grievances and blaming everything on the west. The significance of some of these terms might not have been immediately apparent to the uninitiated though they would be instantly recognised by believers. The initials “MSM” for example, were more than just an abbreviation for “mainstream media”. A study by Tom Wilson at the University of Washington found that in Twitter discourse on Syria “MSM” had become a term of disparagement, either on its own or combined in a phrase such as “MSM’s lies”. Wilson described it as “a label of disrespect, signifying disdain with the large media corporations and a distinct lack of trust in their reporting”.

Distortion was a central feature of the Assadist narrative and the level of distortion tended to increase as time went on: speculative claims gradually turned into statements of fact. The idea of faked chemical attacks, for example, had orginally been presented as a possibility deserving investigation but ended up being treated as something that was beyond dispute.

Distraction was a way of side-stepping awkward questions or uncomfortable facts by focusing on something else. Thus, discussion of the Assad regime’s atrocities could be cut short by raising examples from elsewhere rather than trying to refute them — “What about Vietnam?”, “What about Hiroshima?”, etc. This tactic was often referred to as “whataboutism”.

Distraction was a vital technique for “truther” movements because they needed to divert attention away from the evidence refuting their claims. Their solution was to avoid discussing the bigger picture by focusing on details — suggesting sinister explanations for small things that seemed puzzling or had not been fully explained. In Syria, for example, they paid much attention to photos and videos that they claimed were faked but ignored thousands of others where authenticity was not in doubt. Another form of distraction was to project criticisms back on to their critics. There were some who apparently saw no irony in appearing on Russian government-owned media and then accusing those who disagreed with them of being government stooges. Some even accused people of “covering up war crimes” if they blamed the regime, rather than rebels, for chemical attacks.

The fourth “D” — dismay — was in some ways the most insidious because it wasn’t purely about Syria. Even for people not convinced by the claims of rebel fakery, the the barrage of online disinformation, coupled with the message that lying and deception by western governments and mainstream media was normal, made it more difficult to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

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FOOTNOTE

[1] Ababneh turned out to be a Jordanian also known as Yan Barakat. He had written one article under that name for the Jerusalem Post. He said he was studying for a Master’s degree in journalism and was writing his dissertation on Iranian media coverage of the Arab Spring.

Originally published at https://al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.