A report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that a claim that recent airstrikes in Syria were a “false flag” operation -- an operation that either didn't really occur or that were conducted by a party other than the Syrian government -- which went viral among the "alt-right" actually originated with a Syrian propaganda outlet that supports the current regime and spread to a series of pro-Kremlin conspiracy websites and fake news purveyors before being promoted by “alt-right” figures including Infowars’ Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich.
The report showed that key claims, quotes, and images that were initially reported by Al-Masdar, the outlet that supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, were used in reports on pro-Kremlin sites, fake news sites, and on Infowars.
In addition, the report noted that, after the "false flag" claim was promoted by Jones and Cernovich, Twitter accounts that appear to be bots accelerated the use of hashtags about the attack, which led to the hashtag #SyriaHoax going viral. The report concluded, “The Syrian regime’s reaction to the chemical attack is no surprise,” but “what is noteworthy is the way in which the regime’s response … was translated rapidly and directly into coverage on alt-right websites, most obviously Infowars.” From the report:
The chemical attack came at dawn, local time, on April 4. It was widely reported and provoked outrage and condemnation, triggering immediate calls for an investigation. Photographs and videos from the scene showed hideous images of dead children and footage of rescuers, including the White Helmets group, washing down victims.
The same day, website Al-Masdar News, which supports the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, published an article claiming that the story was a “false flag” operation.
Over the next two days, the al-Masdar piece was picked up by a number of pro-Kremlin and anti-Western sites.
It was reproduced verbatim by at least three conspiracy sites: globalresearch.ca, informationclearinghouse.info and The Lifeboat News. A number of pro-Kremlin sites known for their use of false reporting quoted it at length. These included The Duran and The Russophile (also known as Russia News Now), together with conspiracy site Investment Watch Blog.
A third group of sites wrote their own reports, but very largely followed the Al-Masdar arguments. These included 21st Century Wire and Before It’s News, both of which ran a video repeating the claims and using the same imagery.
The most influential pickup came on April 5, when US-based conspiracy site Infowars ran its version of the story. Infowars is a highly influential site among the “alt-right” movement in the US; its leading light, Alex Jones, has over 600,000 Twitter followers.
The Syrian regime’s reaction to the chemical attack is no surprise. It has consistently denied all accusations of atrocities, and accused its critics of false claims, as documented in the Atlantic Council’s report “Breaking Aleppo”.
What is noteworthy is the way in which the regime’s response, launched on a site which has repeatedly amplified Assad’s messaging, was translated rapidly and directly into coverage on alt-right websites, most obviously Infowars.
Conspiracy website Infowars and its proprietor, Alex Jones, have heavily praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months, with Jones previously bragging about praise from “top Putin advisers” and even Putin himself in regards to his pro-Trump coverage. Jones also claims to have “talked to folks very close to the president” about Trump’s Syria policy. Both Jones and Cernovich, a member of the so-called “alt-right,” have helped popularize numerous conspiracy theories, including the “Pizzagate” story that falsely claimed an underground child sex trafficking ring was run out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
In March, the FBI opened an investigation into Russian operatives’ use of “bots” to push pro-Trump news from far-right outlets to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and the Senate Intelligence Committee opened an investigation into Russia’s use of fake news to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Before It’s News, one of the pro-Trump propaganda outlets mentioned in the report, and a site that Media Matters has identified as a fake news purveyor, has denied any connection between Trump and the Russian government.
Graphics by The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab