Deadly Disinformation: how online conspiracies about Syria cause real-world harm
Every day disinformation permeates into our lives, through campaigns designed to swing elections to Covid-19 conspiracies, and most recently via false claims about the war in Ukraine. But what impact does this online disinformation have in the real world and on real people?
Since Syrians took to the streets more than 11 years ago demanding freedom from decades of dictatorship, the Syrian regime has used violence and disinformation as tools to silence those who dare to oppose it, deploying especially vicious means against those who expose the regime’s ongoing war crimes against civilians.
White Helmets rescue a child from the remains of a bombed-out building. Credit: White Helmets
Civilians, doctors, humanitarians and human rights defenders have all faced real-life consequences of online harms, this report finds. Their experience is the deadly cost of disinformation.
Although there is a trove of evidence of torture, chemical weapons use, and the indiscriminate and targeted bombing of civilians, a relatively small number of conspiracy theorists – sometimes aided by a Russian-backed disinformation campaign, other times inspired by Russia’s disinformation talking points (see tweet below) – have managed to distort the facts, endanger people’s lives, and cast long shadows of doubt over policy debates on Syria; in some cases, stalling political action by the international community when it was sorely needed, interviewees for this report told us.
Policymakers we spoke to said that disinformation attacks on Syria have enabled anti-asylum policies, harassment and abuse of humanitarian workers and frontline responders, encouraged normalisation of the Assad regime, and emboldened Russian president Vladimir Putin to employ the same tactics in Ukraine.
Kafranbel's banners made the small town in Idlib famous for its satirical and heartbreaking messages to the world. Credit: Raed Fares, Union of Revolutionary Bureaus
Equally important, disinformation campaigns threaten to rewrite history and, in doing so, prevent true justice and accountability for Syrians. Disinformation hides and twists the truth; and without the truth, a peaceful future for Syria and its people will remain out of reach.
To uncover the human and political costs of the disinformation campaign around Syria, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and The Syria Campaign conducted the most comprehensive deep dive into Syrian disinformation to date.
ISD researchers identified 28 individuals, outlets, and organisations who have spread disinformation about the Syrian conflict. Using a list of 51 keywords and hashtags connected to Syria, ISD researchers were able to identify 47,000 tweets and 817 Facebook posts from these accounts creating or spreading disinformation on Syria between January 2015 and December 2021.
This content was shared directly with an audience of 3 million, 1.8 million of whom are unique followers. However, retweets of this content took its false messages even further – ISD’s research found the 19,000 original disinformation posts published by these actors were retweeted over 670,000 times.
The research team also conducted 29 interviews to uncover the impact disinformation has upon people and policies. We spoke to 12 individuals who have been consistently targeted by disinformation, 15 current and former policymakers on Syria, and two international policy experts.
As you will see some interviewees have chosen to be named, others to remain anonymous. To learn more about our research methodology, download the full report.
How Syria conspiracies spread
"Vanessa Beeley is a self-described independent journalist who said meeting Assad was her ""proudest moment"". Her conspiracy theories have been provided as evidence by Russia at the UN Security Council.
In 2015, most English-language disinformation posts on Syria in our research came from Beeley, but by 2017 a handful of other individuals were also spreading the same Kremlin talking points. Some of them are core creators of the conspiracy theories, joining regime-organised press trips once an area has been seized by Russian and Syrian troops, reporting their version of events.
Despite extensive video, documentary and witness evidence of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime, unfounded conspiracy theories still manage to find some support – not least among a group of British academics.
Since 2020, Aaron Maté at the Grayzone has overtaken Beeley as the most prolific creators and spreader of disinformation among the 28 actors we investigated. An article that he wrote for the Grayzone where he attacks Bellingcat for its contributions to the OPCW was the most shared link in our data set in both 2020 and 2021. He, like Beeley, also appeared at the UN at the invitation of Russia, where he attempted to defend the Syrian government against accusations of chemical weapons use.
Some celebrities have regurgitated the conspiracy theories about the White Helmets. This report finds that two of the most shared disinformative posts on Facebook were by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, the first claimed “the White Helmets probably murdered 34 women and children to dress the scene that sorry day in Douma” and the second is a harmful misreading of the OPCW report into the attack.
“The White Helmets are a fake organisation that exists only to create propaganda for the jihadists and terrorists.”
"Roger Waters, 13 April 2018, on stage at a Barcelona concert
A timeline of disinformation
Between January 2015 and December 2021 disinformation about Syria soared on Twitter. ISD’s research team collected 47,000 disinformation tweets on Syria posted by the 28 accounts investigated for this report during this time. Here you can see a breakdown of how many tweets they posted each year. Let’s take a closer look at the data…
Disinformation tweets by year
When you chart the volume of disinformation tweets collected for this report by year and month you can clearly see the spikes and lows of disinformation targeting Syrian humanitarians and human rights defenders on Twitter between 2015 and 2021. Unsurprisingly the spikes, which represent a mixture of topics and claims, often coincide with online moments and real-word events juxtaposed on the right. Let’s start with 2015…
The Syrian regime has used online attacks and disinformation from the beginning of the conflict, denying protests were taking place or making false claims about the revolution. However, 2015 marked Russia’s ramped up involvement in the conflict, which upped the stakes for humanitarians and human rights defenders on the frontline.
28 August. Vanessa Beeley attacks the White Helmets for posting pictures with kittens.
2 September. The death of Aylan Kurdi photographed lifeless on a beach in Turkey shocks the world and raises international concern over the crisis in Syria.
30 September. Russia's parliament grants Putin’s request to launch airstrikes in Syria.
"13 September. Beeley accuses White Helmets of being in league with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, claiming the footage they gather as they rescue civilians from bombed-out buildings is staged.
22 October. Carmen Ranieri becomes a frequent poster and retweeter alongside Beeley. They retweet claims the Ghouta Sarin gas attack in 2013 was a false flag attack.
Disinformation increases significantly from the year before and so does the bombing of humanitarians on the ground in Syria. The crisis receives global attention as international media commits to covering the intense attacks on Aleppo.
Beeley visits Syria and meets with Assad, according to her own blog.
17 August. A photo of a young boy sitting blood-stained and shocked in an ambulance following the bombing of his home captures the world’s attention. The photographer Mahmoud Raslan receives a barrage of accusations and threats.
18 August. The White Helmets are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
16 September. White Helmets Netflix documentary is released.
19 September. A Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy is attacked, killing around 20 civilians and destroying 18 trucks of aid.
23 September. Three White Helmets centres and vehicles are bombed in Aleppo.
September – October
Conspiracy theorists attack then 7-year-old Syrian blogger Bana al-Abed who, with her mother, were using Twitter and YouTube to share their experience of living under siege in Aleppo with the world.
8 October. Russia vetoes calls for end to bombing of Aleppo at the UN Security Council.
Beeley is invited to Moscow “to report on the illegal NATO state intervention and dirty war on Syria”, according to her own blog.
The Assad regime takes Aleppo.
9 December. Canadian independent journalist Eva Bartlett appears on a Syrian government panel at the UN, alleging that the White Helmets stage rescues and "recycle" children in their fake footage – a version of the talk has since been viewed 4.5 million times on Facebook.
The volume of disinformation posts more than doubled compared to 2016, with many of the accounts we investigated sharing articles focused on the White Helmets or false claims about the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack.
27 February. The White Helmets Netflix documentary wins an Oscar.
4 April. The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in Idlib kills more than 80 people.
29 June. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) release a report, which concludes the Khan Shaykhun attack used sarin, a nerve agent, or sarin-like substances.
12 August. Seven White Helmets volunteers are shot dead at their centre in Idlib, prompting condemnation and messages of solidarity from governments and individuals online but also attacks and false claims from conspiracy theorists.
23 September. Humanitarian aid reached Eastern Ghouta after more than four years under siege by regime forces.
8 October. Beeley’s self-described “proudest moment”, meeting Assad.
17 November. At the UNSC, Russia blocks the mandate renewal of the Joint Investigation Mechanism formed to determine the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Guardian journalist Olivia Solon receives death threats and a barrage of hate for writing about the Russia-backed disinformation campaign targeting Syria’s White Helmets.
Another large increase in volume of disinformation from the previous year and the most active year for disinformation posts from the 28 accounts identified in ISD’s research.
Syrian regime and Russia begin a seven-week bombing offensive on Eastern Ghouta.
7 April. A chemical gas attack in Douma, kills at least 42 people and injures hundreds, one week after international media and most photographers left under intense shelling.
13 April. The US, Britain and France respond with a coordinated strike targeting research, storage, and military targets owned by the Syrian regime.
13 April. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd calls the White Helmets a “fake organisation that exists only to create propaganda for the jihadists and terrorists” on stage in Barcelona
6 July. The Fact-Finding Mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), issues an interim report about the chemical attack in Douma.
22 July. White Helmets volunteers and their families are evacuated from Daraa and resettled in the UK, Canada, Germany and elsewhere after an intense assault on the area by Syrian and Russian forces.
17 August. The Trump administration ends funding for Syria stabilisation projects but continues to fund humanitarian work.
18 September. US journalist Max Blumenthal mocks civilians fearing chemical weapons attacks.
20 December. The White Helmets are accused of organ theft, staging attacks and other conspiracies at a Panel Discussion on White Helmets Organisation in Syria organised by Russia.
This year is almost entirely focused on different iterations of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reports, little other content is discussed at scale.
1 March. The Fact-Finding Mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), issues its final report on the Douma chemical attack, finding “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon has taken place on 7 April 2018. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine.”
In direct violation of the Russia-Turkey deal, Russian and Syrian regime forces launch a military campaign on Idlib. Over the following months, over half a million are forced to leave their homes or temporary shelters.
28 April - 11 June. 24 health facilities and one ambulance attacked by Russian and Syrian forces, including four hospitals in 24 hours.
May – December
A series of leaked emails and draft documents by two former OPCW employees, covered by the Mail on Sunday and Fox News, were used by pro-Russian accounts as evidence that Douma was faked, even though they were later found to lack credibility.
30 July. Two-thirds of the UN Security Council ask the UN’s Secretary General to launch an inquiry into the 24 attacks on Syrian hospitals.
Denmark begins reviewing and then revoking residency permits for Syrian refugees, stating that parts of Syria were no longer considered sufficiently dangerous to give grounds for international protection.
Grayzone articles, mainly written by Aaron Maté, are widely shared in 2020. The Grayzone describes itself as “an independent news website producing original investigative journalism on politics and empire”.
21 January. UN Security Council hearing about the Douma attack.
Russia and the Syrian regime continue pounding Idlib forcing 700,000 people to flee their homes or shelters.
6 February. An official Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inquiry shows that two former employees hailed as whistleblowers were “individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence.”
17 June. The US announces the toughest sanctions against Damascus known as the “Caesar Act”, with wider powers to freeze assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality, and covering more sectors from construction to energy
9 November. The BBC releases Mayday, a podcast by journalist Chloe Hadjimatheou that investigates the story of disinformation against the White Helmets.
"The volume of tweets dropped in 2021 but the focus on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation into Douma’s chemical weapons attack remained a central topic with many false claims being recycled and reused.
24 February. A German court sentences a former Syrian intelligence officer to four-and-a-half years in jail for complicity in crimes against humanity
Ten years since the start of the Syrian revolution.
26 March. The BBC publishes “The UK professor and the fake Russian agent,” by Hadjimatheou. The story sheds light on covert efforts by a member of the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media to discredit the work of Europe-based war crimes monitoring organisations.
Irish MEP Mick Wallace amplifies claims in an EU committee session that the “so-called chemical attack [in Douma]... most likely was staged with the help of the White Helmets.” MEP Clare Daly spreads similar claims.Their comments are picked up and shared by Piers Robinson and criticised by fellow MEPs for amplifying “fake news.”
16 April. Aaron Maté, a journalist at the Grayzone, speaks at “OPCW cover-up” event held at UNSC hosted by Russia.
9 May. A thread from Beeley attacking the NGOs and linking humanitarian efforts in Syria to COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories.
23 June. Spike in repeated and recycled claims that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation into the Douma chemical attack was flawed. According to ISD’s data, Aaron Maté spread these claims most frequently.
2015-2021 Disinformation hotspots
Number of tweets
"As you can see disinformation has persisted for more than seven years with some months more intense than others. The largest volume of disinformation we found was in April of 2018 when a chemical gas attack in Douma killed at least 42 people and injured hundreds. What impact have these years of disinformation had on real people?
10 ways disinformation has had an impact in the real world
1. Lies cost lives
Disinformation is an attempt to discredit the evidence provided by frontline responders, such as the White Helmets and medical workers, and to justify their deliberate targeting and murder by Russian and Syrian forces, 296 volunteers have been killed in the line of duty since 2012.
“The regime and Russia makes our lifesaving work extremely risky through double-tap attacks. When we go to save people from a bombed site, they re-target the same area in order to kill the first responders. They also target our centres and our homes in order to kill us and our families so that people think twice before volunteering. I live in constant fear of going home and never seeing my family or hearing their voices again. I am committed to saving lives, and they are targeting us for that. This constant fear makes me feel under pressure all the time, such that I could collapse at any moment.”
Hamid Kutini, White Helmets Volunteer, Northwest Syria
The frontline responders are labelled terrorists – an accusation designed to buy impunity for the bombing of civilian homes, hospitals and school – making them, according to Vanessa Beeley, legitimate targets for attack.
“Russian and Syrian TV accused us of being terrorists as they intensified airstrikes and attacks on hospitals. After they gained control of an area – Hama, Aleppo, Ghouta – the disinformation attacks would intensify. They’d produce detailed reports with all kinds of lies.”
Dr Basel Termanini, Chairman SAMS Foundation
Mahmoud Raslan, a photographer from Aleppo, became the target of disinformation during the bombing of Aleppo after a photo he took went viral.
"Within a very short period of time, the Syrian and Russian regimes began targeting my Facebook account, sending me messages threatening to bomb my home”
Mahmoud Raslan, photographer, Aleppo
We have also spoken to humanitarians and human rights defenders who are too afraid to speak out publicly about the devastating impact disinformation has had on their lives – who are scared their families will be detained, intimidated or tortured as a result. Many fear for their own lives.
2. Confusion and doubt provide cover for political inaction
Disinformation about the Syrian conflict has made it easier for governments to shirk their responsibility to act, interviews with policymakers showed. Global powers were able to get away with having no clearly articulated policy on Syria or on prevention of atrocities in Syria. This dangerous tactic often meant absolute silence and inaction in the face of international war crimes, interviewees told us.
“It’s either that they genuinely think that these things might have some truth to it, or that it's a convenient thing to latch onto to avoid making the decisions that we want them to make, say in the Security Council or elsewhere.”
Former Western Diplomat
“Those of us who were really in the trenches working on this, dismissed the disinformation. But I think for others, it aided and abetted a culture of risk aversion that should something go wrong, we’re going to be held liable for it.”
Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage and former Senior Policy Advisor to US Ambassador Samantha Power
Whilst almost all policymakers we spoke to claimed they were not themselves susceptible to the lies spread by conspiracy theorists, most pointed to instances when their diplomacy or efforts to cement policy were hampered by colleagues or other states who were swayed by false claims.
James Jeffrey, the former US Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement, pointed to the influence of disinformation on policy by explaining that regime and Russian talking points created incoherent policy.
“Nobody believed the Russians were not carpet-bombing Syrian cities. Nobody believed that Assad wasn’t driving most of his population away, or that Assad wasn’t using chemical weapons. Where we had to counter was people who then concluded what should be done.”
US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey and former Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement
3. Erasing history and denying war crimes
“I worry about the erasure of memory and our history slowly eroding. With the sheer exhaustion and trauma it’s easier to turn away than continue to educate the world. In that silence, and with the addition of the propaganda machine, we are losing the truth of what actually happened in Syria and we risk the archive of evidence being tainted and history being revised. I don’t want my children to say, ‘What really happened in Syria?’ That’s the dark side of where we are.”
Lina Sergie Attar, founder and CEO of Karam Foundation, Syrian-American architect, writer and The Syria Campaign Board Chairperson
Preservation of history and memory is at stake when confusion and doubt takes over and when war crimes are denied all together. The six most retweeted and shared posts on Twitter between 2015 and 2021 all claim the Douma chemical attack was faked or that the international investigation into the attack was compromised. For those who have lost their loved ones or been forced to flee their life and homes, the denial of war crimes creates devastating real-world harm.
Mahmoud Bwedany was a student in Douma when the chemical bomb was dropped. He said how the attack came one week after Assad’s forces started targeting the town’s internet and one week after international media left the area following an intensification of bombardment.
“In that week everything changed. There was less coverage of the siege and less ability to share the evidence with the outside world, combined with heavy shelling. It became a perfect environment for disinformation,” he said. “It was some other kind of pain we were not used to. The truth is being altered and the criminal is getting away with it.”
Mahmoud Bwedany, Action for Sama
“In 2017, the regime targeted the town of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas, and of course we were the first to arrive on the site. Some of my colleagues suffered from suffocation during the rescue operations. We became witnesses. The Syrian and Russian regimes continued their propaganda, suggesting that we, the White Helmets, either committed these crimes or faked the scene. After that, they attacked our centre with 12 air raids to kill the witnesses, so they could continue their disinformation campaign.”
Hamid Kutini, White Helmets volunteer, Northwest Syria
4. Online hate – adding insult to injury
Speak to humanitarians, journalists, human rights defenders, victims of chemical weapons attacks and survivors of war crimes, disinformation is often described as salt in the wounds and heartless mocking of all they have endured.
It is a failure of governments and social media platforms that hate-filled lies and conspiracy theories are so much part of human rights or documentation work and that survivors of torture, chemical attacks or other war crimes, must face a barrage of criticism and hate for telling their stories.
Even for those who are too afraid to speak out publicly in fear of the backlash from trolls, consuming the hate and denial of war crimes as users of social media can be extremely distressing. Through the Syria Campaign’s work with human rights defenders, humanitarians, victims and survivor groups, we are constantly reminded of the self-censorship so many Syrians endure to avoid putting themselves or their families at risk.
"“Denial itself has put me in a vulnerable position because I feel I need to fight all the time to prove that I really suffered. Whether it's the siege, or the bombardment or the chemical attack or from being wanted from the security branch, all these crimes are denied by the regime and its allies. It’s psychologically devastating to keep having to prove you’ve been hurt.
Disinformation gives protection to the Assad regime, and it gives him impunity. If we don’t keep the truth about the crimes against humanity, we won’t be able to hold the regime and those who commit these violations accountable."
Lubna Alkanawati is a feminist Syrian activist and human rights defender and Deputy Executive Director at Women Now for Development.
5. Legitimising governments' anti-refugee policies
Anti-refugee or asylum policies have benefited from disinformation, with some governments borrowing Assad and Russia’s claims that Syria is now safe and refugees can go home, despite stark evidence to the contrary.
Denmark’s revoking of Syrian refugees’ protection residencies has shocked so many, not just because it puts lives at risk but also because it signals a normalisation with the Syrian regime that some fear might be adopted by other states.
As Ambassador James F. Jeffrey said in relation to the suspension of chemical weapons briefings at the UN Security Council in an interview for this report:
“It’s not of particular importance whether the UNSC hears the OPCW’s latest list of Assad chemical weapons violations once every month […] What is of dramatic importance is; when everyone learns that the US is pushing for less focus on Syria […] This will be used in various ways by social media and by the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians, to show that the US is changing its position and warming to Assad.”
Ambassador James F. Jeffrey
6. Diverting valuable resources
Most policymakers we interviewed said that they can recognise Russian talking points when they see them but they have to work harder to explain the truth to the public. Almost every policymaker we spoke to said they were confronted with conspiracy theories in meetings or “town hall” events and had to address disinformation before even talking about policy solutions.
For example, an international advocate working with civil society and the UN we spoke to said: “You know they don’t even necessarily believe it, but they use it as a way to obfuscate from actually talking about ground truths. You end up having to establish essential basic truths as a basis for conversation which takes up 90% of your energy, then you have 10% of the time left to actually talk about what matters.”
قالت كل من الجمعية الطبية السورية الأمريكية (SAMS) والخوذ البيضاء إن الاتهامات أثرت على التبرعات التي يحصلون عليها - ونتيجة لذلك عدد الأرواح التي يمكن أن ينقذوها.
Alison McGovern, Labour MP and former co-chair of Friends of Syria All-Party Parliamentary Group
7. Hampering humanitarian response
No one knows how much more critical funding humanitarian organisations would have raised had they not been victims of concerted disinformation campaigns for more than seven years but the conspiracists certainly consistently attempt to undermine those who fund and support frontline humanitarians.
The Syria American Medical Society (SAMS) and The White Helmets both said the accusations had affected their donations – and as a consequence the number of lives they could save.
“The fake claims about funding going directly to the fighting groups affected funding of the hospitals. So much funding from NGOs, governments or institutions has been delayed or stopped because of this. If a hospital doesn’t have funding, there is no hospital. You can’t pay for medication, equipment, salaries, fuel.”
Dr Hamza Al-Kateab, Doctor, human rights activist and co-founder of Action for Sama
8. Making a mockery of international law and institutions
The ripples of disinformation on Syria reach far and wide, threatening the very global institutions and international laws that are meant to keep our world safe. When hospitals are bombed without consequence and humanitarians are called “legitimate targets” for attack, the credibility of our global systems are thrown into flux.
The UN system and international mechanisms have failed Syria time and again and disinformation has played its disastrous part. The impact on our values, principles and democracy are immeasurable.
"“We’ve seen disinformation about elections in many countries, and they try to distract and undermine the credibility of democratic institutions. They know they can’t say Putin and Assad are good guys, but they want to make the public feel there are no good guys, that all governments lie, that all those who speak about human rights and accountability aren’t honest and are just politicised and a pretext for intervention and regime change. So, they make the public distrust their institutions and make the public paralyzed. Then, governments can’t persuade their people or rally them to action.
Western Governments rely only on the democratic system itself to correct disinformation over time. But a lot of people who had interest in human causes are stepping away because they just don’t know the truth.”"
Farouq Habib, White Helmets Deputy Manager
9. Paving the way for Ukraine
Ambassador Jeffrey said that during his time as U.S. special representative for Syria (2018–2020), he foresaw the importance of preventing a Russian win in Syria because he argued their role in supporting Assad was about creating “a 19th century great powers condominium”. A win there would only mean an emboldened, unhindered Putin elsewhere.
Almost everyone we spoke to agreed that international inaction on Syria – enabled in part by the Russian-led disinformation campaign – has made the Ukraine invasion possible.
Russia is using the same disinformation playbook in Ukraine as we have seen in Syria. Many of the career conspiracists we investigated for this report are now spreading lies about war crimes being committed in Ukraine. Even finding ways to attack the White Helmets at the same time or recycling the confusion already created and deploying it to their new frontline.
“The Russians linked us to Ukraine from the beginning. When they accuse the Ukrainians of prepping for chemical provocations, they used the White Helmets as a description of that. When we made a statement of solidarity with Ukraine, they immediately said we will send terrorists to Ukraine. The Russians are busy with Ukraine, but they didn’t forget about us and will link us in any way.”
"Farouq Habib, White Helmets Deputy Manager
10. Undeterred by disinformation
For all the real-world harm and hurt disinformation has caused, it was clear from interviews with humanitarians and human rights defenders that it has made them even more determined to save lives, expose war crimes and tell the truth. In fact most see it as proof their work is having an impact. But they need the unwavering support of international governments and policymakers.
"Disinformation made me more willing to resist and to continue my work to deliver the truth. It’s exhausting and painful but it keeps me working all the time to keep my story and the stories of other women, men and families, alive. I need to keep speaking the truth because those responsible must be held accountable.”
Lubna Alkanawati, Feminist Syrian activist and human rights defender and Deputy Executive Director at Women Now for Development.
Online harm and harassment on Syria has been neglected for more than seven years. This report has shown that a failure of governments and social media platforms to address disinformation causes real-world harm. The Syria Campaign calls for the following changes:
For governments and platform regulators
Platform regulation should be systemic, and require online platforms to demonstrate that their policies, processes and systems are designed and implemented in a way that protects human rights and mitigates the risks posed by a range of illegal, and in some cases legal but harmful, activity, such as disinformation, abuse and harassment.
Platform regulation should require significant additional transparency and data access to both regulators and approved third-party researchers (e.g. from academia or civil society) to increase understanding of how effectively platforms are reducing threats to humanitarian and human rights workers.
Promote and fund digital citizenship and literacy education that teaches citizens, beginning at a young age, to think critically about online content and identify trustworthy sources.
For social media platforms
Consistently and effectively enforce existing policies on disinformation, hate speech, online harassment and abuse across linguistic and geographic contexts. Given the seriousness of the impacts outlined in this report, platforms should commit additional resources to protect humanitarian workers and human rights defenders in the context of the ongoing Syrian conflict.
Enforce a systems-based versus content-based approach to the problem. It is not enough to continuously take down harmful content – in repetitive cases accounts should have their content excluded from algorithmic recommendations, and if they persist be permanently banned from the platform.
Call to action
Governments have a duty to stop the spread of harmful disinformation and social media companies must ensure their own policies to end disinformation are enforced equitably worldwide.