When the Pentagon warned that a Russian disinformation campaign was underway, they forgot to mention that allies of the president were spreading it.
The Russian propaganda machine is hard at work in the aftermath of the airstrikes on Syria, pushing disinformation about the chemical attacks and accusing the U.S. of wanting to start another world war.
As a supporter of the Syrian regime, Russia has a vested interest in coming to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whether that means providing military support or launching an information war to undermine critics of the regime.
But Russia isn’t acting alone.
While the disinformation campaign surrounding Syria is a Kremlin-led effort, Trump allies have played a major role in the success of the campaign by bringing Russia’s propaganda to an American audience. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, Trump’s right-wing media allies and fervent supporters are helping Russia spread lies — and in doing so, they’re actively providing support to a murderous dictator who has reportedly used chemical weapons against his own people at least seven times in 2018 alone.
For the most part, the disinformation circulating in pro-Trump circles falls into two categories: 1) conspiracy theories alleging that the chemical attack that killed an estimated 70 Syrian civilians last weekend is either a false flag or a hoax, and 2) fear-appeals that discourage the U.S. from taking action in Syria by warning that punishing the Assad regime risks starting a war with Russia.
On Thursday, “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy peddled a false, Russian-backed smear against the Syria Civil Defence (more commonly known as the White Helmets), a group of first responders in Syria who are frequently targeted by Russian disinformation campaigns.
Speaking about the chemical attack, Doocy mentioned “this group called the White Helmets” and said “there are stories that they staged bodies to make it look like there was a gas attack.”
As described by The Guardian, the White Helmets have been “the target of an extraordinary disinformation campaign … propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government (which provides military support to the Syrian regime).”
The White Helmets are a target for several reasons, but mainly because their presence on the ground allows them to provide evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and other atrocities against the Syrian people.
When the Syrian government launched a chemical attack that killed 83 people last April, the fringe outlet Infowars picked up a Russian conspiracy theory and peddled it to Americans, saying the attack was staged by the White Helmets and describing the humanitarian group as an “al-Qaida affiliated group funded by George Soros.”
The top hashtags on Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 dashboard, which tracks 600 accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns, shows the overlap between pro-Trump social media users and pro-Assad Russian propaganda. On Sunday afternoon, the same group of accounts tweeting conspiracy theories about the White Helmets were also tweeting under the hashtag “#MAGA.”
On Monday, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said we have “no real idea what happened” in Syria and claimed that people are simply “making it up” when they attribute responsibility for the chemical attacks to Assad.
“Starting with the poison gas attack itself. All the geniuses tell us that Assad killed those children, but do they really know that? Of course they don’t really know that,” Carlson said. “They are making it up. They have no real idea what happened.”
Chuck Holton, a war correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network and frequent contributor to NRATV, also joined the chorus of right-wing voices this week, claiming that the April 7 chemical attack could be a “false flag.”
Far-right politicians also helped drive the false flag narrative. On Wednesday, Virginia State Senator Richard H. Black (R-Loudon) stood on the floor of the state Senate and gave a speech defending Assad and alleging that the chemical attack last weekend was a hoax. All of the deaths in Douma, he said, were fake.
Not long ago, Black was attacking special counsel Robert Mueller in an interview with Russian propaganda outlet RT, and his Twitter feed shows that he is a frequent critic of the Russia investigation and an avowed member of the “MAGA” coalition.
Far-right British politician Nigel Farage, an outspoken Trump supporter, also weighed in on Syria this week, accusing “globalists” of wanting to start a war with Russia and calling the chemical attack in Syria a “false flag.”
But right-wing media and political figures weren’t the only ones helping Russia’s disinformation campaign gain traction in America.
On social media, many Trump supporters pushed the same disinformation, calling the chemical attack a “false flag” and falsely claiming that there is “no evidence” that Assad was behind the chemical attack.
This mirrors what happened last year, when far-right media platforms launched a full-fledged propaganda campaign running cover for the Syrian regime after it killed 83 people in a chemical attack.
Right-wing media outlets and Trump supporters like Mike Cernovich also promoted the “#SyriaHoax” conspiracy theory last year on social media — a disinformation campaign that was traced directly to a pro-Assad Russian propaganda outlet.
When the Pentagon warned this weekend that a Russian disinformation campaign was underway, they forgot to mention one thing: that allies of the president were spreading it. While some of these Trump fans are likely promoting this content without realizing that they are pushing Russian propaganda, the result is the same: Americans are increasingly exposed to disinformation that serves to prop up a murderous dictator and advance the goals of the Kremlin.