Many people are taking to social media in an attempt to tarnish the image of the Syrian Civil Defence Organisation, better known as “the White Helmets”, who help victims in combat zones.
Social media users have been sharing several different amateur videos as “proof” of conspiracy theories claiming that the White Helmets are actually undercover Islamist terrorists who collaborate with jihadist groups. We gathered these videos and analysed them to sort fact from fiction.
The White Helmets are Syrian rescue workers who operate in zones under rebel control. They participate in all kinds of rescue operations, especially after bombs and air strikes. They claim to have saved nearly 100,000 people since the start of the war and are known for documenting the conflict by sharing photos and videos on social media.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: ‘White Helmets’, the Syrian men and women braving bombs to save lives
The White Helmets were originally an independent organisation made up of volunteers. Today, the organisation is funded by multiple foreign governments, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan, as well as by private donors. The organisation says it runs on a budget of $26 million (equivalent to about 21.5 million euros). These days, the rescue workers are paid about $150 (around 120 euros) per month if they work full-time, according to American magazine Newsweek.
For the past few months, however, the White Helmets have been the target of a smear campaign on social media, mainly led by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Social media accounts, especially those belonging to conspiracy theorists and media with pro-Russian leanings, accuse the White Helmets of being allies of jihadist rebel groups. They also claim the White Helmets are carrying out a communications war with the Syrian regime.
These critics of the White Helmets have offered a large number of amateur photos and videos as proof of their accusations.
We found the following articles and videos among the most widely shared:
- An “investigation” by Anna news, an Abkhaz news agency known for its pro-Assad stance, called “White helmets, the mask of terror”.
- "Netflix and the White Helmets, hand in hand with al Qaeda”, a video posted on Hands Off Syria, a pro-Assad, pro-Russian YouTube channel.
- 'They don't care about us': Syrians on White Helmets' true agenda”, a video broadcast by Russia Today, the Russian TV channel financed by the Kremlin.
- Several different articles published on websites Clarity of Signal (examples here and here) and 21st Century wire. These two websites have an entire section on what they call the “hidden side” of the White Helmets.
We chose not to include testimonies from residents in Aleppo gathered by Russia Today and Anna News because they are impossible to verify.
The “articles” posted on Clarity of Signal include a large number of screengrabs showing Facebook profiles of men said to be White Helmets. The site offers these screengrabs as proof that at one time or another, these men took up arms and fought for rebel groups. These profiles have since been deleted, so we were not able to investigate these claims further.
Accusation: “The White Helmets stage and film fake rescue operations”
Three different videos, using actors, are circulating widely online in a bid to prove that the White Helmets have been staging rescue operations.
>> “Look, he starts screaming for the camera!”
This video is, hands down, the most widely shared by people who think that the White Helmets are staging their rescue operations. The video begins by showing two White Helmets and a victim, who lies inert for several seconds. The victim has his legs trapped under a piece of concrete. His face is covered with dust and there is blood on his forehead. Twenty-five seconds into the film, the action seems to start. The victim begins to scream and the rescue workers start trying to shift the rubble.
Some people have alleged that this footage shows a rescue being staged. But here’s the truth of the matter: Yes, it was made by the White Helmets. Yes, it was staged. However, the White Helmets were transparent about their intentions because this is a rather awkward example of the Mannequin Challenge.
The idea behind the challenge, which was started by high schoolers in the United States, is to show a scene frozen for several seconds before leaping into action again.
The day after the video was posted, the White Helmets and opposition media RFS apologised in a statement for any confusion that may have been caused:
"This video and the related posts were recorded by RFS media with Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) volunteers, who hoped to create a connection between the horror of Syria and the outside world using the viral ‘Mannequin Challenge’. This was an error of judgment, and we apologise on behalf of the volunteers involved.
This video was not shared via our official channels and we took immediate action to discipline those involved and prevent incidents such as this from happening again."
This video does not show a rescue mission being staged. The White Helmets never wanted people to believe this was a real rescue. However, it still continues to be used by the organisation’s detractors as “proof” of its bad intentions.
“This video does raise questions about the authenticity of other videos frequently published by the White Helmets,” says Vanessa Beeley, a blogger known for sharing conspiracy theories and who often blogs about the White Helmets, in an article on the website of Russian television network Russia Today.
>> "They stage fake rescues with children using make-up"
In this video posted on Anna News, a man named as Abdulhadi Kamel, a former member of the White Helmets, said that he was paid by the organisation to work as an actor. He also said that he saw rescue operations being staged.
The video was filmed in an unknown location and on an unknown date. In it, this man relays a very popular theory about the White Helmets that Western countries and Gulf Arab states financially blackmailed the group, forcing them to make fake proof that Syria and its Russian allies were bombing and targeting civilians.
He said that he saw a staged rescue in a town called Salah ad-Din. In it, you can see a burning bus and children near a building.
“The children were waiting to be rescued but they weren’t actually injured. Their hands and faces were covered with make-up,” he said.
In an analysis of the video posted by the website Middle East Eye, the journalist notes that the young man seems to be reading from a text during his testimony. His eyes are indeed moving from left to right, as if reading.
This man in the video started with the White Helmets in Aleppo in 2013. In December 2016, he was taken prisoner by pro-government forces when they took back the city. In a statement, his colleagues said that he was forced into telling this story on-camera:
"One glance at the man’s face is enough to see that he is not saying what he believes, but is saying this because he is afraid for his life. The Assad regime has a long history of extracting false confessions from people they say are 'terrorists'."
The FRANCE 24 Observers team looked into the video posted alongside his testimony, which is supposed to serve as further “proof” that the White Helmets are staging their rescues. However, we found that this video actually doesn’t have anything to do with the Syrian conflict.
This video has been circulating online since at least 2011. Those who posted it on YouTube on December 17, 2011 said that the scene had unfolded in Abu Saiba, a town in Bahrain, during a wave of opposition protests.
The video shows several men lying down on what looks like a roof. They are covered with blood. When the video is cut, some of them stand up and one makes a victory sign.
There is another video that makes fun of this scene. The video purports that the scene was staged by protestors in Bahrain who wanted to denounce the violence that they had suffered. In another posting of the same scene, the caption claims that the footage shows: “Shiites fabricating their wounds and sending them to Alalam News Network [Editor’s note: an Iranian media outlet] to trick people about what is really happening in Bahrain."
The FRANCE 24 Observers team was not able to uncover the actual source of the video, but it is certain that this video was not made by the White Helmets in Syria. All of our research points to the probability that the video was filmed in Bahrain in 2011, as we found no posting of this video before that date.
>> A little girl who is “too clean”
This video was analysed in an article on the website 21st Century wire that claims that the scene was staged by the White Helmets.
The article says:
“Both children appear to have sustained no injuries, nor any visible cuts or bruises, and no dust. Not bad for being buried under tons of concrete, gravel and dust. Incredible, but par for the course in the improbable first-responder reality show that is the White Helmets.”
The video was posted on the official White Helmet YouTube page on May 25, 2016. The post says that the footage was captured in Haritan (a northern suburb of Aleppo).
As the White Helmets didn’t want to comment on each individual allegation in this article, the FRANCE 24 Observers team reached out to two French researchers specialised in urban search and rescue, which means saving people trapped in collapsed buildings or under rubble.
Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Besson, the president of the organisation Pompiers de l’urgence international [Editor’s note: which roughly translates to International EMT Organisation], has carried out this kind of rescue on multiple occasions, especially after natural disasters. He says that it does look like this scene was staged.
"What surprises me is the use of this material, which is supposed to lift up slabs of concrete, under which people are trapped, in a situation where the little girl obviously wasn’t trapped anywhere, judging from her appearance. I have never seen someone get out of this kind of situation so clean."
However, a second expert in urban search and rescue, who wanted to remain anonymous, has a different opinion.
"The fact that the children aren’t covered with dust doesn’t prove that this video has been staged. It’s possible that the children were in a pocket of air, which wasn’t filled with dust or smoke."
But he added that the video didn’t give him enough information about the situation to make a definitive judgment either way.
It’s hard to know whether or not this video was staged, especially because the rescue worker, identified by online outlet Zaiton magazine as Fares Muhammad Ali, reportedly died on July 3, 2016 – several weeks after the publication of this video – when he was hit by a missile during a rescue operation.
Accusation: “The White Helmets are a creation of the film industry”
In 2017, a film about the White Helmets won Best Documentary at the Oscars. Since then, conspiracy theorists haven’t stopped cracking jokes insinuating that the White Helmets are actors in Hollywood-style productions.
Many of these sceptics believe that the White Helmets are staging everything from rescue missions to bombings to fictional chemical attacks to feed into propaganda against the Russian and Syrian governments.
>> “The same little girl features in several different fake rescues”
The website Globalresearch.ca is a fan of conspiracy theories and often reprints articles featured on the more well-known sites 21st Century wire and Clarity of Signal. On April 19, 2018, this website published an article called “Debunking Ten Lies About Syria and Assad”, which features three different photos showing the same little girl being carried by three different men. It claims that the little girl is an actor who was used in three staged rescues.
These three photos were taken by an AFP journalist on August 27, 2016 in the Maadi neighbourhood of Aleppo. According to the AFP, these photos were taken several minutes apart. The little girl was rescued by a White Helmet. As he continued to work, she was passed to the other two men.
In reality, these three photos were taken within minutes of one another on the same day. This little girl was not saved three times by the White Helmets…. Just once.
During its 8pm news bulletin on April 9, 2018, Russian public television station Russia 1 broadcast a series of photos supposedly showing the fabrication of false evidence of chemical attacks in Syria. The presenter claims that the photos were taken in a movie studio owned by the White Helmets.
However, Bellingcat, a website specialised in verification, explains that, actually, these images come from a Syrian film called "Revolution Man".
They were published on the film’s Facebook page on February 24.
The supposed proof that the White Helmets staged a scene is, in reality, just pictures taken out of context.
Accusation: “The White Helmets carry out fake medical procedures”
>> “The electrodes are in the wrong place… it’s fake!”
On April 13, a man claiming to be a cardiologist took to Twitter to say that he believed a photo showing White Helmets treating wounded children had been faked.
The man tagged two bloggers who often share conspiracy theories about the White Helmets: the aforementioned Vanessa Beeley as well as Eva Bartlett. This tweet was retweeted more than 12,500 times.
The photo that he tweeted is, in actuality, a screengrab of a video posted on Twitter by the White Helmets on April 8, 2018. The organisation said that the video showed victims suffocating after “a chemical attack on civilians carried out by Syrian government warplanes in Eastern Ghouta, in Douma”.
However, two days after he posted the initial tweet, the man admitted that he had made a mistake in his analysis of the video.
There is no proof that this video was staged since, it turns out, the electrodes were correctly placed. Many specialists pointed this out in response to the tweet and the man who posted it eventually admitted it, too.
>> “The White Helmets made it look like a chemical attack by giving an already-deceased child an intracardiac injection”
In March 2017, a little-known group called Swedish Doctors for Human Rights posted on the website The Indicter what they called an analysis of the medical practices carried after a chlorine chemical attack in March 2015.
As American investigative media Coda explained, this image was widely shared by Russian media outlets such as Russia Today, Sputnik, Rossiyskaya Gazeta and others. In addition, it was mentioned by the Syrian representative to the United Nations during a Security Council meeting on April 12, 2017. It was also mentioned by the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, who claimed that it offered proof that the White Helmets are “directors and talented actors” who make films where “children are literally assassinated under surgical lamps".
The group supposedly made up of Swedish doctors claimed in March 2017 that, in a video posted by the White Helmets on March 16, 2015, the rescue workers carried out a false rescue operation in an attempt to make it look like a chemical attack had just taken place.
The Russian media and officials made the same allegations about an attack said to have occurred on April 4, 2017. They shared the same photos, without specifying that the photos were from a different occasion.
The group claims that when the doctor injected the child, the syringe didn’t actually have any substance in it. It also claims that the child was “already dead” during the intervention and that these “discoveries give rise to serious questions about the ethical integrity of the White Helmets".
Investigative media outlet Coda showed this video to five different doctors based in the United States and the United Kingdom, including pediatricians and intensive care specialists.
“All of the specialists agreed that the individuals in the video did not appear to be carrying out a resuscitation attempt according to accepted guidelines and that the footage where the Syrian boy was given an injection was not a usual resuscitation method. All of them however, said it would be impossible to conclude from the brief video that the scene was staged,” the Coda article reports.
“There is nothing to indicate this is clearly a ‘faked’ procedure, it seems to be more of a desperate or a poorly executed one,” Dr. Melissa Hersh from NYU Langone told Coda.
While this video doesn’t offer proof that the incident was staged, it does seem to several reputable doctors that the rescue workers in the video used unusual techniques.
What the White Helmets have to say
The FRANCE 24 Observers team reached out to the White Helmets about these photos and videos.
A spokesperson for the organisation said that they “would not be able to respond directly to all of the links that [the FRANCE 24 Observers] sent, because a large number of them have no basis in reality". They added:
"They are the result of an intense disinformation campaign in which, every day, new allegations are published. The objective is to discredit our documentation of Russian war crimes in Syria, which we do carry out while saving the lives of our countrymen. Their aim is also to enable the Assad regime and its allies to call our volunteers terrorists and to target them in violation of all international conventions.
We recognise that there have been rare isolated incidents during our five years of activity, concerning a tiny fraction of our 4,300 volunteers, during which our Code of Conduct and our values have been breached. We’ve always taken rapid measures to manage these incidents, including the expulsion of certain volunteers and full cooperation with credible judicial institutions in Syria."