“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” the quote from Winston Churchill seems apt to describe the current battle underway in Aleppo. Depending on your geopolitical sensibilities it appears that certain reports coming out of the besieged city are either harrowing truths of regime brutality, or a western conspiracy theory meant to discredit Assad and his allies. The problem with truth in war time, it is a little less clear cut.
On the front lines of these information wars stands a seven-year old girl. Bana Alabed has been tweeting from Aleppo, with the help of her mother, throughout the regime bombardments. Media outlets seized upon her accounts from the besieged city, being reported on CNN, BBC and our own channel Euronews. She has 328K followers and counting, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling. But among the voices urging her to stay safe are many detractors and cynics who doubt her legitimacy.
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) December 16, 2016
AlabedBana</a> and her mother make an somber, urgent plea to Michelle Obama <a href="https://twitter.com/FLOTUS">FLOTUS to help them make it safely out of east #Aleppo. pic.twitter.com/GlTd7O4ONQ
Even President Assad talking to Danish TV said when questioned whether he trusted her as an eyewitness:
“You cannot build your political position or stand, let’s say, according to a video promoted by the terrorists or their supporters. It’s a game now, a game of propaganda, it’s a game of media. You can see anything, and you can be sympathetic with every picture and every video you see. But our mission as a government is to deal with the reality. You have terrorists in Syria, they are supported by foreign powers and foreign countries, and we have to defend our country.”
Among the claims against her is that she is not a seven year-old girl, that she is not in the location she claims, and that she cannot speak English, as well as doubts over how she has access to internet in a warzone. Bellingcat website has taken a microscope to those claims and using open source information has largely debunked or cast doubt on them.
On her location, using the evidence posted on Twitter and Periscope, they have geolocated her tweets, an area that was within the rebel-held sector.
Her successful social media campaign has also raised eyebrows, with many questioning her level of English and ability on Twitter. Her account clearly states that it is ‘run by mom’ who is an English teacher, and Bellingcat notes has studied journalism, which it says ‘explains the sophistication of her social media presence.’
On the question of access to internet and electricity, the BBC and TF1 reported on how solar power allowed the family to have some electricity, and Bana’s twitter account stated they had patchy wifi and 3G. But despite five years of conflict, Aleppo does still have network coverage, as Bellingcat notes, the Telegraph reported that the Syrian government could send text alerts.
Bana has also been attacked as being a CIA stooge account, or having links to jihadis. As Bellingcat notes some of her tweets do have overtly political content, such as calling for a third World War, but Bellingcat dismisses this as the frustration of her mother over the daily threat of death living in a war zone.
And there was also an attempt to use metadata to prove Bana’s account was coming from the UK, but Bellingcat noted that the ‘sleuth’ had actually run meta-data on his own account before deleting his ‘tweet evidence’.
“This in itself does not make @AlabedBana some kind of Jihadi plot, nor a propaganda account seeking to spread a false narrative: due to the events occurring in Aleppo, any account of daily life becomes inherently political. The account has posted more obvious political messages, as well as occasional frustrated outbursts, but for the majority of its existence it has posted the simple hopes and fears of a young girl and her mother. Bombs are falling on East Aleppo and young children are suffering, and Bana represents a microcosm of that suffering.”
It can be said that that many media companies, in the absence of reporters on the ground, have relied on witnesses in east Aleppo, sometimes with clear agendas. However, these sources are usually treated with trepidation, attributed as ‘media activist’ or ‘citizen journalist’. In the past week, a video by writer and activist Eva Bartlett has been doing the rounds in which she largely trashes ‘mainstream media’ reports about Aleppo, in particular casting doubt on the existence on the ‘White Helmets’ or the Syrian Civil Defence. In her speech at a pro-Syrian government event at the UN, she uses hardly any journalistic standards when making her assertions. An article on Snopes notes:
“When a Norwegian reporter from the newspaper Aftenposten questioned her statements that the Syrian people overwhelmingly back Assad and that the media has conspired to lie to the world about him, she said she knows Syrians back Assad, because the majority voted for him in the 2014 election.”
It goes on to debunk her claim that:
“The White Helmets purport to be neutral yet they can be found carrying guns and standing on the dead bodies of Syrian soldiers, and their video footage actually contains children that have been recycled in different reports. You can find a girl named Aya who turns up in month, say, August, and she turns up the next month, in two different locations. So they are not credible.
Specifically on the claim that one girl named ‘Aya’ was a recycled victim, Snopes notes that three different girls could be identified in three different videos from different sources, the only similarity, they were called Aya, a popular name.
Questions also came from the website 21stCenturyWire, which said the White Helmets had links to terrorists. Snopes notes that there is no evidence provided that the White Helmets have terrorist ties, apart from the fact that they operate in the rebel-held areas.
Snopes notes the Syria Civil Defence is an NGO founded by James Le Mesurier, a former intelligence officer with the British military, in which he discloses the foreign donors which contribute to their efforts, thus making it prone to suspicion from those who support Assad.
The last hospital
Many commentators like to highlight that ‘almost every week’ the last hospital in Aleppo is bombed out of service. Looking more closely, medical facilities are bombed out of service, and it can take time before clinics are up and running again. Snopes notes of a particular incident that MSF “said it would take two weeks”: http://www.msf.org/en/article/syria-al-quds-hospital-death-toll-rises-55 before the Al Quds hospital could be reopened after airstrikes in late April.