Stop Spreading Conspiracy Theories about the Chemical Attack in Syria! A Response to a Report from the Deutsche Welle

Fake news, fake news, fake news! They are everywhere, like swarms of locusts, devouring truth and infecting people’s minds. Mainstream media along with social media platforms are alarmed, mobilizing their resources to contain this epidemic. Numerous online resource centers and information pages have been set up to help people identify fake news and protect their minds from their toxicity. Yesterday, when I opened my Facebook page, I was greeted with a link to a page that lists 10 tips to spot false news. The website of the German news broadcaster tagesschau currently operates a project against fake news called Faktenfinder (Fact Finder) which is a resource center with basic information about hot topics in the form of questions and answers to help people avoid false information being spread about this topic.

DW

“DW: Made for minds”, maybe not this time!

These are all good efforts and I stand 100% behind any attempt to stop the epidemic of false news, especially when it appears that they are deployed by intelligence agencies as weapons of mass misinformation. There is, however, one point that I would like to raise in this post: Mainstream media are not immune to fake news. They could very well fall for unfounded conspiracy theories and participate actively in the spread. The example I will use is a report (in German, English version here[1]) from the German foreign broadcasting service Deutsche Welle which suggests that the opposition is to blame for the recent chemical attack in the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun.

The report is simply a one-sided presentation of a conspiracy theory that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has been habitually bombarding civilians in areas controlled by the opposition for the past few years, cannot be responsible for the attack, because only the opposition can benefit from it. The propagated conspiracy theory does not stop at the attack last week in Khan Sheikhoun, but extends to the larger attack carried out in Ghouta in 2013, which left several hundred people dead.

The report rests on the statements of a number of so-called “experts” on Syria and chemical warfare. The first of them is Prof. Günther Meyer, the director of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz, Germany. He maintained that only the armed opposition can benefit from such deployment of chemical weapons, because they are under military pressure and, according to him, the recent statements of Donald Trump encourage them to do so (I do not know how, given his previous statements about Syria). Echoing Trump in blaming former US President Barack Obama for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun last week, Meyer too blames Obama for the 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta. Obama’s statement back in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons is a red-line that, if crossed, will lead to an American military intervention against Assad was in the words of Meyer “an invitation” for the opposition to launch a chemical attack against civilians in its own areas. He stated that it was “unsinnig” (absurd, nonsensical) that the regime had carried out such an attack.

Meyer

Prof. Günther Meyer, Director of the Center for Research on the Arab World, University of Mainz (source: Deutschlandfunk)

Günther Meyer’s academic qualifications and position may give the impression that he is an impartial expert on the conflict in Syria and that his statements are worth taking seriously. However, a quick glance at his previous statements will yield an entirely different view of his expertise. His statements about the war in Syria that are gathered in his German Wikipedia page show that he is an apologetic for the Syrian regime and the Russian military intervention in the war. In one interview he blames the civil war on “terrorist organizations” sponsored by the West in order to break the axis of Iran-Syria-Hizbullah by toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which, according to him, enjoys the support of the majority of the Syrian people. If you think that such a statement is a fair analysis of the Syrian conflict, check his assessment of reports of a direct deployment of the Russian military in Syria, just two weeks before it carried out its first air strikes on 30th September 2015. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk, dated 15th September 2015, he maintained that it was completely “unsinning” (again, absurd, nonsensical) that Russia was sending air force units and combat troops to Syria, dismissing such reports as evident propaganda of Western media and the opposition.

I think there is no need to explain here which side has “unsinning” views. It is obvious that Meyer either lacks the expertise to make informed comments about the conflict in Syria, or, which is more likely in my opinion, is an apologetic of the Syrian regime and its backers in the Kremlin, whose role in the conflict he describes in the same interview as “constructive.”

Another expert cited in this report is MIT-professor of science and technology, Theodore Postol, who together with UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd published a report alleging that the attack in Ghouta was the work of the opposition. These two may as well sound as people with enough reputation and qualifications to produce a credible report. Well, there is a counter report by journalist Eliot Higgins and weapons expert Dan Kaszeta that debunks these claims.

I personally do not have enough expertise in chemical warfare and rocket science to decide which report is more accurate. But a little bit of common sense is enough to judge that the presence of someone like the so-called “Syrian Partisan Girl” in your research team does not give you much credibility. The Syrian Girl is a conspiracy theory propagator who appears regularly on the Alex Jones YouTube Channel (Alex Jones from infowars.com—one of the most prominent alt-right fake news websites that helped bring Trump to power) and was once featured on David Duke show to discuss Zionism and “Jewish supremacy” (Yes, David Duke the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who urged his followers to vote for Trump). She believes 9/11 was an inside job and most recently she believes the Mossad to be the likely suspect for the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. This internet troll and Assad’s propagandist was presented by Theodore Postol, the MIT-Professor mentioned above, as a reliable chemist, but, strangely enough, believes that Ebola is a biological weapon developed by the American military. Maybe it is unfair to judge her on biological weapons when her “expertise” is in chemistry.

Syrian Girl

The so-called “Syrian Girl” hosted by Alex Jones from infowars.com

Apart from the little credibility of the “experts” cited by the DW, there is little substance to the opinions expressed in this article. Its logic is similar to that of virtually all conspiracy theories: the logic of the “beneficiary.” Who benefitted from 9/11 more than George W. Bush? Didn’t he justify the American invasion of Iraq, change laws to allow torture and indefinite detention, and become the most popular American president ever in the aftermath of these attacks? What about Zionism and the Nazis? Didn’t the former benefit from the Holocaust to convince European Jewry that there was no safe place for them other than having their own state in Palestine? And which side, to use an example from Syria, benefited more from the rise of ISIS: the opposition or Bashar al-Assad, who wants to convince the world that he is fighting against head-chopping, women-enslaving, minority-cleansing terrorists? If we were to deal with every act of political violence as if it were a mysterious murder that needs to be solved, as in a crime thriller, then we would most probably end up with nothing but conspiracy theories.

In fact, the DW report begins with the following question: In jedem Fernsehkrimi wird bei einem Verbrechen die Frage gestellt: Wer hat ein Interesse an der Tat? (In every TV crime thriller, when a crime occurs, it is asked: who benefit from it?). Curiously, this sentence is absent from the English version; possibly, because no other people possess this fascination with solving crimes (on TV) like Germans.

I don’t mind mainstream media discussing critical or different views, even conspiracy theories, which occasionally turn out to be true. WWII after all was started with a fake attack by the SS against a German radio station near the Polish borders. The problem is, however, that the DW and other mainstream media, in Germany and elsewhere, will never consider it acceptable to discuss conspiracy theories about 9/11, the Holocaust, or Islamist terrorism (e.g. maybe these trucks ramming into people around Europe are remotely controlled in an effort to help right-wing parties win elections?). It would completely dismiss them; first as morally offensive to the victims for downgrading their tragedy and clearing the real culprit from any responsibility. Second, it would maintain that such theories are superficial and rest on thin evidence brushing them off as politically motivated fake news.

To be clear, the problem for me would not be solved when mainstream media make its doors wide open for conspiracy theories about 9/11 or the Holocaust. When you sometimes apply high standards and in other times low standards, the right solution is to raise your low standards; not to lower your high ones.

So the bottom line is: the above mentioned report from DW amounts to nothing more than fake news from the likes of infowars.com, which apparently agrees 100% with its analysis. This news fakery, which has brought us Trump and right-wing parties in Europe, follows the footsteps of Assad’s propaganda, as explained in this interesting article: Down the Alt-Right’s Syrian Rabbit Hole. For the good of society and confidence in the media, which is essential for democracy, I think its writers better consult credible resources against fake news, like the “Fact Finder” of their colleagues at the tagesschau, which has a page with credible information about the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun without resorting to the plots of crime thrillers and conspiracy theories.

[1] The post here is based on the German version of the report. The English version, which seems to be a translation of the former, contains at the end a 2-minute video that presents both points of view. This is not available in the German version, which makes it one-sided.

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