December 2, 2020

Diagnosing Disinformation: a reply to Wilson and Starbird

By Tim Hayward



Author’s note: This article was originally due to appear in Misinformation Review, the Harvard-based journal that published the piece it responds to. The editorial board accepted the article for publication, but because of the challenging nature of my critique, they decided it should be published under the rubric of a letter to the editor so as to allow a right of reply to the authors of the article criticised. Three weeks after it was sent out to those authors, I was informed that ‘we are unable to publish letters on our site at this time.’ [Submitted to Misinformation Review 22 August 2020; Accepted for publication 30 October 2020; notified of non-publication 30 November 2020.]


Disinformation is a difficult field of investigation for a distinctive reason. Disinformation implies bad faith, and any discussion of it that relates to real actors or institutions implicitly impugns them. This adds a layer of difficulty for those attempting a dispassionate assessment of different points of view in terms of reasoned disagreements. The researcher needs to be scrupulous in maintaining standards of good faith when purporting to identify contraventions of it. Failure to attend to this requirement carries a further risk of propagating rather than diagnosing disinformation. This risk is made evident in a recent article published by Tom Wilson and Kate Starbird in Misinformation Review. Unfortunately, they fall foul of it. This essay argues for greater epistemic caution.

The authors state their aim is to ‘conceptualize what a disinformation campaign is and how it works’ (Wilson and Starbird 2020). Given the promised conceptualization, the reader might expect to learn of clear criteria for distinguishing disinformation from reliable information; and regarding the promise of showing how a campaign involving it works, the expected pre-requisite would be a clear method for identifying when a campaign so designated is in operation. Unfortunately, neither of these crucial clarifications is attempted by the authors. Of concern, too, is that in identifying a specific alleged disinformation campaign they not only fail to establish exactly how it is disinformative but they adopt the standpoint of an opposing campaign whose own bona fides are left unexamined.

To begin with, the framing of the authors’ objectives appears prejudicial with respect to its proposed investigation:

‘This research examines “both sides” of the White Helmets discourse—exploring how the White Helmets promote their work and foster solidarity with online audiences through their own social media activity and through episodic attention from mainstream media, and examining how the campaign against the White Helmets attempts to counter and delegitimize their work through strategic use of alternative and social media.’

Now an impartial comparison would seek to outline both sides of the controversy in terms that each could broadly recognize as accurate. Yet by presenting one set of views as a campaign, and speaking of it as attempting to delegitimize the other, implies a presumption that the latter is the legitimate position. Furthermore, Wilson and Starbird even treat the presumption as incorrigible for their purposes, since they add the following disclaimer:

‘We do not make any claims about the veracity of specific pieces of content or specific narratives shared by accounts on either side of this conversation.’

This means that their decision as to which side is correct is not established by reference to substantive information and apparently does not depend on any.

Nevertheless, their framing assumptions do include the following specific pieces of content and narrative. The White Helmets, they assert, are

‘a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel (anti-regime) areas of Syria. The White Helmets’ humanitarian activities, their efforts to document the targeting of civilians through video evidence, and their non-sectarian nature (that disrupted regime-preferred narratives of rebels as Islamic terrorists) put the group at odds with the Syrian government and their allies, including Russia (Levinger, 2018). Consequently, they became a target of a persistent effort to undermine them.’

The information in this paragraph is questionable on several grounds. For one thing, to call White Helmets ‘volunteers’ is somewhat misleading, since they receive pay that exceeds what they could earn in Syria doing a comparable job not funded by foreign governments (di Giovanni 2016; Lund 2016). For another, it is unwarranted to assert that it is such humanitarian activities as the White Helmets might engage in that would ‘put the group at odds with the Syrian government’, and no evidence to support this claim is cited. Sufficient reason for the White Helmets to be at odds with the Syrian government would be that they give logistical support to opposition fighters who are engaged in active combat against the government (Lin 2016). Nor is it straightforwardly true to say the White Helmets are non-sectarian (Speakman 2015). For the reality is that they operate exclusively in areas under the rule of sectarian forces and by their leave; they are not known to employ members who are not Sunni, and some of their number have evident allegiance to extremist groups (Jones 2017). Their official claim of neutrality with regard to members of the Alawite, Christian and Shia populations does not appear to be very strongly supported by evidence (Salt 2019), and even their founder, the late James Le Mesurier, admitted ‘it is unrealistic to expect the SCD members, the majority of whom come from majority Sunni communities, to remain neutral on a personal level.’ (Speakman 2015)

It is possible to raise such concerns as these without aiming to undermine anyone’s good faith humanitarian relief efforts, non-sectarianism or voluntary action. Accordingly, a question for Wilson and Starbird is whether their position is that merely to raise such concerns is to engage in disinformation: if so, then those of us who think raising them is reasonable and intellectually responsible need to be shown how we can be so mistaken; if it is not, then we require a clear account of how, when and why articulating such concerns would or would not count as disinformation. The question, however, is simply disregarded by the authors and they just do not engage with the substance of critical concerns. They also ignore the evidence and arguments presented in a growing body of academic work that finds the White Helmets’ own narrative to be supported by disinformation (see e.g. Allday 2016; Anderson 2016; Boyd-Barrett 2019; Dixon 2019; Hammond et al 2019; Moses 2020; Robinson 2019, 2020; Simons 2019).

To support their allegation that there is a disinformation campaign against the White Helmets Wilson and Starbird merely cite their own previous work (Starbird et al 2018) and that of Levinger (2018), none of which addresses the substance of critical concerns. They treat as an authoritative source a newspaper article (Solon 2017) which, itself appealing to the work of Starbird, claims that critical discussion of the White Helmets in Syria has been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. Yet Solon provides no substantiation for these claims, and neither she nor the Guardian would accept questions or comments about the article.

It was out of this situation that arose the first public comment about disinformation concerning Syria from the then newly-formed academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media. In an open letter to The Guardian the group emphasised that it is ‘possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose.’ (Hayward et al 2018) The letter showed that the White Helmets ‘receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II.’ Private contractors then bid for the funding: ‘Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.’ The letter also pointed out that the funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose.Documentation from the UK Government confirms that the White Helmets have been funded as part of broader attempts to support and empower ‘moderate opposition’ so as to give it credibility (Robinson 2019). It also affirms their public relations value in providing ‘an invaluable reporting and advocacy role’ and ‘confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions’. Given a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization. The Working Group thus affirmed it to be ‘essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion.’

Beeley is an independent journalist – disparagingly called a ‘self-described journalist’ by Wilson and Starbird – who has interviewed numerous citizen witnesses in Syria about activities of White Helmets (1). Well known for this work, she is, on Twitter, at the centre of a cluster of accounts that Wilson and Starbird identify as conspicuous critics of White Helmets. She is evidently influential, the authors find, since ‘on Twitter, content challenging the White Helmets is much more prevalent than content supporting them’. While Beeley’s influence cannot be disputed, it is quite another matter whether that of which she is at the centre is a ‘disinformation campaign’, as Wilson and Starbird allege. The allegation appears to be that she is instrumental in a campaign directed, behind the scenes, from Moscow:

‘Tracing information trajectories across platforms demonstrates how Russia’s state-sponsored media shapes the anti-White Helmets campaign by providing content and amplifying friendly voices.’

Yet this claim is deceptive and confused in several respects. First, while Russian media have undoubtedly amplified criticisms of white helmets, it is far from clear whether they have provided the preponderance of the original content of the criticisms. Indeed, we often find that even when a story is broken on an anglophone Russian platform, the journalist concerned is not Russian nor beholden to Russian favour or funding. Journalists who take a critical perspective on the White Helmets simply do not find Western mainstream outlets willing to host their work. Furthermore, it is not clear in what way the asking of critical questions can be regarded as a ‘campaign’ – unless truth-seeking generally is regarded as campaigning, but then it would be the antithesis of a disinformation campaign. The working assumption of Wilson and Starbird appears to be that if a proposition is affirmed by Russia then it must be untrue, although they do not explicitly attempt to defend this assumption. As for the extent of amplification, this is hard to determine precisely, but by Wilson and Starbird’s estimate, four accounts associated with the Russian government were ‘among the top-20 most retweeted accounts in the anti-White Helmets cluster’. The others would be independent journalists and citizen investigators. Perhaps appreciating the underwhelming impression of demonstrable Russian influence, the authors apparently think it can still be enhanced:

‘Tracing information trajectories across YouTube, Twitter, and non-mainstream news domains reveals howRussia’s media apparatus shaped the anti-White Helmets campaign in other, more subtle ways.’

What are these ‘subtle’ ways? All the authors point to is the fact that Beeley has utilised a platform at RT and in turn posted materials that others have used RT as a platform for. This merely confirms that, as we already know, Russian platforms are hospitable to the critical perspective of independent Western commentators, whereas those of mainstream Western media are not. A preparedness of Russia to air critical views need not imply it created or shaped those views.

So the question remains: how is it that, even though the pro-White Helmets view has the backing of the media, entertainment, corporate and state organs of the West – as well as a host of well-funded researchers – it is nonetheless outgunned on social media by dissident voices? Since the claim that somehow Russia has engineered this situation is not coherently stated, let alone supported by convincing evidence, the question is stark: why has the critical perspective proved more likely to win adherents? This question is sharpened by a further consideration about the social media impact of the White Helmets coming mainly from their own accounts. For if the White Helmets have saved the lives of upwards of 100,000 of their fellow Syrians, as claimed, one might expect to have encountered a groundswell of appreciation from that quarter. In its absence, and in the absence, too, of records of lives saved, an approach of due epistemic caution towards the NATO-led information campaign would be appropriate (Boyd-Barrett 2020). An alternative explanation to one appealing to Russian brainwashing is that people have been moved by the available evidence and the better argument.

Finally, we need to be alert to the fact that if there is an information war, then disinformation could be deployed on both sides. Whether or not the publicity surrounding them in the West has exaggerated the beneficial work done by men on the ground, it has been accompanied by relentless vilification of those who even raise the question. For instance, Vanessa Beeley, the independent journalist singled out by Wilson and Starbird, has been routinely smeared in the press and social media in a manner that manifests purposeful coordination (Johnstone 2020) (2). Several newspapers have repeatedly launched simultaneous attacks on journalists like Beeley and citizen investigators including the Working Group on Syria Propaganda and Media. Outlets involved have included Huffington Post, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and the Sun, with a particularly conspicuous attack from The Times of London in April 2018 (Hammond 2018; Hayes 2018; Hayward 2018a; McCormack 2018; Murray 2018) (3). A wider cast of ‘strategic communicators’ has made itself known to commentators through its media and social media activities over the past few years (Allday 2016; Black 2018; Blumenthal 2017; Boyd-Barrett 2019; Cook 2018; Gosztola 2017; Hayward 2018a; Hitchens 2020; Hopkins 2018; Hyland 2018; Johnstone 2020; Magnier 2018; McKeigue et al 2018; Norton 2017; Ritter 2017).

It is plain that a genuinely independent, impartial and disinterested inquiry into disinformation should be concerned no less about its promulgation by Western sources than by Russian ones. To foster an impression that this is not so would itself mean effectively being complicit in disinformation. The work of Starbird and her colleagues has, as a matter of fact, been gladly seized upon by those who engage in one-sided criticism of the Russian media. The US and NATO strategic communications community has given fulsome amplification to the claims she makes. Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat has lauded Starbird’s work as a corrective to that of the Working Group (Higgins 2019); and a Huffington Post article calling the group “Useful Idiots” (York 2020) cites Starbird as an expert, although neither she nor the author say anything about the substance of the group’s work.

Demonstrably, then, there is a campaign against people who ask critical questions about the White Helmets and their role in promoting propaganda in support of controversial – and, arguably, unethical – foreign policy. Unfortunately, the work of Wilson and Starbird does not reflect critically on that campaign but serves in effect to support it. The investigation of disinformation in the public sphere needs to be more scrupulous in its methodology and attentive to the demands of good faith collaborative inquiry.



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No funding was sought or received for this work.


Competing interests




1/ Beeley has worked extensively in the Middle East – on the ground in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine, while also covering the conflict in Yemen since 2015. In 2017 she was a finalist for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, and in 2018 she was named one of the 238 most respected journalists in the UK by the British National Council for the Training of Journalists. In 2019, she was among recipients of the Serena Shim Award for uncompromised integrity in journalism. For links to some of her work:

2/ Beeley was invited to join WGSPM in a consultant role (in February 2019) due to the valuable insights she could offer on the basis of her extensive investigations on the ground in Syria.

3/ An illustration of this was the concerted campaign to prevent her speaking at a meeting of the Swiss Press Club (Jourdan 2017). (The campaign failed, however, and her contribution can be viewed here).

4/ Some of the journalists concerned were associated with the Institute for Statecraft’s ‘Integrity Initiative’, a strategic communications operation whose aim was to counter dissent on matters of UK foreign policy (McKeigue et al 2018; see also the 180+ links in Hayward 2018b). Their output included soliciting condemnation of academic dissidents from the UK foreign office minister responsible for the operation’s funding (Hayward et al 2019).