The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Syrians search for survivors under the rubble of a house destroyed by a barrel bomb. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The Massacre in Syria That Wasn’t

A look at Russian media coverage of Adra

Updated January 10, 2014, 1255 GMT. See bottom for details.


80 civilians “massacred,” bodies thrown in ovens, and an international cover up of a horrific act of terrorism — these are just some of the striking claims made by the Russian network RT. On December 15th, the Russian state-owned media outlet formerly called “Russia Today” reported claims made by the Syrian and Russian governments that dozens of people had been butchered by radical Islamists in the Syrian town of Adra.

 

By the 17th, RT had even more alarming and detailed claims:

“People put in ovens, entire families kidnapped, Christians and Alawites executed — These horrifying reports come to RT from the town of Adra, north of the Syrian capital which has been occupied by Islamist rebel groups. At least 100 people are said to have been massacred by the rebels, but as the Syrian Army continues to liberate the city, that number is expected to rise. Our crew spoke to some of the survivors.”

This massacre in Adra, if it could be proven, could have been one of the worst massacres so far in Syria’s civil war.

According to the report, Adra’s  residents were attacked by Islamist rebels, whom they have dubbed “the decapitators,” in a town that RT describes as “an industrial town” populated by workers who were trapped when a rebel surprise attack caught them, and the Syrian military, off guard.

 

There is only one problem — it has been more than three weeks since this report aired, and there is not a single piece of evidence that supports the claim that Islamic radicals massacred anyone in Adra. There’s not even evidence that a massacre has occurred at all. Even worse, several of RT’s key pieces of information have proven to not only be false, but to have been falsified in such a way that it appears that RT either made no attempt to verify the facts, or perhaps even helped falsify the report themselves.

Evidence? What Evidence?

The initial reports from RT and from the Syrian government are built on two factors: reports from the Syrian government, and eyewitness reports. There are problems with the presentation of both. RT’s coverage and the Syrian government’s claims are confusing as to whether the massacre happened when the Syrian government was in control of the town. If the army was in control of the town, why didn’t it stop the massacre and why hasn’t it presented solid evidence that a massacre happened? If it was not in control at the time, then how does it know what has happened inside? If the Syrian government still has “official sources” inside the town, why have they not produced any solid evidence of the massacre? And as far as the witnesses on RT are concerned, they have been filmed in a studio setting, and so their testimony can’t be tied directly to the town. How did they witness such horrors and escape, through rebel battle lines, with their lives? And what steps, if any, did RT take to ensure that these people were really from Adra or really witnessed any of the things that they say?

In fairness, some of RT’s initial coverage of Adra contained several disclaimers that stated that the information was not independently verified, but it’s clear that due diligence was not taken and the evidence of the massacre was not properly analyzed by RT’s news team.

Take this report, for instance, posted by RT on December 18th:

There’s no reliable way at the moment to communicate with the people trapped inside Adra, but RT Arabic’s Abutaleb Albohaya, reporting from Damascus, cites the country’s officials as saying that “the atrocities against the civilian population are continuing.”

In the same article, RT consulted Human Rights Watch and The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), both of whom did not have enough information to comment on the claims made by the Syrian government. The ICRC said that the area was “inaccessible” to its researchers. This appears like RT has done due diligence, as it added the proper disclaimers and sought outside experts, even if those opinions were inconclusive.

But the article did contain one piece of verifiable evidence — an embedded tweet that showed a picture of the caskets of some of the dead. Pictures are some of the easiest pieces of evidence to verify, especially since a “reverse image search” using Google or Tineye.com can see if the picture has been posted elsewhere on the internet.

Russia condemns Adra massacre  calls on world community to react — RT News

Finding out whether this picture is genuine is often very easy. In fact, in Google Chrome, one can simply right-click, search for the image on Google, and sort the results by date. In less than 10 seconds, it is obvious that this picture is not from Adra and was posted a month before the massacre reportedly happened:

Google Search rt is wrong

In fact, a blogger, “lopforum,” performed a reverse image search on many of the images posted by pro-Assad media outlets and news reports, including RT and RT Arabic. The results — so far, all of the images that say they show the Adra massacre are in fact fake and show some other incident (see the results – warning, some are graphic).

Another Kremlin website, Pravda, reported the massacre and cited Alalam news as having published pictures that show the bodies. A simple Google search confirms that Alalam’s pictures, just like RT’s, are also fake (see same link above), old pictures taken of a different incident and pushed as proof of an incident that only Syrian and Russian state-controlled media are reporting as verified.

Did RT make any attempt to verify this image at all? Did Pravda? Did Alalam?

On December 17th, the claims made by RT were analyzed and discussed in Storyful’s Open Newsroom. The forum is a collection of journalists and experts who work together to verify or debunk news-worthy information posted to social networks, blogs, and other news websites. The Open Newsroom has also been widely cited by major news agencies for its work in the last year (Full disclosure – I am one of the founding members of the Open Newsroom, and am a fairly frequent contributor, including to the thread discussed here).

There was a clear consensus of several contributors that, based on the way news typically spreads out of Adra, the patterns involved in this story did not add up. For instance, much of the first reporting of these incidents where in Arabic (as we’d expect) but were coming from two Facebook pages, both of which were set up the day that this story broke, and both of which posted very similar claims. The pages were widely promoted by established social media accounts, many of which are openly pro-Assad. Partisan social media sites established by parties unknown strictly for the purpose of reporting a single incident should be red flags to professional news reports, especially those investigating the Syrian crisis.

As Storyful’s Felim McMahon pointed out, the other activity on social networks seemed to point to these Facebook pages as the original source of many of the claims, pages that had no track record or established credibility, and pages that have yet to post images or videos that can be independently corroborated. The images that have been posted have been debunked, or do not show bodies at all.

Weeks later there is still no evidence corroborating RT’s claims, despite the fact that the Syrian army appears to be retaking at least parts of the town from the rebels. By December 31st, the Syrian State media outlet, SANA, reports that thousands of civilians have been “evacuated” from the town. Not one of these civilians has posted a picture or video to social networks that proves that a massacre has taken place or that any group is responsible for crimes in Adra. On January 2nd, RT published an article carrying claims from the Syrian government that more than 100 people were executed by Islamists in the town. The article is currently unavailable for reasons unknown, but can be read here.

In other words, there is no sign that a “massacre,” or anything close to that word, ever happened in Adra.

On the other hand, the Syrian opposition in Adra pre-dates even the armed insurgency in Syria. The Local Coordination Committees, run by moderate opposition members, have a presence in the town, but they have not reported any such massacre. For instance, on December 12th, they reported that the FSA, moderate rebels, had captured a security checkpoint, and a different part of the city already in rebel control was being shelled by Assad mortars, leading to the deaths of 6 people. On the 14th, the LCC reported that opposition members found a group of frozen bodies, 11 in all, possibly in an area that had recently fallen to opposition forces — but no sign of a sectarian massacre resembling the one claimed by the pro-Assad websites.

For those of us who have been reporting on Syria for some time, we are very familiar with the way rumors and reports of horrors of this scale matriculate. Usually, they originate from social media reports, as witnesses testify of a recent event. Often, but not always, those witnesses soon post pictures and videos themselves. But there are times when the rumors spread faster than the evidence, and it takes some time for those who verify these incidents on the ground, the Syrian citizen journalists, to capture the images. Within a day or two, however, the evidence either emerges or the rumors are dismissed as just that — unsubstantiated rumor. The Syrian people have become skilled reporters because they have witnessed perhaps far more than 130,000 deaths and many groups, such as the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), have documented tens of thousands of those deaths, or at least the bodies of the deceased.  If 80 people were brutally murdered in a single town nearly a month ago, we should have seen the evidence by now.

RT still spreads the Adra message

As early as December 17th, there was growing consensus within the community of journalists who cover Syria that either there was no massacre in Adra, or at the very least there was not enough evidence to continue to repeat the news of the alleged massacre without heavy stipulation. In particular, Storyful’s Open Newsroom appeared to reach unanimous consent that there was no evidence confirming that the Adra massacre had taken place. The group openly discusses best practices and verification techniques, and it welcomes conversation, as the goal of the room is to verify or debunk reports. Ivor Crotty, an editor at RT, is a member of the forum, and he was fully aware of the criticisms made of Adra story in the forum. In fact, he even took part in the conversation. His only response to the gathering evidence that a massacre may never have happened is revealing:

ivor crotty on adra

The next day RT’s reports were more inflammatory and less stipulated than previous reports. “At least 80 people were massacred there,” RT’s anchor says factually, without any disclaimer. 1

 

A rallying cry for those who support Assad or oppose helping the opposition

While RT’s editor was discussing the attack in one forum, on the other hand RT was already using Adra as a central rallying cry in its criticism of “the role of the NATO military alliance, Turkey, the US and Israel in supporting the so-called freedom fighters in Syria.” Take, for instance, this excerpt from an interview conducted with Canadian academic Michel Chossudovsky on December 17th, where Adra is used as an example of American support for terrorism:

RT: We are hearing that atrocities and cruelty have happened in Adra, where 80 people have been killed [note that this is stated as fact - JM]. In your experience is it taking the atrocities to a new level?

Michel Chossudovsky: We have to ask who is behind these atrocities. This is a new wave of killings; it is part of the humanitarian crisis. But we must understand that from the very outset of this conflict the Western military alliance has covertly supported the terrorists with a view of destabilizing Syria’s nation state. There’s ample evidence to these facts that the United States, NATO and Israel are behind the rebels, and that these rebels are trained in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and then they come in and commit atrocities. The issue is who the underlying masters behind this humanitarian disaster are, what the geopolitical implications are, what the agenda is.

RT: In terms what’s been reported in Adra, there is very little mainstream media coverage of this, although we hear a lot about the alleged government attack on Aleppo recently. Why, do you think, that is?

MC: I can’t address this issue. The issue I’d like to address is the fact that in the recent weeks there has been an important shift in the relationship between the US government on the one hand and what is now being presented as the New Islamic Front. We see now that the United States is, in fact, negotiating and establishing a dialogue with the leaders of these terrorist organizations. There is also a possibility that the aid to Al-Nusra, to the jihadist groups involved in these atrocities will be channeled not through the Syrian Free Army, which is in disarray following the ransack of its headquarters, and the fact that General [Salim] Idris has, in fact, resigned and he is no longer in command.

The claims here are strong. The US was working with terrorists to conduct terrorism, and Adra is a prime example. But just like the rest of RT’s coverage of this issue, several distortions have to take place in order to establish this argument. For instance, Jabhat al Nusra, a group that is not a member of the Islamic Front, has been declared a terrorist organization by the American government. The US is not interacting with Jabhat al Nusra, and in fact is not even (yet) negotiating directly with the Islamic Front, which was established to be an Islamist fighting group, but one that is a more moderate alternative to Al Nusra. And it is the Islamic Front that was primarily responsible for the capture of Adra from government control, not Al Nusra (though Jabhat al Nusra was present) nor its more extreme cousin, ISIS (which did not take part in the assault). In order to accept RT’s narrative here, we therefore also have to believe that even the moderate groups of rebels, formed to serve as a hedge against Al-Qaeda-linked groups, would permit such a massacre without raising the alarm.

Furthermore, RT’s complaining about the media coverage of the Adra massacre is curious. Most of the world learned about the alleged massacre not because of an overwhelming body of evidence streaming from Syria, but because of the claims, which remain unverified, coming from RT itself. Yet even RT’s Ivor Crotty, who is a member of the Open Newsroom, has failed to even try to establish the facts of the massacre in the forum established for journalists specifically for that purpose. So not only are there completely obvious reasons why there would be no media coverage of the Adra massacre, arguing that the mainstream media was ignoring the story when RT’s editor was failing to answer their questions seems suspect.

It’s also interesting that while there may be hundreds or thousands of videos and pictures of “barrel bombs” and their aftermath in Aleppo, and the phenomenon has been well-documented by photojournalists, citizen journalists and established sources, these claims are given a very careful disclaimer.

Worse yet, not only did RT continue to discuss the alleged massacre at Adra, despite how “impressive” Crotty believed the skeptics to be, they also dropped their disclaimers and qualifications about the reliability of the story. RT has changed their carefully-stipulated claims about the uncertainty of their sourcing. In other words, the story of the Adra massacre, in RT’s coverage at least, has moved from an unverified report to an established fact.

For example, on December 19th RT ran a story about Amnesty International’s worries that radical jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda were engaging in the kidnapping and torture of prisoners. Their closing paragraph used Adra as an example of how these incidents were widespread:

It’s not the first time that the Syrian rebel factions become known for human rights violations and extreme violence. On Wednesday, Russia condemned a massacre in the town of Adra, 20 kilometers north of Damascus, where jihadist rebel groups executed dozens of civilians, including children, beheading them or burning them alive. At least 80 people reportedly were killed.

RT’s facts are all in dispute, but the only qualification in this statement is the body count, which, according to RT, is perhaps only an estimate.

And the impact of this distortion by RT? By December 18th, the Russian Foreign Ministry was already reporting the Adra massacre, which may never have happened, as an established fact that proves that the Syrian rebels are all terrorists.

As they say in the computer programming world, however, Russian state-owned media’s failure to verify their facts is not a “bug.” It’s a feature.


UPDATE:

  1. Ivor Crotty responded to this article by saying that he did not work on these stories and the meaning of his comment was misconstrued: “My comment related to an ongoing discussion of building social media sources into RT stories, cross-platform publishing and other network-building issues, not to the merits of the Adra story per se.” When asked whether RT would be addressing any of these issues, this was his response: “James once again, I’m on (Open Newsroom) in a personal capacity and do not speak on behalf of RT here. I return to work from 3 weeks holidays tomorrow.”

    On January 10, 2014 11:08, as a response this article, the fake picture on the December 18th story was removed at the bequest of Ivor Crotty.