In times of war it's important but often difficult to distinguish truth from propaganda. So the newly-formed "Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media" – comprising three professors, two lecturers and three postgraduate researchers at British universities – ought to be a welcome development.
"At present," the group say, "there exists an urgent need for rigorous academic analysis of media reporting of this war, the role that propaganda has played in terms of shaping perceptions of the conflict and how these relate to broader geo-strategic process within the [Middle East] region and beyond."
The group's aim, they continue, is to "encourage networking amongst academics as well as the development of conference papers and panels, articles and research monographs, and the development of research funding bids. We also aim to provide a source of reliable, informed and timely analysis for journalists, publics and policymakers."
So far, so good. But on closer examination the working group itself seems more like a propaganda exercise than a serious academic project.
Published articles by leading members of the group give plenty of clues as to what the project is really about. They dispute almost all mainstream narratives of the Syrian conflict, especially regarding the use of chemical weapons and the role of the White Helmets search-and-rescue organisation. They are critical of western governments, western media and various humanitarian groups but show little interest in applying critical judgment to Russia's role in the conflict or to the controversial writings of several journalists who happen to share their views.
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The group's steering committee consists of Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory at Edinburgh universiy, Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics (also at Edinburgh) and Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at Sheffield university.
On the Edinburgh university website Prof Hayward's iconoclastic postings about "how we were misled" over Syria" include critiques of Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières and the British Channel 4 News. There's plenty more, in a similar vein, on his personal website.
Meanwhile, two articles on the question of chemical weapons in Syria by Prof McKeigue (here and here) adopt a highly original approach – original to the point of absurdity. Using "probability calculus", with some assistance from Bayes’ theorem and Hempel’s paradox, McKeigue evaluates various hypotheses regarding the events in Ghouta (2013) and Khan Sheikhoun (2017).
He concludes there is "overwhelming" evidence that these were not chemical attacks by the Assad regime but "a managed massacre of captives [by rebels], with rockets and sarin used to create a trail of forensic evidence that would implicate the Syrian government in a chemical attack".
This, he adds, "has quite radical implications for the credibility of western media, western governments and international agencies such as OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]; you may reasonably ask 'how could they have got it so wrong?'."
At Sheffield university, Prof Robinson is also a chemical weapons sceptic (though in a more conventional way) and a critic of the White Helmets. He views the Syrian conflict as part of a western strategy of regime change dating back to the 2003 Iraq war:
"The bottom line here is that, given their desire for regime change in Syria, and for precisely the same reasons that intelligence was spun in the Iraq case, there are powerful incentives for western governments to distort and exaggerate in the case of Syria in order to create the casus belli they so desperately want ...
"With respect to Syria, it is now well established that there have been significant propaganda activities designed to manipulate public opinion in support of western regime change objectives."
Other members of the group, according to its website, are Dr Florian Zollmann, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle university, Dr Tara McCormack, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Leicester university who also has a regular slot on Russia's Sputnik News, and three PhD candidates: Louis Allday (SOAS, University of London), Divya Jha and Jake Mason (both at Sheffield university).
Mason is working on a thesis entitled "Spinning Syria: The development and function of the British government's propaganda in the Syrian Civil War", supervised by Prof Robinson. The group's website was registered in Mason's name on January 25 this year.
'Rigorous academic analysis'
The "Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media" is essentially a campaigning organisation. Its members, of course, have a right to express their opinions and promote them through activism. The worrying part, though, especially in the light of their stated intention to seek "research funding", is their claim to be engaging in "rigorous academic analysis" of media reporting on Syria.
If that's the aim, the same level of academic rigour needs to be applied across the board. But while members of the group are generally very critical of mainstream media in the west, a handful of western journalists – all of them controversial figures – escape similar scrutiny. Instead, their work is lauded and recommended.
One of the journalists is Max Blumenthal whose views on the white helmets (here and here) are shared by the working group. The two favourites, though, are Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley – "independent" journalists who are frequent contributors to the Russian propaganda channel, RT. Bartlett and Beeley also have an enthusiastic following on "alternative" and conspiracy theory websites though elsewhere they are widely dismissed as propagandists. Either way, their activities are part of the overall media battle regarding Syria and any "rigorous academic analysis" of the coverage should be scrutinising their work rather than promoting it unquestioningly.
The working group also claims to be researching "the role that propaganda has played in terms of shaping perceptions of the conflict and how these relate to [the] broader geo-strategic process". It's difficult to see how that can be done without taking into account Russia's propaganda strategy and its efforts to influence opinion in the west.
Prof Robinson has a rather charitable view of Russia's English-language media, such as RT and Sputnik News. He doesn't deny they are propaganda channels but objects to the idea that western media are somehow different. Writing in the Guardian, he says:
"Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of 'our' media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful 'public relations', 'strategic communication' and 'public diplomacy' while the Russians lie through 'propaganda'."
He goes on to say: "One can gain useful insights and information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as 'propaganda' outlets: Russia Today, al-Jazeera and Press TV should certainly not be off-limits." Separately, when various British politicians were criticised for appearing on RT, Robinson rose to their defence:
"People are coming on RT in order to express legitimate political views and they are coming onto RT because they are probably having great difficulty getting onto existing ‘legitimate’ mainstream media in the west. In many ways RT is providing an important outlet for these people who are not getting their voices heard elsewhere."
But Putin clearly doesn't fund RT in order to support free speech, and suggesting the key difference between western propaganda and Russian propaganda is in the way they are perceived misses an important point. The Russians have been developing new propaganda techniques for the internet age and applying them to the Syrian conflict – which is one reason why they are worth studying.
RT's slogan is "Question More" – and it's brilliantly mischievous, because questioning more sounds like something we all should be doing. Scepticism is healthy, but only up to a point. Obviously, people should be encouraged to view media – in the west as elsewhere – with a critical eye and look out for attempts to manipulate them. Problems start, though, when people become so sceptical that they can't recognise truth when it's presented to them.
This is where RT's mischief-making comes in. Questioning more – Moscow style – is about manufacturing uncertainty.
Examples of the technique can be seen in Russia's response to the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine and the chemical attacks in Syria. The trick is to cast doubt on rational but unwelcome explanations by advancing multiple alternative "theories" – ideas that may be based on nothing more than speculation or green-ink articles on obscure websites.
It doesn't much matter if some of the theories are mutually contradictory or highly fanciful, because the purpose is not to persuade people that any particular theory is correct, The point is to cause so much confusion that people have no idea what to believe.
This might seem like an obvious issue for the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media to be looking at. But don't hold your breath. Prof Robinson has already been complaining onTwitter about "the crazed obsession with Russia".