How Russia is shaping the Syrian media narrative

On a summer evening in June 2000, the Syrian official television channel interrupted its regular broadcast and announced the death of the country’s then President Hafez al-Assad.

The screen turned black, declaring a 40-day official mourning period, during which television viewers were subjected to programmes about the accomplishments and heroism of the deceased president.

News was all but suppressed for weeks. Added to that, it later became clear that the president had been dead for some time before it was even reported on TV.

Mohamad Mansour, editor-in-chief of the al Arabi al Qadeem website and a former employee of Syrian television said: “We must remember the state of confusion and caution that prevailed at that time. Media workers hesitated until they received orders to announce the death; I even remember one department head at the television channel presenting a film about animals, leading to his dismissal as the authorities considered it an insult to Assad.”

Delaying the announcement of disasters, misfortunes, and deaths had been the standard approach by the Syrian regime for decades, but when Assad’s son Bashar replaced his father that changed:  the rapid dissemination of news, even about people in government inner circles, became the norm.

And now, it’s changing again. Controlling when and how news is released  is increasingly becoming the norm and some are suggesting this is an ominous sign of growing Russian influence in state affairs.

The latest sign of this was when the president’s closest adviser, Mrs Luna Al-Shibil, was involved in a car accident. She died from her injuries a few days later. While the Syrian independent media waited only a few hours to announce the accident involving Al-Shibil, it was days later before her death was officially confirmed by the government.

Journalist and activist Mostafa Al-Nuaimi believes that the Syrian regime today is resorting to a policy of denial just as it did in the past.

He told Index, “With the presence of social media and the presence of international intersections and multiple decision-making circles within its state, it sometimes has to disclose information that does not align with the mentality with which it governs the country. ”

Al-Nuaimi, who has closely followed the Arab Spring revolutions, believes that this all heralds a new phase of “eliminations” within the regime’s institutions is coming, driven by foreign influence.

He said the regime’s tactics in dealing with these eliminations will not change. “This is through denial in the first phase, followed by disseminating information through parallel media outlets, and then the official announcement through official media outlets. This is what happened with Luna Al-Shibil.”

As rumours circulate about the cause of Al-Shibil’s death, Al-Nuaimi says there were “claims she was sending information about the issue of the Iranian militias in Syria and its implications on the Syrian regime, and based on that, she was removed and completely dismissed.”

Syrian journalist Ahmad Primo, director of the Verify fact-checking platform, said, “I do not want to delve into the cause of death or illness because that is a separate discussion, especially since the regime has a long history in this regard.”

Primo did not notice any particular delay in announcing her death, regardless of its causes.

Primo said, “the announcement was quick, even if indirect, through the Presidency’s account on X.” However, no such announcement was made on official state television.

Announcements about the health of the President’s wife Asma also seem to have changed, perhaps to take the focus away from the eliminations. London-born Asma was diagnosed with leukaemia in May this year, following a successful recovery from breast cancer discovered in 2018.

Primo said, “The regime’s media machinery has taken a direct announcement approach since the start of military intervention [in Ukraine], especially given Russia’s involvement in all [Syrian] state details”.

He added: “I will not delve into the topic of conspiracy but I believe the regime seeks to gain credibility for what it publishes by pre-empting other media outlets.”

There is also the matter of the news that is never announced. Primo says that there is a lot of news about senior figures that is not officially announced but only becomes known to the media through leaks.

After nine years of Russian military intervention in Syria, observers believe that President Putin has achieved a large part of his goals. He has an effective strategic and military presence on the shores of the Mediterranean (huge Russian military bases have been built there), and President Bashar al-Assad has become a supporter of his  war in Ukraine even if that support is only in the media.

In a recent television interview, the Syrian president expressed his confidence that Russia would “emerge victorious” from the conflict in Ukraine and would once again “unite the two brotherly peoples”.

Egyptian journalist Hossam Al-Wakeel, editor-in-chief of fact-checking website Tafnied, said: “The official discourse is a fundamental means by which governments deliver information and form perceptions and concepts among the public and the different parties associated with the state.”

He added: “The official discourse must be responsible and transparent, but reality often does not align with this for many governments.”

He continued: “In the Syrian case…this pattern, if it has changed, should be linked to the political process managed by the regime at present, and the evolving nature of its relations and negotiations with the international community and with Russia.”

The delay or otherwise in making announcements by the regime is about political management and appeasing allies.

“There are potential gains [to be had] from accelerating the announcement of crises or disasters,” says Al-Wakeel, who says that Bashar al-Assad will be considering the internal situation as well as changes in the level of international engagement with the Syrian issue in light of the war in Ukraine and the war in Palestine to explore how best to take advantage.

As Russia consolidates its military grip on the country, its grip on the media appears to be tightening too.

Report pinpoints role of likely Russian troll networks in European election disinformation

A network of accounts flooded social media with disinformation in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections a new report has found.

The report was commissioned by the Social Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D) grouping together with the Dutch delegation GroenLinks-PvdA and produced by disinformation specialisists Trollrensics.

It reveals that organised networks of thousands of accounts, which the researchers believe are of likely Russian origin, actively influenced public opinion on X in France and Germany during the elections while voters in the Netherlands, Italy and the English-speaking public were also affected by the troll networks

Trollrensics’ data analysis showed that at least 20% of all tweets about the French far-right politician Zemour came from this troll network, for example. However, the research company estimated the actual percentage is significantly higher as the networks manipulated the X algorithm to amplify specific themes.

The research also found that German political party AfD received a huge boost thanks to the troll army. At least 10.7% of the tweets about the AfD came from the disinformation network.

The network focused mainly on spreading pro-Russian propaganda, messages about anti-vaxxers with anti-vaccination narratives and anti-LGBTIQ+ messages.

Thijs Reuten, an MEP for the S&D, said, “We commissioned this independent study as we were curious about the extent of online foreign interference and how measurable it is – especially because this sometimes seems so hard to ascertain. This study has shown that significant influence took place during the European elections. Troll armies managed to make topics trend and at the same time make certain news reports less visible.”

Reuten added, “This clearly shows our democracy is vulnerable and that foreign powers are willing to spend a lot of money and effort to sow division in our population. We need to defend ourselves better against such organised attempts of foreign interference. I expect the European Commission and the intelligence services to be on top of this. Our open society is in danger if troll armies are able to manipulate social media and, therefore, the public debate”.

The report confirms concerns from European groups that large-scale troll networks from Russia were attempting to influence the outcome of the elections.

Exhibition about Russian political prisoners cancelled over Israel-Gaza row

A Russian art collective which was due to open a show in London highlighting the plight of opponents of the Putin regime claim their exhibition was cancelled at the last minute because one of them was Israeli.

The Pomidor group was founded in Moscow in 2018 by the artists Polina Egorushkina and Maria Sarkisyants, but the duo was forced to relocate two years ago after the Kremlin crackdown on opposition activity. Egorushkina now lives in London and Sarkisyants in Ashkelon in southern Israel.

Their latest show, Even Elephants Hold Elections, was part of an ongoing project about free expression designed to challenge people in democratic countries to understand life in an authoritarian regime and reflect on their own experience. Pomidor’s work includes embroidered banners celebrating political prisoners which the artists display in friends’ windows and phone booths on the street.

Among these are tributes to Viktoria Petrova, imprisoned in a psychiatric unit for anti-war social media posts, Mikhail Simonov, a 63-year-old pensioner arrested for comments on other people’s social media and 13-year-old Masha Moskaleva, who was taken away from her father after drawing anti-war pictures at school.

The show was due to open on 3 July at the Metamorphika Gallery in east London. But on the evening before, the two artists were told the gallery had received messages raising concerns about “inappropriate behaviour” on social media.

This referred to two posts pinned on Maria’s Instagram account. One post from 7 October expressed her horror at the “terrible evil” and included the words, in Russian, “Israel my beloved, we are here, we are here to support each other, all my thoughts are with the kidnapped, let only them return home alive. Eternal memory to the fallen.” A second post marked the one-month anniversary and expressed solidarity with the Israeli hostages and their families.

Sarkisyants told Index they were called to an urgent meeting the next day: “They showed me the two posts and said you should clarify your position. I said, I am from Israel and there was nothing in the post but facts: 1200 people were killed and 300 became hostages.”

The gallery asked Pomidor to sign a joint statement with Metamorphika condemning “the Zionist regime”, which they refused to do. “I’m Israeli. I was there,” said Sarkisyants. “What they proposed was impossible for me to do”

After several hours of discussion, Pomidor suggested a compromise of putting the exhibition solely in the name of Polina, but the gallery demanded the collective remove all work connected with Maria. At this point the exhibition was cancelled.

Pomidor posted on Instagram: “The problem came up because Maria is from Israel.”

This is something the gallery strongly denies. Metamorphika founder Simon Ballester told Index: “We were really compassionate with her story. But we asked her to say she had empathy for Palestinians and was against the war crimes.”

Ballester said the problem came when Sarkisyants expressed her support for the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza.

“It’s outrageous” the artist told Index. “I told them I do not support Netanyahu or his government. I feel they betrayed us. We expected them to protect us, but they didn’t. But I support my country Israel and its people.”

Since the cancellation of the show, Metamorphika claims it has received over a thousand “hate mails, insults and threats”. According to Ballester, he and his colleagues have been accused of being “Nazis, rapists, antisemites and misogynistic scumbags”.

Asked if he now regretted cancelling the show he said: “I think it was the right thing. I’m sorry it was the day of the show. That was really unfortunate.” He said the gallery operated on humanist principles and was striving for peace and equality.

The Pomidor exhibition will next travel to Montreal in Canada and the artists are in discussion with a gallery in London to host the show later in the year.

Has Russian disinformation caused Europe’s lurch to the right?

While the outcome of the 2024 election is yet to be finalised, results at the time of writing show that Eurosceptic conservatives are on course to win an extra 14 seats (taking them to 83), while right-wing nationalists will gain nine seats (to 58). Overall, the right, including centre-right politicians of the European People’s Party grouping, has done well, largely at the expense of the liberal and green party groupings. With just five nations out of 27, including Italy and Estonia, remaining to publish their final results, the overall picture is unlikely to change dramatically.

The move to the far right is evident across Europe. France, which elects 81 members to the European Parliament (EP), was perhaps where this was most evident. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party is projected to receive around 31-32% of the vote, against President Macron’s centrist party, which is estimated to reach around 15% of the vote. Macron was so concerned about his party’s poor showing that he has called an election in the country. Belgium’s prime minister also handed in his resignation after the nationalist New Flemish Alliance emerged as the big winner after regional, national and European Parliament elections were held in the country on Super Sunday.

In Germany, Eurosceptic parties are projected to secure over 16% of the EP vote. The AfD tripled its support from voters under 24 from 5% in 2019 to 16% and gains six seats to reach 15. The Greens lost nine seats from 21 last time around. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party gained nearly 26% of the vote, gaining three seats, while in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s anti-immigration Party for Freedom gained six seats with 17% of the vote. A similar story played out in Poland, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia.

But what is driving Europe’s veer to the right?

There is some evidence that the success of the far right comes from millennial and Gen Z voters shifting towards these parties. A third of French voters under 34 and 22% of young German voters favour their country’s far right, while in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom has become the largest party among under-34s.

Young Europeans, mainly those aged 18-29, overwhelmingly rely on social media for daily news consumption. In Italy and Denmark, nearly three-quarters of young adults use social media for news daily (74% and 75%). A recent German youth study found that 57% of youth prefer social media for news and political updates.

There is growing concern that external actors, particularly from Russia, may have influenced the elections.

Media reports reveal that EU leaders were so concerned about foreign interference in the elections that they set up rapid alert teams to manage any serious incidents. Officials told the Guardian that disinformation has reached “tsunami levels.”

The evidence points to Russia.

Last December, France’s VIGINUM group, which is tasked with protecting France and its interests against foreign digital interference, published a report revealing a network of nearly 200 websites with addresses of the form pravda-xx.com or xx.news-pravda.com, where xx is the country identifier.

The sites, which generate little new content themselves, instead amplify existing pro-Russian content from state sources and social media, including posts from military blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk. Pro-Russian content relating to the Ukraine war is a particular favourite.

Thirty-four fact-checking organisations in Europe, showed that the Pravda network had spread to at least 19 EU countries. Fact-checking organisation Greece Fact Check, in cooperation with Pagella Politica and Facta news, has since noticed that the Pravda network has been attempting to convey large amounts of disinformation and pro-Russia propaganda to sway EU public opinion.

The organisation said that “minor pro-Russian politicians who run for the elections are quoted by state media such as Ria and then further amplified by the Pravda network, in what seems an attempt to magnify their relevance”.

A report by EDMO on EU-related disinformation ahead of the elections found that it was at its highest ever level in May 2024. Ministers for European affairs from France, Germany, and Poland cautioned about efforts to manipulate information and mislead voters. Across the EU, authorities observed a resurgence in coordinated operations spreading anti-EU and Ukraine narratives through fake news websites and on social media platforms Facebook and X.

Among the false stories that emerged and covered were reports that EU President Ursula Von der Leyen had links to Nazism and had been arrested in the European Parliament.

In Germany, there were stories circulating that the country’s vote was being manipulated, ballot papers with holes or corners cut were invalid and that anyone voting for the far-right party AfD would follow stricter rules. Other stories attempted to trick voters into multiple voting or signing their ballot papers, practices that would invalidate their votes.

The report also noted that around 4% of such disinformation articles have been created using AI tools.

The tsunami of disinformation looks unlikely to fade away any time soon. The Guardian says that the EU’s rapid alert teams have been asked to continue their work for weeks after the election.

A senior official told the paper, “The expectation is that it is around election day that we will see this interruption of narratives questioning the legitimacy of the European elections, and in the weeks around it.”