Russia bombards Western allies with cyber attacks in Syria defence
London: Russia has “reignited” its disinformation campaign against the UK and US, at a time when the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is likely to face heavy political pressure over her decision to bomb Syria’s chemical weapons program.
On Monday pro-Russian sympathisers and bots were busy spreading a Russian claim that there was no chemical attack on Douma, or that it was a “false flag” operation by the White Helmets rescue volunteer group.
They even claim the attack was staged to distract the public from a supposed lack of clarity about who poisoned ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salibsury in March.
NATO’s disinformation monitors in Europe say they have seen a concerted effort by Russia to deny the Douma attack took place, despite confirmation from the World Health Organisation, rescue workers, independent journalists and medics.
“Immediately after the reports of a suspected chemical attack in Syrian Douma appeared, Russia reignited its disinformation campaign on the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” NATO’s East Stratcom Task Force reported.
Syria is by far the leading hashtag on social media accounts identified as part of Russia-linked influence networks, according to Hamilton 68, a website set up by researchers working with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a transatlantic project set up to counter Russian disinformation campaigns.
But the top single web page being promoted was a link to a report on Russia’s claim that the Skripals were poisoned with a different toxin to the one identified by the independent chemical weapons watchdog last week.
According to the Dininfo Review, published by NATO’s East Stratcom Task Force which focuses on countering pro-Kremlin propaganda, there is a “serious risk that Russia wins the information confrontation”.
The Kremlin was attempting to “flood the information space with misleading and deliberately false stories”, Stratcom said. One analysis found that Russian disinformation accounted for two out of every three articles about the Skripal case shared on social media.
According to media reports the UK government has confirmed a “20-fold” increase in disinformation being spread by Kremlin-linked social media “bot” accounts since the UK, US and France attacked Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure on Saturday.
British intelligence agencies warned the Putin regime could hit back with “dirty tricks” such as distributing compromising material on members of the May cabinet.
They have even prepared for a direct cyber-attack on UK national infrastructure: saying they had “pre-positioned” inside Russian computer networks and would launch a retaliatory attack if the UK was targeted.
Russia has strongly opposed the UK, US and France’s action against Syria.
In anticipation of the allies’ action, on Friday British media were invited to Russia’s UK ambassador’s private residence, just behind Kensington Palace.
Over an hour and a quarter the ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, promoted Russia’s view: showing video footage from Syria that he said showed the absence of any evidence of a chlorine attack or its victims.
He also showed an edited video that first showed former prime minister Tony Blair’s complete confidence in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then his later contrition for misleading the public.
Yakovenko also claimed the “White Helmets” group in Syria had staged the latest attack in Douma.
This is a common Russian claim that has successfully spread online – it was echoed by Pink Floyd founder and frontman Roger Waters, who told a concert on Friday “the White Helmets are a fake organisation that exists only to create propaganda for the jihadists and terrorists”.
May was due to face the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, UK time, to deliver a statement on the Syria attack and face questions from MPs.
Though the government does not legally have to consult parliament over military action, it has been a strong political convention since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Opposition parties said May should have consulted parliament before the UK joined the US and France in Saturday’s air strike – and Labour has called for the convention to be confirmed in law.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said a new War Powers Act would ensure “governments do get held accountable to Parliament for what they do in our name”.
He said he would only consider backing intervention in Syria with the support of the United Nations – where Russia holds a veto in the Security Council.
In an excerpt of her statement distributed overnight, May was expected to tell MPs she acted “because it is in our national interest to do so”.
UN inspectors had confirmed Syrian responsibility for previous strikes and the regime was “highly likely” responsible for the most recent use of chemical weapons on Douma.
May was to say the UK could not allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised.
“There were clearly attempts to block any proper investigation, as we saw with the Russian veto at the UN earlier in the week,” she said. “We cannot wait to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks.”