On October 30, the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom quoted Russia’s Defense Ministry as saying that members of the Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the “White Helmets,” were “filming” evidence of chemical warfare use. It also said that the White Helmets had received canisters of chlorine or some other chemical agent from “terrorist groups they support.”
Over the past few months, Russia’s Defense Ministry and other Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that the White Helmets were filming fake chemical weapons attacks. They have never provided evidence for this or explained how they obtained or confirmed such detailed information about the White Helmets’ activity.
The most prominent element in the Russian embassy’s October 30 tweet is the image. In it, we see two White Helmets volunteers approaching a man who appears to be dead or wounded. The bottom right corner has the logo for RT, the Russian state-owned foreign language TV channel, and the upper left corner identifies the video as having come from the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Center, a channel associated with the Syrian opposition.
A reverse image search on the Tineye site by Polygraph.info revealed the source of the photo. It is a screengrab from a video posted on the RFS channel on November 22, 2016, titled “The Edge of Death #MannequinChallenge.” The hashtag #MannequinChallenge is associated with a viral internet trend, where people would be frozen in action, standing absolutely still, imitating mannequins, while a video camera moves through the scene. Many of these videos depicted people at work or in action scenes.
Almost immediately, supporters of the Syrian government began claiming the video was proof that the White Helmets had staged their rescue footage. An article published by RT in November 2016 featured the same image attached to the Russian U.K. Embassy’s October 30 tweet, and claimed that the video raised questions about the authenticity of other videos taken by the White Helmets. The RT article also claimed that the video was removed from the group’s accounts a few hours after it was posted. While the video does not appear on the Syrian Civil Defense’s own video channel, it is still up on the RFS channel and is embedded within the RT article itself. The RT article also acknowledged that the White Helmets openly identified the video with the Mannequin Challenge, and did not claim to be footage of an actual rescue.
After coming under criticism for the video, the White Helmets volunteers who did the Mannequin Challenge apologized for doing it, claiming that they were hoping it would bring more attention to the situation in Aleppo, which was under siege by Syrian government forces at the time.
Another aspect of the image tweeted by the Russian U.K. Embassy on October 30 is the easy-to-miss disclaimer in the bottom left-hand corner, which reads “Image used for illustration purposes only.” This disclaimer often appears on images tweeted by the Russian U.K. Embassy, although in this case it is small and difficult to read, especially if the reader doesn’t click on the photo to enlarge it. As it is, it a reader could easily interpret the photo to be evidence that the White Helmets stage attacks, as the Russian Ministry claims.
With this tweet, the Russian U.K. embassy Twitter feed joins earlier similar disinformation narratives by Russian diplomats involving the White Helmets. On August 27, the Russian Embassy in the Republic of South Africa tweeted a claim that the White Helmets were filming a staged chemical attack (no chemical attack or video of an alleged attack surfaced). The tweet featured an image of what appeared to be a White Helmet volunteer on a film set. The photo was quickly identified as a shot from the movie Revolution Man, a Syrian government propaganda film about a man who stages fake government attacks - exactly the claim the Russian and Syrian governments have been making for years.
In April, Russian state TV claimed to have proof that the White Helmets had faked the footage from a chemical attack in Douma that month. For proof, the news report showed still photos of a film crew. However, these were identified as behind-the-scenes photos from the production of a short film about the war in Syria. That film, and the photos shown by Russian state TV, dated to 2016.
In conclusion, we find the Russian U.K. Embassy tweet to be misleading, and part of official Russia’s ongoing narrative, without presenting evidence, to have detailed knowledge of plans to film fake chemical attacks. At the same time, Russian officials and state media have repeatedly spread fake or misleading photos in an attempt to support these claims.