On July 30, the Russian Embassy in Syria’s Twitter account was suspended and then restored the next day. Other Russian Embassy Twitter accounts responded, accusing Twitter of censorship and claiming that the banned account was only giving “factual criticism” about the Syrian Civil Defense group, the rescue workers more popularly known as the White Helmets.
A tweet on July 29 from the Damascus account stated “Everything you always wanted to know about the #WhiteHelmets in #Syria,” and displayed a graphic with Russia’s oft-repeated accusations of “fake news” and “staged rescues” as well as connections to “terrorist groups.”It is not clear if this is the tweet that prompted Twitter’s action.
The claim of “factual criticism” came from the Russian Embassy in South Africa’s Twitter account. Polygraph.info has previously fact checked this account for tweeting false and misleading information about the White Helmets.
In August 2018, the account of the embassy in South Africa tweeted a photo of a man in a white construction helmet standing on what appeared to be a movie set, with text that read:
“Russian Defence Ministry: English-speaking “foreign specialists” have arrived in #Syria to attempt staging chlorine chemical attack early this week. Latest intel indicates the hoax is planned to take place in the village of Kafr Zita (Hama province) #HoaxAlert”
In fact, the photo does not depict a member of the Syrian Civil Defense. It is actually a movie set for an Assad regime-produced film called Revolution Man. The Russians never produced evidence for the “foreign specialists” mentioned in the tweet, and both before and since then have accused the White Helmets of staging chemical and other attacks without providing evidence.
Regardless of the claims about the White Helmets, it is not clear why Twitter suspended the Russian account, or why it was restored the next day. The Russian Syrian Embassy’s account said it had been suspended for violating Twitter’s rules, but which rule was not specified. There was speculation that the ban was connected to recently announced policy changes that would affect the accounts of politicians and other state officials. However, it is unclear whether this had anything to do with the ban on the Russian account.
The Russian Foreign Ministry accounts complaints about “thought police” and censorship could be viewed in the context of what the Russian government does to its own citizens over behavior on social media. Several people have been criminally charged for content posted online or simply shared. In the most extreme cases, even “liking” certain content has led to charges.
In March 2019, President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the insulting of state officials on the internet.