by and for citizen investigative journalists

There’s No Such Thing as a Good Fake – When Publicity Stunts Go Wrong

November 30, 2016

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

The work of open source investigators frequently involves using content shared on social media. The reliability of those sources is something that is always under question, not only by the investigators themselves, but also by those who would try to discredit that type of content as being unreliable.

A good open source investigation would not rely on individual claims, videos, or images without cross referencing them against other information, at the most basic level geolocating images used to support a claim, but for those attempting to discredit the field of open source investigation and specific sources of information, this fact is generally ignored.

Occasionally, in attempting to raise awareness about a situation, groups or individuals have created content that results in nothing more than helping those who would try to discredit their work, and the work of open source investigators.

The latest victims of their own efforts are the Syrian White Helmets, a rescue organisation whose members wear body cameras, and have emerged as one of the leading sources of evidence of air strikes against civilian infrastructure in the Syrian conflict.

Because of this, they have regularly been smeared by the Syrian and Russian governments, and decried as fakes and terrorists. Russian state TV outlet RT (formerly “Russia Today”), for example, ran an opinion piece on 26 October by writer Vanessa Beeley, who labeled them a “terrorist support group and Western propaganda tool”, while a separate report a week earlier questioned the White Helmets’ neutrality by claiming that they were funded by Western governments. As early as May, Kremlin wire Sputnik called the White Helmets a “controversial quasi-humanitarian organisation” which was “fabricating ‘evidence’ of Russia’s ‘disastrous’ involvement in Syria”. This Sputnik piece also quoted Beeley, as saying that the White Helmets “demonize the Assad government and encourage direct foreign intervention.”

The Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office (RFS) recently published a video of members of the White Helmets rescue organisation participating in the Mannequin Challenge, a social media craze where people are filmed standing still in various situations as the camera moves through the space. Recent famous examples include one filmed on Hillary Clinton’s campaign aircraft and one filmed at the White House. The White Helmets’ Mannequin Challenge video shows a simulated rescue taking place, which for an organisation that has to weather accusation of fakery immediately caught the attention of commentators:

Soon popular pro-Assad social media accounts were reposting the video outside of its original context, as evidence of White Helmets fakery:

Elsewhere, pro-Assad and conspiracy blogs were publishing articles with headlines like “UNCLOAKED: White Helmets Rescue Crisis Actor in ‘Mannequin Challenge’ Fakery”. RT soon began to report on the video, citing the opinions of “independent researchers” such as the same Vanessa Beeley, who this time described the White Helmets as “a fraudulent shadow-state construct created by NATO to simply propagate the propaganda that will demonize Assad’s government and also demonize Russian legal intervention in Syria”.

By the time the White Helmets and RSF had responded, and despite the clear intention of the video, those who wished to attack the reputation of the White Helmets and those working with open source material had already established that the video, at least in their eyes, was yet more clear evidence of the White Helmets creating fake videos. Ultimately, what was meant to be an attempt at raising awareness resulted in feeding the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and those who had reasons to attack the credibility of the White Helmets, and little else.

This was not the first time an awareness campaign had backfired horribly. In November 2014, a video was shared online showing what appeared to be a young boy rescuing a young girl, apparently after being shot. The video was reported on widely, but a few days later it transpired the film, known as Syrian Hero Boy, had been made in Malta by a Norwegian director funded by the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) with the aim of raising awareness of the situation in Syria. In this instance, there was nothing in the description of the video to state it was fake, and as with the White Helmets video, this was yet again used to attack the reliability of videos from conflict zones. Human rights activists, researchers, and others condemned the video, stating “It is reckless and irresponsible to distribute a fictional film as real footage thus belittling the very real suffering of Syria’s children and the very serious work by professional and citizen journalists inside Syria.”

These two experiences teach two lessons, one negative, the other positive. The negative lesson is that creating fake images, no matter for what reason, seriously damages the credibility of the creator, and all those who work in the same field. The information environment is not neutral: hostile actors will seize on any excuse to attack and denigrate NGOs which they find inconvenient, even when it’s clearly stated that a video is part of something such as the Mannequin Challenge.

The more positive aspect is that these experiences underline, yet again, the value of open source research. The importance of the White Helmets is precisely that their evidence allows us to expose the civilian suffering caused, and denied, by the Russian government. The importance of open source research more broadly is that it allows us to expose fakes no matter who makes them – even if it is the Russian Ministry of Defense faking satellite imagery. Ultimately, these examples show that the modern information environment makes it increasingly easy to expose fakes, and increasingly difficult to hide them.

With additional contributions from Ben Nimmo.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.


  1. nyolci

    Dear Eliot,

    We have been a bit disappointed with this writing of yours ‘cos you being our God (or at least Demigod) of OSI and Citizen Investigative Journalism should have felt the particular bad smell that surrounded not just this video but the White Helmets in general. Anyway, you are our Hero and Teacher, and perhaps this is just an Easy Challenge (or Joke?) from you to us to point out the obvious problems, for Educational Purposes, of course.

    So I take the Challenge, start from The Particular, and arrive to The General.

    1. While it is possible that the White Helmets made this video in their free time just for the lulz, it resembles their normal output in such a great extent (the word “identical” keeps popping up in my head) that the only difference is seemingly that this one may be the director’s cut of a completely ordinary White Helmet piece. Perhaps we they are the first who could perfectly blend postmodernism with rescue activities, and, wanting to get the credit for this at last, they issued it for the sophisticated and educated public as opposed to their normal stuff that would usually go to the undeserving masses. Perhaps they just wanted to show they could produce a “Blair Witch Project” and not just another “Sharknado”.

    2. As you surely know, we, OSI activists and Citizen Journalists, have already demonstrated the obviously defective nature of White Helmet films. You must be proud of us, we’ve been very good pupils of yours. Remember some prime examples, like The Girl Who Has Been Saved Three Times (with subheading of: In Three Different Provinces, Sometimes In Rural Setting). Actually we’ve done such a great amount of background work that their “Mannequin” video, which can be firmly placed in the Werkfilm genre, is completely superfluous, we already know how they make their stuff. This more or less applies to most of the output of the “Syrian” “Opposition” (punctuation is intentional).

    3. The ownership structure of the White Helmets has been throughly uncovered, with Western investors (mostly in PR) firmly in command, and the State Department as the one with the last word. You must really be very-very proud of us now, ‘cos this chain of command has been demonstrated so clearly that it is well beyond the usual “Putin did it for sure” type evidence.

    4. The well known and well documented (by us, who else!) links of the White Helmets to Al Queda and Jihadis again must be another source of pride to you. We have to admit that this particular point (and the previous as well) was quite quite easy, but still, it is an achievement.

    So, to summarize, the White Helmets, as you surely know (and known much earlier than us), are a propaganda outlet of the various Al Queda and Jihadi moderate headchoppers, with wide support from the West, and eventually they are State Controlled in the concrete and figurative meaning of the word (like State as the United States, and the State Department as well, who witty it is!). That’s why their Mannequin video was regarded by the broad masses as the admission of the already obvious.

    I think I’ve tackled your challenge.

    • CoalitionForChristmas

      Beautifully tackled, indeed.

      A sad state of affairs, when such a popular ‘open source investigative’ site such as this becomes so horribly biased.

      A nice fallacious twist by the author(s) here, though – stating multiple times how discrediting this ‘mannequin challgenge’ is an insult to the OSINT community (while adding sarcastic quotations around investigative journalists they disagree with!).

      When all else fails, appeal to emotion, eh?

  2. duplicitousdemocracy

    Perhaps Vanessa Beeley’s conclusion came from the many images of the White Helmet employees being photographed and videoed with Al Nusra and affiliates. Questioned impartiality may be a result of only being active in anti government areas. They claim to be independent yet the US, UK and Dutch governments have all admitted to funding them. The White Helmets appeal constantly to stop the barrel bombs, a NFZ would be the only solution, indirectly calling for intervention.
    Derisory comments regarding conspiracy theorists are tongue in cheek, right? After all, some of this sites claims would embarrass the most fervent cynic. James Le Mesurier was awarded an OBE by the British government in June 2016 for “services to Syria Civil Defence and the protection of civilians in Syria”.

    • Arya Stark

      The White Helmets have received over $100 million in funding from Western governments and NGOs.

      There are no clear signs from their videos with no modern search and rescue equipment as to what this vast sum has been spent on.

  3. Mad Dog

    Wow, the trolls are out in force on this one. Must be break time at RT. Either that or this is a nice trap devised by Elliot to bring them out of the woodwork. Nothing substantial in these responses, just the same old Kremlin tripe discounting anything bad about Russian brutality in Syria that is only topped by Assad thuggery.


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