THE mainstream media has a notoriously short attention span, but it seems to have largely lost interest in the chemical warfare attacks allegedly made with Russian connivance in Salisbury and Douma. The UK victims, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, have made what is officially described as a miraculous recovery and been spirited away, furnished, we are told, with new identities. Douma has fallen off the map since Donald Trump hurled a few missiles at Syrian targets last month. However, while the press and TV have moved on to other things, the story has continued to have wings on social media.
Indeed, there has been what can only be described as a blizzard of conspiracy theories about the attack on the former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in March. This was not helped by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s catastrophic mistake in grossly exaggerating the amount of the novichok used in the poisoning. Its spokesman, Ahmet Üzümcü, claimed last week that 50-100 grams of the nerve agent had been used – enough to kill everyone in Salisbury twice over and something like a genuine act of warfare by a hostile state. The OPCW had to make an embarrassing correction, saying that the quantity was in “milligrams not grams”, which didn’t rule out Russian involvement, but made it rather less like the use of a weapon of mass destruction.
For their part, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed recently that a toxic agent, BZ, was present at the scene which linked the killing to the US. The OPCW has denied this and insists that there was no BZ at the Salisbury site before their arrival there. But that hasn’t hasn’t stopped people thinking that something very fishy went on in the English market town in March. Indeed, if you search for Skripal on Twitter you could be forgiven for believing that the case against Russian involvement has collapsed and that the OPCW has itself, somehow, exonerated the Russian state. It hasn’t, of course. It is clear that the most likely source has been the Russian state, but that still hasn’t been proved in any legal sense. Influential bloggers including the former British diplomat, Craig Murray, and the former civil servant and whistleblower, Clive Ponting, continue to cast doubt on the West’s account of the poisoning. Ponting believes that at the very least, there is a cover-up of UK involvement, concealed by a “D-notice” preventing press coverage.
Similarly, there has been an abrupt halt to the saturation press coverage of the chemical weapons attack in Douma in Syria. Since the American/French/UK bombing missions in that country last month, there has been a virtual news blackout. It seems as if President Trump is being treated with greater respect by the Western media, who were mostly supportive of military intervention there. But there seems little direct interest in the aftermath on the ground in Syria. The OPCW has completed its mission to the stricken town, but hasn’t produced any conclusions as yet. This has turbo-charged the conspiracy theories – or at least extreme scepticism about the nature of the attack.
There has been much criticism of the BBC’s alleged failure to cover hearings at the OPCW in the Hague last week featuring alleged eye-witnesses who insist that the attack on Douma was not chemical in nature. This included 11-year-old Hassan Diab who had featured in Western media footage of the immediate aftermath as one of the victims. Seventeen medical staff from the hospital, some of whom had been filmed treating alleged chemical weapons casualties by dousing them with water, also insisted that there had been no chemical attack.
Now, these witnesses had of course been rounded up by the victorious Syrian government after the fall of Douma, and they were brought to the Hague by the Russians as part of their attempt to discredit Donald Trump’s cruise missile assault. Questions have been raised about whether the witnesses, including the 11 year old boy, might have been coerced or bribed or both. The Western media mostly dismissed the Hague hearings as a contrived propaganda exercise. However, the video reports, mostly on Russia Today (RT) have been widely circulated on the internet and regarded as credible by a large audience on Twitter.
The veteran war correspondent, Robert Fisk, has also provided reports from Douma that contradict Western accounts. These have been amplified by commentaries from Craig Murray and others raising doubts about what really happened in Syria. There is a widespread view, almost a consensus on social media, that Douma was staged by the “White Helmet” volunteers, or people close to them, who many on the internet claim are actually Islamic fundamentalists linked to al Qaeda. Confusingly, there are also eye witness accounts from survivors, like Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, claiming that the chemical attack did happen but was instigated by the Islamist rebels. There have been photos circulated of chemical weapons laboratories used by Jaysh al-Islam, a Saudi-backed terrorist group. Much doubt has been cast on these images, not least because they were apparently procured by the Syrian army. Sceptical commentators have claimed that the “labs” could not have produced chemical weapons.
The internet is a stew of claims and counterclaims and contradictory evidence which is very difficult to process. Such is the nature of social media. On chemical warfare and Russia there is what can only be described as information overload, and there is no way of assessing the quality of much of it. All one can say is that, by volume, it seems hugely weighted against the Western media accounts and government pronouncements. These posts may be largely magnified by Russian Troll factories, but it would be naive to believe that this mass rejection of Western media’s credibility is purely a result of Russian propaganda.
The problem is that on social media there aren’t authoritative sources any more. Twitter especially presents itself as a news site, and is treated as such by many of its consumers, but the news-gathering is a much more opaque process than in the old media, and there is very little editorial oversight. Moreover, because of its tendency to create filter bubbles, followers are likely to find that their newsfeeds fill up with accounts which confirm them in their suspicions. Twitter and Facebook algorithms give you more of what you think you want, and most people, certainly on the internet, are preternaturally suspicious of official accounts by Western governments. There is a propensity to believe conspiracy, and so the algorithms feed them more of the same conspiratorial content. Every time I access Twitter it gives me a feed of “while you’ve been away” posts which are designed to conform to my prejudices. It is incredibly difficult not to read them, yet as soon as you do, you disappear down the rabbit hole.
Now, I don’t personally subscribe to the ‘false flag’ theories about Douma and I don’t believe that Western intelligence agencies either staged the Skripal poisoning or covered it up. There seems little doubt that both sides in the Syrian civil war have been using chlorine chemical gas in their poisonous struggle. Bashir Assad has certainly used chemical weapons in Ghouta in 2013, though his motive for using them again, in the dying stages of a war he is clearly winning, makes little sense. There is certainly doubt about what happened there and the OPCW presence doesn’t seem to have been very conclusive so far. The only sensible thing is to retain a degree of scepticism about both sides’ accounts.
As for Skripal, the evidence clearly points to the Russian state as the most likely perpetrator, though again, it is an atrocity that makes little sense. Vladimir Putin is a bad man, certainly. He is a narcissistic authoritarian who in his 18 years in power, has made a sham of Russian democracy, suppressed free speech, condoned homophobia, engaged in military adventurism in Ukraine and allied with deeply unpleasant characters like Syria’s Bashir Assad. Putin is quite capable of ordering the liquidation of his opponents, and passed legislation in 2010 which effectively authorised the killing of Russian traitors abroad.
But in a court of law, this would not be enough to convict him, and there are several very odd aspects to the Salisbury attack. Skripal was a small time spy who presented no threat to Russia and had no recent intelligence to impart about its clandestine activities. He was not a figure who occupied a prominent place in Russian demonology about the west. In no way was he the Russian equivalent of celebrity traitors like Guy Burgess or Kim Philby.
If Vladimir Putin did authorise his assassination it was not just abominable and cowardly but an act of geopolitical stupidity which even the dumbest dictator would surely see as counterproductive. It would rightly be seen as an act of war against a sovereign nation in defiance of international law and the global ban on use of chemical weapons. The poisoning has emboldened Russia’s critics, guaranteed further economic sanctions, made Russia a pariah state, and reunited the nations of Nato, which had been in some disarray following the election of President Trump who is an instinctive isolationist. All this was foreseeable. Is Putin really that stupid? Perhaps.
The same applies to Douma. Russia is Bashir Assad’s closest military ally. Nothing happens in Syria without Vladimir Putin authorising it or at least knowing about it. Putin had been walking tall on the international stage as it seemed that Islamic fundamentalism in Syria had been crushed. But gassing women and children is not the act of a Great power, any more than attempting to kill an obscure pensioner and his daughter. These are the actions of a delinquent state. Yet, Russia is signed up to the OPCW and, according to the British ambassador to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, had been working constructively with the organisation to dispose of its official chemical weapons supplies.
There is enough here to make me question, just a little more carefully, the official UK government accounts of what happened in Salisbury and Douma. You have to try to keep an open mind, while not being sucked into a vortex of conspiracy and propaganda. There is certainly a lot more to discover about both events, and the news blackout doesn’t help quell suspicious minds. Unfortunately, so long as these matters of fact are fought out by keyboard warriors on Twitter, rather than by serious journalists working on the ground, we are left stumbling in the paranoid nether-world of propaganda and supposition.
I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?