Updated 2 November 2018 with material from Janine di Giovanni.
Who is Vanessa Beeley?
[One] of the most vocal sceptics of the UN’s investigation [into the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack of 2017] include the blogger Vanessa Beeley, the daughter of a former British diplomat who visited Syria for the first time in July 2016...
Separately, both Graphika and Menczer’s Hoaxy tool identify Beeley, the British blogger, as among the most influential disseminators of content about the White Helmets. Their findings also correlate with work done by Kate Starbird from the University of Washington in Seattle, who asserts that Beeley and the alternative news site 21st Century Wire have dominated the Twitter conversation about White Helmets over the last few months, along with Sputnik and RT.com.
Beeley frequently criticises the White Helmets in her role as editor of the website 21st Century Wire, set up by Patrick Henningsen, who is also a former editor at Infowars.com. In 2016, Beeley had a two-hour meeting with Assad in Damascus as part of a US Peace Council delegation, which she described on Facebook as her “proudest moment”. She was also invited to Moscow to report on the “dirty war in Syria”; there, she met senior Russian officials including the deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, and Maria Zakharova, director of information and press at Russia’s foreign ministry.
Vanessa Beeley and disinformation networksThe White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defence) are civilian volunteer first responders operating in non-government territories in Syria. Vanesssa Beeley has focused much of her writing on them.
From Emran Feroz's Syria’s White Helmets: Stigmatising saviours (2018):
Arguably the most prominent figure in [the campaign to smear the White Helmets] is Vanessa Beeley, another propagandist operating within the Assad sphere of influence. Beeley, a regular contributor to the conspiracy portal "21st Century Wire", is now one of the best-known "critics" of the White Helmets. As she recently opined once again, bomb attacks on the aid workers are legitimate because these people are "terrorists". She regularly accuses journalists and established media outlets of spreading "regime-change propaganda".
Anyone reading Beeley’s words might almost think that all those Syrians who have been maltreated and tortured in recent years are actually Assad’s most enthusiastic supporters. Instead, all the blame for the conflict lies squarely with the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel and western nations. Assad’s death squads, militias funded by Tehran, Russian bombs – in the confused heads of figures like Beeley, this all appears to be nothing more than a fairy tale consistently lied about, or not spoken about at all.
Hybrid warfareFrom the Atlantic Council's Breaking Ghouta report (2018):
Data research carried out by British newspaper The Guardian in late 2017 clearly showed that almost all Internet propaganda against the White Helmets can be traced back to Beeley and Bartlett. In this context, observers are talking about "hybrid warfare" being systematically waged by Russian state media against the aid workers. The fact that the White Helmets, who are persistently accused of being "western agents", have also uncovered war crimes perpetrated by the U.S. military, is deliberately ignored.
Many of the attacks on the White Helmets were both voiced and amplified by a group of pro-Assad bloggers, of whom the most prominent were British citizen Vanessa Beeley and Canadian citizen Eva Bartlett. These, in turn, were supported online by a group of Twitter users who have repeatedly targeted critics of the Assad regime. Neither Bartlett nor Beeley can be viewed as a credible or impartial commentator. In October 2015, Beeley tweeted that the White Helmets are a “legit target”; in 2016, she described a meeting with Assad as her “proudest moment.” At a lecture in Sweden in June 2018, she called respected human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch a “fake, front organization funded by a Zionist billionaire.” ...
[Writing] in 2016, Beeley called [the White Helmets] “NATO’s pseudo ‘NGO’ construct” and “NATO’s White Helmets.” While the White Helmets are funded by the British, Danish, Dutch, and German foreign ministries, they grew out of grassroots rescue efforts. To argue, on the basis of their funding, that they are a Western tool for “regime change” defies the rules of evidence-based reporting, while to call them “NATO’s White Helmets” shows sheer ignorance of the difference between NATO and its member states....
The sources of these attacks on the White Helmets have been studied by digital researchers, notably a group led by Kate Starbird at the University of Washington, and a group at the Syria Campaign supported by social media intelligence firm Graphika. Both studies concluded that the disinformation was driven by a small core of dedicated users and websites, including official Russian government outlets, apparently independent websites, and hyperpartisan bloggers, most notably Beeley and Bartlett. According to the University of Washington’s analysis, this core consisted of the websites of RT and Sputnik, together with 9/11 “Truther” site 21stcenturywire.com, for which Beeley writes...
According to the study by The Syria Campaign, and supported by Graphika, Beeley herself was “the second most connected Twitter account in the disinformation campaign identified,” being amplified both by overt Kremlin voices such as RT, and by pro-Kremlin outlets such as 21st Century Wire. Commentators such as Beeley, Bartlett, and 21st Century Wire colleague Patrick Henningsen bridged the gap between the “alt-right” movement in the United States and the Russian state communications network, being cited both on sites such as RT, and alt-right hubs such as Infowars. Beeley and Bartlett contribute to both 21st Century Wire and RT... Their contributions helped to spread pro-Assad and pro-Kremlin messaging into US audiences, very much in the manner described by Simonyan, when she spoke of the need for “English-speaking talking heads” to validate the Kremlin’s view.
On at least one occasion, their messaging broke into the mainstream. On April 13, 2018, rock guitarist Roger Waters told a concert in Barcelona that he thought the White Helmets were a “fake organization that is creating propaganda for jihadists and terrorists”—a very similar misrepresentation to that publicized by the Kremlin disinformation networks. ... Both Beeley and Bartlett began their careers blogging about the Gaza conflict; they thus share an ideological starting point with the guitarist. A video clip of his comments was repeatedly uploaded to YouTube by Kremlin and pro-Kremlin users, including RT UK, Beeley, Hands Off Syria, and Clarity of Signal. Together, these totalled more than 140,000 views by September 19, 2018. This is a striking example of how messaging from such sources can break into mainstream discourse, given a sufficiently high-profile validator.
The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media
From Idrees Ahmad on the UK-based “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media” (SPM) in OpenDemocracy (2018):
SPM lionises Vanessa Beeley, the venerated high priestess of truther cosmology, who cites her selfie with Bashar al Assad as her “proudest moment”... [SPM member] Piers Robinson has repeatedly promoted a radio interview with Vanessa Beeley in which she calls the Syrian White Helmets legitimate targets for killing (a war crime in international law). The group has also weaponised Islamophobia to smear critics of the regime. They have slandered the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) as “Al Qaeda”. (As a proud supporter of both organisations, I was accused of “support[ing] Al Qaeda” by SPM’s Tara McCormack.) Beeley, with whom the group founders frequently tour, considers Britain a “police state” but encourages her followers to report me, George Monbiot, Professor Scott Lucas, the Guardian, Channel 4 and the BBC to authorities under the Terrorism Act of 2000.The Syria Solidarity Movement
From Shawn Carrié's Assad's allies in the West (2016):
Some writers in this milieu share ties more significant than their dissenting opinions: Bartlett, Beeley, Larudee and Sterling are all steering committee members of an organisation named the "Syria Solidarity Movement" - an activist group and registered nonprofit which has collected more than $1,545,000 in gross receipts from donors since its founding in 2007. SSM has organised demonstrations "in support of the Syrian government", and two group trips to Syria on official visas arranged by an Iranian NGO. ...Russian propoganda
From Janine di Giovanni in the New York Review:
The work of this small group is also spread by a spectrum of far-left, anti-West conspiracy theorists; anti-Semites; supporters of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah; libertarians; and far-right groups. At their core are Beeley, the daughter of a British diplomat; a Canadian activist named Eva Bartlett; the Hezbollah-friendly commentator Sharmine Narwani; and Max Blumenthal, the son of the former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal.... The damage the bloggers do is immense. They attack anyone with an account of events that contradicts their own, but their chief target is the White Helmets. The bloggers’ work is repeated on the state-owned Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik; some of it has even been cited by Russian ambassadors at the United Nations. The bloggers resist being linked to the Kremlin, and there is no evidence of financial transactions other than the standard fees paid by RT for television appearances. But the Russian version of its own military strikes is amplified by bloggers like Beeley and Bartlett, who promote RT reports that push the Kremlin’s false narrative about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Beeley, a former consultant to a waste management company in the Middle East with no journalistic background, has only about 42,000 followers on Twitter, but she appears regularly on RT and Sputnik. Her posts are retweeted by the Ron Paul Institute, by members of the “alt-right,” and by what Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer at the University of Stirling and an expert on the Russian disinformation campaign in Syria, calls “the Red–Brown alliance,” an unlikely coalition of far-left and far-right extremists.
Beeley first went to Syria in 2016 on a six-day trip to meet with Bashar al-Assad, an encounter she called “my proudest moment.” Shortly afterward, she flew to Moscow to meet with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, who is Putin’s point man on Syria, and Maria Zakharova, Putin’s director of information and press. Following that visit, she began attacking the White Helmets vehemently. In 2015, she had called for the first responders to be killed, even though “violence to life and person [against civilians and non-combatants], in particular murder of all kinds” is prohibited by the Geneva Convention. “White Helmets are not getting it,” she tweeted. “We know they are terrorists. Makes them a legit target.”
Beeley has admitted, in a private Facebook conversation with the blogger Scott Gaulke that was obtained by hackers and subsequently published, that even Assad does not deny torture. She wrote, “even Govt members dont [sic] deny it btw,” adding that she would never admit this publicly. The reasons for her dedication to Assad’s regime, are, like those of other bloggers and writers like her, unclear. (Apparently, she sees Assad not as a war criminal, but as a victim of Western imperialism.) They may be “useful idiots” propped up by Russia, but their undying support of Assad is based on the anti-Western views that Syria was in line for US-led regime change, like Iraq. The fact that the Iraq invasion occurred under President George W. Bush, while President Obama resolutely refused to intervene in Syria—a stance that drew sharp criticism after the Assad regime first used chemical weapons—does not figure into their arguments.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of Beeley’s influence is that in May 2017 the deputy Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Petr Iliichev, submitted a paper titled “Information on the Work of the White Helmets in Syria” to the UN Security Council, trying to link the group to al-Qaeda. The document was based on a presentation Beeley had given earlier that year in London. In July 2017, Iliichev’s submission was rejected by eight countries on the Security Council, which affirmed its view that “Syria Civil Defense is an impartial, neutral group.”
- Snopes.com "White Helmet Hearsay" April 2017
- Brian Whitaker, "The Syrian conflict's anti-propaganda propagandists", February 2018; "Vanessa Beeley — the Syrian conflict’s goddess of propaganda", April 2018
- Sally Hayden, "Fake News Tourism in Syria: Westerners Search for 'Truth,' But Are They Assad's Pawns?", Newsweek, April 2018