In December 2016 Bellingcat responded to doubts about the authenticity of the Bana Alabed twitter account, by producing its own ‘fact-check’, Finding Bana – Proving the Existence of a 7-Year-Old Girl in Eastern Aleppo, carried out by Nick Waters and Timmi Allen, . There have been other responses to the Bellingcat investigations, notably by qoppa. The purpose here is to offer a summary of the principle flaws in Bellingcat’s analysis, as many of those same flaws are apparent in the Bellingcat approach to other issues such as the fake sarin attack in Khan Sheikhon.
There is overwhelming evidence that the Bana twitter account @alabedbana is fraudulent, constructed by external forces for the purposes of propaganda against the Syrian government.
The principle reasons for questioning the authenticity of the Bana account, right from the beginning, were:
Language and ideas
- The native-speaker quality of the English tweets, which displayed a mastery of English idiom rare in any seven year old girl, let alone one brought up in a non-English speaking country, in wartime;
- The alien or unchildlike ideas contained in the tweets, such as Syrian Bana’s implausible support for Manchester United, her confident reference to the tooth fairy or, on the other hand, her blatant warmongering (see featured image)
- In contrast to the language skills apparent in the tweets, videos revealed that Bana could only speak English by rote-learning, auto-cue, or prompts from her mother – in other words she did not know a word of English when the account was started;
- The eventual explanation that any fraud was being perpetrated by ‘Mom’, not from outside (so that was OK), was not convincing, as there was no evidence that Fatemah’s English was of native-speaker level either, or had an extensive knowledge of English culture. In any case the account continued to insist that Bana was reading Harry Potter in English. Thus both Bana’s role and her mother’s have continued to be questioned.
- The account was professional, contrived, managed, from the beginning, from the first tweet to the bio pic, evocative of Anne Frank.
- Large numbers of followers were bought from the outset, and many of those who respond are clearly fake accounts.
- Almost without exception Bana followed Western journalists, and social media activists with a history of vilifying the Syrian government.
The account managers were responsible for two major incidents which caused the account to be closed down to regroup in each case.
- The first was when Fatemah declared Bana to be dead, only to retract soon after – it was apparently another girl.
- The second time was when Bana referred to her little sister, when it was known that Bana had two brothers and no sister.
On 3 November Dr Nabil Antaki reported that he once again had access to the web after a week’s interruption – over this period Bana continued to tweet. Bellingcat claims that a family home in eastern Aleppo would still have web access, e.g. via Turkey. However neither the question of internet access nor indeed the physical location of Bana are essential issues when it comes to judging the account fraudulent.
Bellingcat starts from the position of a lawyer for the defense, aiming to refute and discredit rather than to investigate facts or claims.
- The authors make no attempt to consider seriously the language question (bizarrely, I am quoted on this, but no refutation is offered), or to look at the nature of Bana’s followers, or the people followed. They ignore the more embarrassing “accidents”, such as the misunderstanding among the account controllers which lead to Bana being killed off prematurely, and then promptly resurrected.
- Bellingcat’s criticisms rely heavily on a number of straw men. The authors argue that criticism of the account relies on the following:
- Bana sceptics claim that Bana doesn’t exist (false);
- Bana sceptics claim that Bana herself is a terrorist (false); that
- Bana sceptics claim that Bana does not live in Aleppo (false: Bana’s whereabouts has been a matter of conjecture amongst Bana critics themselves, and is by no means an essential part of the argument for dismissing her account as fraudulent).
- Bellingcat claims that critics refuse to acknowledge and examine the role of Fatemah Alabed – this is false.
- Bellingcat, moreover, vilifies the account’s critics, who on the one hand have put time into examining the discrepancies in the account, and on the other have expressed concern about the exploitation of this little girl, who is being subjected to a Hollywood-style star treatment and is forced to take part in a charade. (Bellingcat’s authors, for their part, are completely unconcerned by the potential damage to this child’s psyche.)
- Bellingcat’s ‘investigative journalists’ take at face value Ghassan Alabed’s claim to be engaged in fighting ISIS, and discount any terrorist connections on the part of the Alabed family. Evidence was soon found (but not by Bellingcat) that Ghassan was a member of the terrorist al Safwa brigades, and more recently that he was actually working for an ISIS ‘Sharia Committee’.
- Bana Alabed is a real 7 year-old child who resides in East Aleppo.
- Her Twitter and Periscope accounts have consistently posted videos from the same locations in East Aleppo.
- Her accounts are run by her mother, Fatimah.
- Fatimah has experience of journalism and appears to be very social-media savvy.
- Bana and her mother have come under sustained attack from critics using lies, misinformation and deliberate misunderstanding in order to delegitimise them.
Bellingcat provide no evidence that Fatimah is social-media savvy, to the level indicated by the account. Nothing else in this list relates to the actual criticisms of the Bana account. There is no acknowledgement of the real motivations of critics, i.e. to reveal the truth about the account, or their very real concern for the welfare of a small child.
In sum, Bellingcat made no attempt to address the real and legitimate questions around the Bana account. Nor have they shown the slightest concern for the probable adverse effects on a little girl, to be given this star treatment and to be forced to be a player in a hoax of this nature.