On Wednesday, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova passed off the severity of Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack as “totally fake information” in reply to a proposed United Nations resolution condemning Syria’s government for the strike. The Russian Ministry of Defense then redefined its position on Thursday, saying that Syrian jets bombed an arms depot where chemical weapons were stored.
But before Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government may be on the horizon, some of Trump’s most ardent defenders were already questioning whether the attack was a “false flag,” some even positing that the photos of dead children were staged with prop blood.
Creator of Dilbert and noted Trump supporter Scott Adams called the chemical weapons attack a “fake war crime.”
“I’m going to call bullshit on the gas attack. It’s too on-the-nose,’ as Hollywood script-writers sometimes say, meaning a little too perfect to be natural,” Adams wrote. “This has the look of a manufactured event.”
On Tuesday morning, WikiLeaks tweeted “While western establishment media beat the drum for more war in Syria the matter is far from clear,” then linked to a YouTube video titled “False Flag Chemical Attack in Syria?”
Mike Cernovichone of the main drivers of the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy about a nonexistent child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton and a series of pizza shops in Washington, D.C, and a separate conspiracy alleging that Clinton was dying of a litany of fatal diseases during the campaignencouraged fans to help #SyriaHoax trend on Twitter. At press time, it was the No. 2 trend in the United States.
“#SyriaGasAttack was sponsored by deep state,” he wrote late Wednesday night.
One day prior, Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted of Cernovich: “in a time of unbiased journalism, he’d win the Pulitzer.”
Conspiracy website InfoWars published several articles and videos claiming the attacks had ties to Democrats or Hillary Clinton, including one titled “REPORT: SOROS-LINKED GROUP BEHIND CHEMICAL ATTACK IN SYRIA.”
But by Thursday night, when it became clear the Trump administration had for the first time broken from Kremlin foreign policy talking points questioning any gruesome footage coming out of Syria, that same website began to turn on the president.
“Substitute Al-Qaeda for ISIS and we’re in the same position as 2013,” wrote InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson. Watson had spent Thursday writing that the White Helmets, a rescue group that has been accused by Assad apologists (and some moderates) of having questionable ties to rebel groups and jihadi groups, somehow committed the aerial bombing.
“Your supporters didn’t vote for this @realDonaldTrump.”
The Internet’s largest pro-Donald Trump community, Reddit’s r/The_Donald, appeared to be in denial about Trump’s turn away from pro-Assad rhetoric. The most upvoted entry on Thursday was a screenshot of a post from 4chan’s /pol/ board, which is a troll board with a fervently pro-Trump bent.
“/pol/ is working around the clock to determine if the Syrian “gas attack” was a false flag designed to manipulate President Trump into war,” the post reads. Two other top ten posts blame the “deep state” for manipulating the president.
One newer post with more than 1,100 upvotes at press time still did not believe Trump to be serious about his threats to take out Assad. “CONCERN TROLLS,” it reads. “Our glorious leader did not maneuver through 16 candidates, 1 spawn of moloch and a rigged media all while under surveillance
only to be duped by this chemical attack”
By late Thursday, however, even Cernovichwho received public support both from the president’s son and advisor Kellyanne Conway this weekwas urging Trump’s alt-right base to bombard the White House phone lines with condemnation of airstrikes in Syria, between retweeting users who claimed the chemical weapons attack that was a false flag.
“Fake news is forming a pro-war media narrative in real time. #SyriaHoax They want war and will attack people who want peace,” Cernovich tweeted.
This is not the first time that Russian talking points, as readily repeated by websites like InfoWars, aimed to push blame for an atrocity in Syria away from Assad, or questioned whether anyone was truly killed in a bombing. In December, RT anchors and Russian government-backed viral news sites used the burgeoning buzzword “fake news” to describe the shelling of Aleppo.
Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow Clint Watts, who testified in front of the Senate about Russia’s disinformation campaign last week, told The Daily Beast at the time that this is a long-held Russian strategy to deflect blame through propaganda, and cause even viewers of disturbing footage taken from the attacks to question an objective reality.
“It’s not just an information war on Americait’s a war on information itself,” Watts said. “The point of it is that you can’t trust anything. Then there’s no baseline. You can say and do whatever you want, and then deny it ever happened.”