Tracking narratives around James Le Mesurier and the White Helmets

How conspiracies resurfaced and shifted after Le Mesurier’s death

(Source: @maxbrizzuto/DFRLab)

In the weeks following the death of James Le Mesurier in early November 2019, both new and old narratives peddling misinformation circulated online.

Le Mesurier was the founder and director of Mayday Rescue, a non-profit organization that coordinates a group of civilian rescuers in Syria called the White Helmets. The White Helmets operate as first responders to bombings — most often perpetrated by the Assad regime — within conflict areas of the country. The White Helmets have been repeatedly smeared by Kremlin and pro-Assad propaganda campaigns, as previously reported by the DFRLab.

Preexisting narratives resurfaced

Le Mesurier and the White Helmets have been the target of intense disinformation since soon after he founded Mayday Rescue in 2014. The White Helmets, formally known as Syria Civil Defense, expanded their role from impartial first responders to GoPro wielding witnesses of war crimes producing heart-wrenching footage of the Syrian civil war. An eponymous documentary about the group received an Academy Award. The international recognition of the group engendered conspiracies, alleging that it was a state-sponsored propaganda effort as well as that its members were avaricious organ traffickers, among other false claims.

Among the many narratives that spawned about Le Mesurier and the White Helmets following his death, the following preexisting narratives received renewed attention in light of his passing.

Narrative: James Le Mesurier was a former MI6 operative.

In 2015, Vanessa Beeley, a contributor to fringe conspiracy blog 21st Century Wire and a main instigator of White Helmet conspiracies and disinformation, published an article exploring alleged ulterior motives behind the White Helmets and Mayday Rescue. Her allegations regarding Le Mesurier’s career and government ties gained traction among conspiracy theorists and Russian state media. In 2018, Beeley authored an article published on Kremlin-owned RT alleging that Le Mesurier had ties to the British intelligence service MI6. That same year, Kremlin outlet Sputnik cited Beeley in an embedded video advancing her claims of links to military intelligence.

Just three days before Le Mesurier’s passing, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) tweeted a quote from its lead spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, about the White Helmets and Le Mesurier, echoing allegations of his supposed military intelligence background and association with terrorist organizations. Images in the tweets were sourced from a failed 2016 White Helmets PR stunt that faced intense backlash for staging rescues.

The Russian MFA’s tweets quoting Zakharova. (Source: @mfa_russia/archive, left; @mfa_russia/archive, right)

On the morning of November 11, an article published by Reuters cited the remarks of Ambassador Karen Pierce, the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who stated in reference to the Russian MFA’s tweet: “The Russian charges against him, that came out of the foreign ministry that he was a spy, [are] categorically untrue. He was a British soldier.”

There are no records or evidence to substantiate the claim that Le Mesurier ever served as an intelligence operative for MI6. Despite the dearth of evidence, messaging propagated by Beeley, RT, Sputnik, and their peers in the disinformation space continued to circulate.

Beeley was among the many online who denounced Ambassador Pierce’s testimony, appearing on a Sputnik podcast the next day to reiterate her claim that Le Mesurier was a British military intelligence operative.

Narrative: The White Helmets are affiliated with Syrian opposition forces and known terrorist groups.

A previously seen conspiracy about the White Helmets, promulgated by the Kremlin and individuals like Beeley, has focused on how they are affiliated with known terrorist groups.

This preexisting narrative resurfaced after Le Mesurier’s death, pushed by state actors, Twitter accounts, and various independent blogging sites. In a November 14 interview with Russian state-run television channel Rossiya-24, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that “Both of us know that they [representatives of the White Helmets] are naturally part of Al-Qaeda.”

Beeley currently has a Facebook event scheduled in December to “expose” the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier. A tweet promoting the event by the event’s organizers described the White Helmets as “the propaganda arm of Al Qaeda in Syria.”

There is no evidence to suggest White Helmet organizers have collaborated with terrorist groups. That said, there has been reporting of White Helmet volunteers engaging in activities that contradict the organization’s strict moral code by engaging with known terrorist groups. The White Helmets have acknowledged and publicly addressed these ethical miscarriages in a statement released on Twitter.

Narrative: Information about James Le Mesurier and the White Helmets is subject to coordinated manipulation online.

The allegation that a coordinated group of Wikipedia authors push certain narratives about Le Mesurier has circulated since at least May 2018, originating in a blog post by former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray.

Following Le Mesurier’s death, considerable revisions were made to his Wikipedia page, which have been accompanied by accusations of “revisionist history.” These claims have been attributed to “narrative managers” who have an ostensibly pro-Le Mesurier agenda that they are attempting to push through Wikipedia. Murray updated his blog post, citing edits made to Le Mesurier’s Wikipedia page and referring to a group of journalists on Twitter who are allegedly part of the coordinated editing conspiracy to burnish Le Mesurier’s reputation.

According to Murray, a user by the name Philip Cross lies at the epicenter of the conspiracy regarding information management on Wikipedia. Philip Cross’s high volume of contribution has led to allegations that he revises the records of prominent figures, including that of Le Mesurier’s entry. The connection was made in response to Le Mesurier allegedly following Cross on Twitter — Cross’s account has since been deactivated.

In actuality, this allegation is not credible. Cross has not made any edits to the Mayday Rescue Foundation page. The White Helmets page is currently protected under a “semi-protected” status because of a previous history of “vandalism.” Since November 11, Cross has been active on Le Mesurier’s Wikipedia page, but his contributions pertain only to semantics and validity, removing rumors, conspiracies, as well as citations attributed to known propagators of disinformation, including Max Blumenthal, who has been criticized by both the right and left and who has engaged with Sputnik on multiple occasions.

In the month (November 2019) surrounding Le Mesurier’s passing, a total of 249 edits were made to his Wikipedia page. Prior to November 11 and since 2018, Le Mesurier’s profile on Wikipedia contained no personal information, only a link directing users to the “White Helmets (Syrian Civil War).” The remainder of the edits, all of which were made from November 11 onward, constructed the late humanitarian’s biography, accumulating a wealth of information on Le Mesurier’s life and death. While Cross has been active on the newly expanded page, as mentioned, all contributions have been impartial, weeding out baseless claims and unreliable sources and appending the record to adhere to Wikipedia best practices.

New narratives surrounding Le Mesurier’s death

Many of the new narratives about Le Mesurier and the White Helmets concern the circumstances of his death. All allegations that Le Mesurier was murdered are unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, preexisting conspiracies about the White Helmets and Le Mesurier, combined with unrelated conspiracies, coalesced into dubious conjecture about his death. The creation of such false narratives during an event where there is little information echoed previous instances in which an information vacuum served as a hospitable environment for disinformation.

Narrative: James Le Mesurier was murdered by Western powers.

A Sputnik podcast on November 12 titled “Is Le Mesurier an Epstein?” connected Le Mesurier’s death to Jeffrey Epstein’s. Epstein’s death has been the subject of many conspiracies, and the phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” has become a wildly popular meme in the United States, perpetuated by teens and U.S. congresspeople alike.

Syrian President Assad furthered speculation on the similarities between Le Mesurier and Epstein in a November 14 conversation with Russian state-run television channel Rossiya 24. In the interview, Assad speculated that Le Mesurier, like Jeffrey Epstein, Osama bin Laden, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed by the United States and the United Kingdom because he “knew major secrets.”

In the same interview, Assad also speculated that Turkish intelligence forces killed Le Mesurier at the behest of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, as reported by Al‑Masdar News, a pro-Assad outlet that has previously spread disinformation about chemical weapons attacks in Syria and the “Al-Qaeda affiliated White Helmets claims.” Assad’s inflammatory comments were reported by mainstream outlets, Russian state-owned and pro-Assad media, and various junk news outlets, likely boosting the rumor-mongering.

Other sources also furthered the idea that Le Mesurier was murdered by the West. In a November 16 post on a blog called “Petroimperialism,” which was further reposted by fringe website Counter Currents, Nauman Sadiq alleged that there are similarities between the death of Le Mesurier and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, implying that the U.S. “deep state” was behind both.

The narrative that Le Mesurier was murdered by Western powers is in opposition to one of the previous narratives, that Le Mesurier was a Western intelligence asset. This contradiction points to a clear, sustained effort to discredit Le Mesurier, those associated with him, and his work in any way that garnered engagement online.

Narrative: James Le Mesurier was murdered by Russia.

On Twitter, one user made the connection between the death of Le Mesurier and the killing of other Russian state enemies, implying that Russia must be behind Le Mesurier’s death. 21st Century Wire contributor Beeley also commented in a similar vein in response to an article in The Independent, which made mention of the Russia MFA tweets in the context of Le Mesurier’s death.

The article referenced has since had its title changed. (Source: @VanessaBeeley/archive)

Narrative: James Le Mesurier was murdered by a terrorist group

Similarly, others speculated that Le Mesurier was murdered by a terrorist group. A November 15 article published on globalresearch.ca and reposted by russophile.org purported that Le Mesurier’s death should be viewed as a reaction to the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is alleged that the influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey made it possible for “jihadists of al‑Nusra Front and the Islamic State to intermingle with Syrian refugees and militants in the Turkish refugee camps,” suggesting some sort of radicalization effort among the refugee population. The article claims that an Al-Nusra-associated White Helmet shared “crucial information” directly with Le Mesurier, who later forwarded the intel to MI6. It states, “In all likelihood, the assassination of the founder of the White Helmets was the Islamic State’s revenge for betraying its slain chief.”


Max Rizzuto is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Alyssa Kann is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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