A 7-year-old girl tweets from Aleppo. Can we believe it?

Bana al-Abed’s account of bombings has attracted wide attention – as well as scepticism

Bana al-Abed, a seven-year-old girl from Aleppo, has garnered worldwide attention for her tweets and videos documenting the destruction of her hometown. Video: Reuters

 

She is a 7-year-old with dimples, pink hair ribbons, a missing front tooth and halting English who first captured global attention three months ago with Twitter messages about bombs, death and despair in eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held section of the Syrian city.

The girl, Bana al-Abed, has since attracted more than 230,000 followers on Twitter, where her account says it is managed by her mother, Fatemah, who also posts messages there. Bana’s Twitter followers include best-selling author JK Rowling, who was so taken with her story of survival that she sent her Harry Potter e-books. Western news organisations have produced articles and television segments extolling Bana’s pluckiness in the face of fear.

So when Bana’s Twitter account, @AlabedBana, was deactivated last weekend as Syrian military forces advanced into eastern Aleppo, many worried that she had been killed – only to learn on Tuesday that the account had reappeared. And in a new posting on Wednesday, Bana’s account suggested Syrian ground troops had seized her neighbourhood.

Images of suffering children in Syria have occasionally punctured the world’s conscience even as it has grown accustomed to the violence of the country’s nearly six-year-old conflict. Like Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian whose drowned body was discovered on a beach in Turkey, and Omran Daqneesh, dazed and bloodied after his home in Aleppo was bombed, Bana has touched a nerve.

Fake news

But in an era of internet hoaxes, fabrications and the increased use of fake news around the world to further political agendas, Bana’s Twitter account has also raised some questions of veracity and authenticity. Her messages are sophisticated for a seven-year-old, for example, particularly for one whose native language is not English. Others have disarming grammatical errors that invite sympathy.

Some people have questioned whether the videos in which Bana speaks were rehearsed or altered. The inaccessibility of much of the Syria conflict to journalists, who often have no way of confirming the provenance of information directly, has amplified those concerns.

According to Bana’s mother, who describes herself as a 26-year-old teacher of English and who has spoken with the New York Times via Skype and WhatsApp, the Twitter postings originated in eastern Aleppo, where Fatemah said she lived with Bana and her two younger children, Mohamed (5) and Noor (3).

All appear in photographs and videos posted by the @AlabedBana account. But Bana is the only one who spends significant time on camera or who speaks to the audience in English. She appears in many of the clips to be reading from a card or to have memorised lines.

Fatemah, who says she taught Bana to speak English, appears to be digitally astute in photographing and recording her daughter. However, a handful of videos on Bana’s account seem to have been filmed by local citizen journalists with better-quality cameras.

Bana and family members also were shown in a documentary broadcast in France last month about Aleppo, produced by Sept à Huit, a leading French magazine. Anti-government activists and doctors working in eastern Aleppo have corroborated, through Skype and WhatsApp, that Bana and her mother are who they say they are. But Bana’s Twitter account has also drawn an inordinate number of trolls and voices sympathetic to the Syrian government and its Russian backers, who assail Bana as a fraud.

Some have called Bana’s father a violent jihadi affiliated with al-Qaeda-linked fighters ensconced in eastern Aleppo. Others have called Bana and her mother fictions created by the United States as a propaganda tool to malign the Syrian and Russian governments.

Lesbian blogger

There is some precedent for such cynicism, and a notable example also had a Syrian connection. In 2011, a woman who described herself as a lesbian blogger using the pseudonym Amina Arraf wrote about political persecution in Damascus, the capital, and suddenly disappeared.

The “gay girl in Damascus”, as the blogger came to be known, turned out to be a 40-year-old American man from Georgia. Twitter has designated Bana’s account as “verified” – meaning that the company has established the authenticity of the account holder. Besides talking with Bana’s mother, the New York Times has been able to verify, through comparisons with satellite maps, that at least some videos posted from Bana’s Twitter account were filmed in Al Shaar, a neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo.

But it is unclear whether all of her Twitter posts – which could be put online from anywhere, by anyone with Bana’s password – originated in eastern Aleppo. Nor is it clear how many posts Bana has composed herself. Bana’s mother did not immediately respond to requests via WhatsApp for clarification on these questions.

International aid advocates have expressed mixed feelings about Bana’s fame – satisfaction that she has increased global sympathy for child victims in Syria, but concern that her story, as presented on Twitter, may not be entirely accurate.

“Whether it’s Bana, or Alan Kurdi, or Omran Daqneesh, they bring attention to an issue in a way that helps people visualise a little more clearly the situation of children,” said Sonia Khush, the Syria director of Save the Children.

“In the case of this girl, I don’t know whether it’s true or fake in this age of social media,” she said. “But her living as a child in Aleppo is consistent with what we hear. The fear, the sounds of different airplanes and drones. They’re terrified and have trouble sleeping at night.”

Juliette S Touma, a Unicef spokeswoman for the Middle East and North Africa, acknowledged that there was, in Bana’s case, “no way to verify where the tweets are coming from, or whether they’re coming from the girl or somewhere else”. At the same time, Touma said, “there is something symbolic about the tweets that are coming out from Bana, or that account, in the sense that it highlights the story of children who are caught up in the crossfire – it’s not just one girl, it’s many boys and girls.”

Window into conflict

Despite the questions surrounding Bana’s account, news organisations have embraced it as a window into the Syria conflict. When the account went dark over the weekend, some outlets reported its absence with breathless urgency.

“Her Twitter account was deleted and nobody knows why,” CNN said. “Bana al-Abed, the 7-year-old girl whose tweets from rebel-held eastern Aleppo in Syria captivated people around the world, appears to be in mortal danger,” CBS News said.

Such reports underscore the phenomenon that Bana’s social media presence has become. Abdulkhafi Alhamdo, a prominent eastern Aleppo activist who knows the family, said via WhatsApp on Wednesday that Bana and her mother had temporarily halted their Twitter posts over the weekend for security reasons. “Her father said they are scared of regime revenge,” he said. “Regime has got agents here and spies.”

Some experts on media ethics said that, despite the appeal of such a heartbreaking narrative – and with a young girl at its centre, no less – news outlets had to approach the account with scepticism, and that some had fallen short.

“It’s always a question of whether a seven-year-old is being used as a propaganda tool, and if so, by whom,” said Jane E Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “Sometimes we fall in love with a concept and basically ignore things that would undermine that concept, and ignore things that should be red flags.”

She added, “For me, my antenna always goes up when the story is this compelling.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director for the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said some news outlets, including morning network news shows in the United States, seemed to have “suspended scepticism”. “There are times when I will read or watch something when I will think, ‘I just don’t think we have our critical thinking hats on at the moment,’” she said.

But she said that those questioning or denigrating Bana’s account on Twitter should be challenged, as well. “We can’t just question this source,” she said. “We also have to question the person accusing the source of being part of the propaganda scheme.”

New York Times

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