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Inside The Network Of Trolls Accusing A 15-Year-Old Tweeting In Syria Of Being Fake News

A Twitter account that has received international attention for tweeting videos from a place in Syria that's been described as "hell on Earth"" is now being swarmed by pro-Assad and pro-Russia trolls.

Posted on February 26, 2018, at 11:54 a.m. ET

This is Muhammad Najem. According to his Twitter account he's a 15-year-old boy living in Eastern Ghouta, Syria.

Najem posts videos, in both Arabic and English, full of desperate pleas for an end to bombing in the place where he was born and raised.
Twitter / Muhammad Najem

Najem posts videos, in both Arabic and English, full of desperate pleas for an end to bombing in the place where he was born and raised.

The area has been under siege by government and pro-Syrian regime forces for years. In the past week, the violence has intensified.

International monitors and activists on the ground say that as many as 500 people — 127 of them children — have been killed. Anti-government militant groups operating inside the besieged region have also launched bombs into areas held by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime, killing at least 25. The United Nations Security Council recently announced a 30-day ceasefire. Various forces have continued to shell the area, claiming they are targeting what they describe as terrorists.The UN secretary-general has described the area as "hell on Earth."
Bassam Khabieh / Reuters

International monitors and activists on the ground say that as many as 500 people — 127 of them children — have been killed. Anti-government militant groups operating inside the besieged region have also launched bombs into areas held by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime, killing at least 25. The United Nations Security Council recently announced a 30-day ceasefire. Various forces have continued to shell the area, claiming they are targeting what they describe as terrorists.

The UN secretary-general has described the area as "hell on Earth."

News organizations like CNN, the Guardian newspaper website in the UK, and international outlets like Middle East Eye have been sharing Najem's tweets and videos.

I love all my friends, I'm fine so far, I and my family and I sit in an underground shelter, no water, no electrici… https://t.co/v3Sm2TKIVr

"People should know about everything happening in Syria," he told CNN. "I want to follow my studies. I want to become a reporter when I grow up."

But pro-Assad and pro-Russia Twitter accounts are currently smearing Najem as a fake.

Najem has been called a "crisis actor," the same accusation leveled against teenage activists in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting.
Twitter: @ninabyzantina / Via Twitter: @NinaByzantina

Najem has been called a "crisis actor," the same accusation leveled against teenage activists in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting.

Trolls have built a case against Najem by focusing on similarities between what is happening in Eastern Ghouta to the siege of Aleppo in 2016.

MSM #Aleppo coverage 2016: -"Massacre of the century" -Barrel bombs -Last hospitals -Assad and Putin are killing h… https://t.co/Rzjei3SQDh

During the siege a 7-year-old girl, Bana Alabed, was widely covered by Western media after she and her mother live-tweeted the siege and their experiences — in a similar manner to Najem's.

Bana is notorious among these accounts, and has become something of a meme for this particular pocket of Twitter.

A lot of the denial stems from the difficulty in verifying anything coming out of Syria.

The complexity of the war — and the absence of international reporters in rebel-held zones — means many outlets rely on activists inside for info.

One of the few accounts Najem follows is one such activist: Qusay Noor. He told BuzzFeed News he was Najem's older brother.

Najem told BuzzFeed News via Twitter DM that he wouldn't be able to speak over the phone, saying that he only had Facebook and Twitter.

The Twitter account under his name first posted on Dec. 7, 2017, with a video of the teenager explaining who he was. A Facebook account under the same name was set up two days before that on Dec. 5.BuzzFeed News also contacted a number of activists working in Syria in an attempt to determine whether the account — and Najem — are genuine. Kenan Rahmani, an advocacy adviser with the Syria Campaign who relocated to Washington from Aleppo, told BuzzFeed News that his contacts in Eastern Ghouta believed Najem was also "legit." However, he was unable to provide more details about the family.
Mohammed Najem / Via Twitter: @muhammadnajem20

The Twitter account under his name first posted on Dec. 7, 2017, with a video of the teenager explaining who he was. A Facebook account under the same name was set up two days before that on Dec. 5.

BuzzFeed News also contacted a number of activists working in Syria in an attempt to determine whether the account — and Najem — are genuine.

Kenan Rahmani, an advocacy adviser with the Syria Campaign who relocated to Washington from Aleppo, told BuzzFeed News that his contacts in Eastern Ghouta believed Najem was also "legit." However, he was unable to provide more details about the family.

Najem, communicating through Twitter DMs, said the situation in Eastern Ghouta was awful: “It did not stop for five days, and even five minutes. It was the worst week in history.”

The fall of a barrel of Russian aircraft over my house and the victims of #syria 2018 #SaveGhouta 😭… https://t.co/d6ShbTTMts

This weekend, hours after the UN ceasefire had been announced, BuzzFeed News managed to get through to Najem again. The situation was the "same," he said.

Najem said his activist brother, Noor, was his "biggest assistant."

Asked about Bana — and if he was trying to do the same thing — Najem explained that although he had heard of her, he wanted to "work as a small journalist from [Eastern Ghouta]," but that he didn't know he would attract this much attention.

But Najem says he’ll keep making videos. "My idea only [was] to be [able to] tell the world what is happening here."

Mohammed Najem / Via Twitter: @muhammadnajem20