ABC News acknowledged Tuesday that it had been unable to confirm the authenticity of footage that it recently presented on air as a Turkish bombing of Kurdish civilians in northern Syria.
A spokesperson for ABC News told Pluralist that fact-checking efforts were complicated by the belief that the source of the footage was located in a “sensitive position on the border” of Syria and Turkey. Because of “security concerns,” the video that the source provided was “difficult to verify,” the spokesperson said in an email.
After ABC News broadcast the video on “World News Tonight” Sunday and on “Good Morning American” Monday, internet sleuths revealed that it apparently hadn’t come from Syria at all. Rather, the rapid gunfire and explosions in the footage exactly match a video of a nighttime military show at a Kentucky gun range, which was uploaded to YouTube in April 2017.
While the ABC News and YouTube videos clearly show the same event, there are slight differences between them. Most notably, the ABC News video appears to have been edited to exclude people holding up their phones to record the military show, which was held at the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point.
Some right-wing commentators suggested that ABC News had intentionally doctored the footage in an effort to make President Donald Trump’s pullout of U.S. troops from Syria this month appear disastrous.
The Facebook page of the Knob Creek Gun Range on Monday posted a series of memes mocking ABC News, and a representative of the range told Pluralist on Tuesday that they suspected the news organization had “intentionally” misled viewers to push its “agenda.”
A number of major news outlets also covered the embarrassing mix-up. Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, an organization that fights online disinformation, told The New York Times on Monday that ABC News should have been able to “relatively easily” determine the video was a fraud with tools like reverse-image search.
“We’ve taken down video that aired on ‘World News Tonight Sunday’ and ‘Good Morning America’ this morning that appeared to be from the Syrian border immediately after questions were raised about its accuracy,” the network said in a statement on Monday. “ABC News regrets the error.”
However, ABC News stopped short of admitting that the video is fake and denied requests by other press to explain how it ended up on TV.
Trump later tweeted that ABC News “got caught using really gruesome FAKE footage of the Turks bombing in Syria. A real disgrace.”
ABC News offers details about source of fake video
In speaking to Pluralist, the ABC News spokesperson said they were “continuing to investigate.”
The spokesperson downplayed any mistake on the part of ABC News, saying that their uncertainty about the video was “why our correspondent was careful to describe it on air.”
In particular, the spokesperson cited a line in the script in which foreign correspondent Ian Pannell said that the video was “obtained by ABC News’ — as opposed to recorded directly by its reporters — and used the qualifying phrase “appears to show.”
Still, the broadcasts of the video would have left most viewers with the impression that they were witnessing a humanitarian disaster.
On “World News Tonight,” anchor Tom Llamas delivered a dramatic introduction to the footage, saying that it had been a week since Trump withdrew U.S. troops, “effectively abandoning America’s allies in the fight against ISIS.”
“This video right here appearing to show Turkey’s military bombing Kurdish civilians in a Syrian border town,” he continued. “The Kurds, who fought alongside the U.S. against ISIS.”
The graphic on the screen read “Slaughter in Syria.”
Lllamas then moved on to other “horrific reports of atrocities committed by Turkish-backed fighters on those very allies,” which have yet to be verified.
Pluralist followed-up with ABC News about what doubts remain about the video, what measures they took to authenticate it, why they trusted the source and why they could not disclose more about their journalistic process. ABC News has not responded.
Mass displacement in Syria
Meanwhile, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the Turkish offensive in northern Syria began on Oct. 9. Dozens of Kurds have reportedly been killed.
After Washington on Sunday announced plans for a full withdrawal of about 1,000 troops from Syria, Russia-backed Syrian forces moved into northern Syria to oppose Turkey with the consent of the Kurds.
On Tuesday, Trump ordered Turkey to stop its operation in the shattered country and authorized sanctions against Turkish officials for contributing to the operation.
Most pundits, as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress, have condemened Trump’s retreat from Syria. But Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and some Trump supporters have praised the president for moving to deliver on his promise to wrap up America’s “endless wars.”
- ABC News anchor Tom Llamas presents fake footage of conflict in Syria on Oct. 13, 2019.: Twitter