Rising tide of disinformation in Turkey manifests in earthquake commentary
SUEDA POLAT- A magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook Turkey at 4:17 a.m. local time this morning, followed by aftershocks and an unusually strong tremor. The latest statement from Vice President of Turkey Fuat Oktay is that a total of 1,541 lives have been lost in Turkey, alongside the almost 10,000 injured and the roughly 4,000 collapsed buildings.
As rescue teams in Turkey hit the ground and the governments of other countries respond to requests for international assistance, a separate crisis is emerging: the spread of earthquake related misinformation and disinformation in online spaces.
Amidst the scores of tweets calling for social unity and directing relief efforts, the hashtag #HAARP has also been trending for more than 13 hours today, with more than 102,000 tweets posted. HAARP is an abbreviation for the “High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program,” an American research project that has been in operation since the early 1990s. The project has a variety of goals, though its primary concentration is reported to be enhancing radio communications technology.
HAARP is currently at the center of the earthquake-related misinformation and disinformation crisis, with users online commenting that the HAARP system is capable of manipulating and creating weather events, and that it is being used to punish Turkey for its noncooperation with the West. Influential Twitter users also claim that the European countries which had closed their embassies in Istanbul, citing a heightened risk of terrorist attacks as tensions rose due to the Koran-burning controversy, were actually acting with the knowledge that Turkey would be attacked.
The unfounded theories surrounding the HAARP system’s alleged capabilities have meshed with another popular claim making the rounds on social media. Numerous social media users are commenting that the major earthquake fault lines on which Turkey sits were triggered into activity by the American naval ship USS Nitze, which, according to the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, was “anchored off the coast of Istanbul” on February 3.
Speaking to Hurriyet, retired Rear Admiral Cem Gurdeniz discounts the theories as being disconnected from reality. Gurdeniz notes that not only has no country “produced a warship capable of causing earthquakes in their attacks,” but also that had such capabilities existed, the USS Nitze would be unable to exercise them as it is in “wretched condition.”
During times of crisis, such as in the aftermath of natural disasters, social media in particular becomes a breeding ground for disinformation campaigns, defined by the European Union as “false or misleading content that is spread with an intention to deceive or secure economic or political gain, and which may cause public harm.”
Citizens consume bite-sized information as they scroll through platforms like Twitter, monitoring rescue efforts and disaster-related developments. As they do so, they are targeted by disinformation campaigns which prey on their political allegiances and lack of digital literacy. In a haste to remain informed on rapidly developing stories, users often amplify disinformation and contribute to its spread by reposting or liking others’ activity.
The low rate of media literacy in Turkey is another factor making its citizens more susceptible to falling prey to conspiracy theories. Higher rates of media literacy denote the skill of media consumers in distinguishing correct and incorrect information. Recently, Turkey ranked 36th in the Open Society Institute in Sofia’s 2022 Media Literacy Index which analyzed 41 European countries. The index measures vulnerability to disinformation based on a number of factors, with press freedom and education notably carrying the most weight.
The flurry of misinformation and disinformation on social media points to a larger problem; writing on “the landscape of disinformation in Turkey,” digital communication specialist Mehmet Safak Sari points to a 2018 Reuters Institute study which notes that “49 percent of Turkish citizens reported having been exposed to completely made-up (fake) news stories.” Sari also writes that pro-government actors in Turkey, such as national media outlets or groups with financial ties to the government, actively engage in spreading propaganda and disinformation. Sari asserts that, “In this toxic and contaminated environment, masses who have been manipulated for a variety of reasons become willing collaborators in amplifying disinformation based on their political or national allegiance.” Regarding the most recent earthquake, many accounts supporting the narrative of a “weather attack” also demonize the West or position themselves as being its victims.
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