Turkish fact-checkers are at war — against old military operation footage and photos with false captions

October 28, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Turkish fact-checkers are at war.

They are fighting loads of miscaptioned photos and videos, and a flood of false propaganda on Facebook and Twitter that’s being spread about Syria.

On Oct. 9, President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria.  Turkey then decided to airstrike two towns in that country to create a 20-mile safe zone near their border. Since then, misinformation has washed over the region.

False allegations regarding mass deaths of civilians have popped up on both sides — among both Turkish and Kurdish supporters. Footage of old military operations have resurfaced from all over the world and gained traction on social media, spreading panic and hate. Politicians, who are under heavy attack, have also become the center of conspiracy theories in which people are using strong hashtags to reference what they consider these politicians’ “real interest” in the battle (or in the troops’ withdraw).

Gulin Çavus, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish fact-checking platform Teyit, told the IFCN her team didn’t sleep Oct. 9, the night Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan authorized the beginning of Operation Peace Spring, and hasn’t rested much since then.

During the first night of the operation, Teyit’s fact-checkers established what would be their battle routine. They created new lists of Twitter handles and hashtags to follow, opened a new Slack channel dedicated to Syria content and got ready to receive an average of 200 fact-check demands coming from their readers every day. According to Google Analytics, their website has reached 1 million pageviews in 10 days.

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And the team has learned a lot.

“In war times, people feel the need to create enemies and allies. It is all about taking positions,” said Çavus.

That’s why Teyit has published so many fact checks regarding how other countries have publicly positioned themselves in regard to the war.

“One single tweet that claimed Hungary had vetoed the EU’s declaration about the military operation got 34,000 likes even though it had false information. Hungary only wanted the announcement to be postponed but signed the declaration anyway,” said Çavus.

“We have also seen false posts saying that Pakistan was ready to send troops; that Palestine didn’t agree with the operation; and that North Korea had messaged Turkey to support its position in Syria… All false pieces of content.”

What is amazing to observe in wartime is how low people’s threshold to separate facts from fiction can get — even among politicians and journalists.

On Oct. 10, Melih Gökçek, Ankara’s former mayor, for example, thought he had impressive footage from Syria to share with his Twitter followers. He believed it “showed” how the Turkish army had attacked Kurdish forces. He posted it online.

Med Nuçe, a Kurdish news website, however, presented the same recording differently. It said the images “showed” Kurdish forces attacking the Turkish army.

“In this case, both sides were trying to prove how effectively their armed forces were while fighting in Syria,” explained Çavus.

Then ABC News applied a third (and also misleading) caption to the same footage. The TV channel said it “showed” Turkey’s military forces bombing Kurd civilians in a Syrian border town.

“So we fact-checked it and none of the captions were right,” said Teyit’s editor. “The video was actually from Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot Night in Kentucky in the United States. And it had been recorded in 2017.”

Çavus now divides the war mis/disinformation into two categories. The first one holds “misleading, miscaptioned” pieces of content. The second category is “governmental propaganda with online methods and tools.”

“According to Oxford’s Global Disinformation Order Report, in the last two years, there has been a 150% increase in the number of countries using organized social media manipulation campaigns. In Turkey, it is mostly observed on Twitter and Facebook,” Çavus said.

“And based on our team’s own observations, we can easily say that some information is disseminated for propaganda purposes by almost all parties involved in this latest military operation.”

In October, Turkish government supporters mostly used the hashtag #BarışPınarıHarekatı (Operation Peace Spring). Kurdish supporters used #saverojava and #kurdsbetrayed. Both became trending topics on Twitter.

“People who don’t trust Turkish media — and there are many that don’t — just follow the news on social media. With these hashtags on the top, disinformation spreads easily and reaches a big audience,” Çavus said.

So what is the impact of living under this daily tide of mis/disinformation? How does it feel?

“There is no constructive discussion,” Çavus said. “Turkish citizens feel uncertainty and have fears. What if the U.S impose sanctions to our country? What would happen with the EU turned back to us? And what if ISIS attack civilians here again?”

In war times, misinformation generates uncertainty and uncertainty generates misinformation.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa, in Brazil. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.