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'Coordinated campaign' pushes propaganda photos of Turkish soldiers in support of Syria operation

Images of soldiers aiding civilians have been used to boost support for Turkey's operation [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 8 November, 2019

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A misinformation monitor has said pro-Turkish accounts, largely based in Pakistan, launched a propaganda campaign to bolster support for Ankara's invasion of northeastern Syria.
Supporters of Turkey's military have launched an online campaign to bolster approval for Ankara's invasion of northeastern Syria last month.

Dozens of images claiming to show Turkey's soldiers cuddling infants, feeding hungry toddlers and carrying elderly women have spread across Twitter and Instagram since early October, when Ankara launched its 'Peace Spring' operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Some of the photos, however, were not of Turkish soldiers. 

None of the photos - liked and retweeted by thousands of people due to the aid of popular hashtags - were recent and some had been taken in parts of Syria unconnected to the invasion, and even in other parts of the world.

The images began making the rounds in the days after US President Donald Trump's widely criticised withdrawal of US troops from the region opened the way for the Turkish offensive.

False social media posts sympathetic to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) also linked Turkey to horrifying images of military assaults of war victims. Such tweets included an image shot in 2015 in Yemen purporting to show that Turkish forces had used white phosphorus on Kurdish civilians.

But unlike the pro-Kurdish images, the false and misleading posts promoting Turkey appeared to get a boost from a coordinated network of Twitter accounts that amplified the content through trending hashtags and retweets.

"That is not the norm of normal behaviour on Twitter," Gideon Blocq, the CEO of VineSight, a technology company that tracks misinformation online, told the Associated Press.

VineSight's analysis examined the frequency of the tweets, the use of stock photos and locations of six Twitter accounts that promoted the images and their followers, among other things, all traits that signal inauthentic behaviour.

"One can conclude that these automated accounts are there to push content," Blocq said.

Social media propaganda is a tactic with a proven success rate, P W Singer, co-author of "LikeWar: The Weaponisation of Social Media", told the AP.

"Countries and foreign actors are simply copying the methods used by Russians to spread misniformation about America's 2016 election," he explained.

"The lesson that they all took was the not only does it work - but it's cheap and easy to pull off with little consequence. This is the new normal in war, politics and business."

What did the pro-Turkey accounts share?

In early October, the former mayor of Ankara and other Twitter accounts shared footage of what purported to be a Turkish assault on the Kurdish forces in Syria

The video, which was shared and viewed thousands of times and even broacast by ABC News, was taken at a military gun demonstration in Kentucky.

Soon after, dozens of misrepresented images shared widely with the help of hashtags have cast the Turkish invasion in a more favourable light.

A supposedly recent photo showing a Turkish soldier giving a Syrian girl water was, in fact, shot by an AP photographer in 2015. Another image that purported to show a Syrian woman being carried by Turkish soldiers was, in fact, taken by the AP in 2010, during flooding evacuations in Pakistan.

The tweets linked the photos to hashtags such as #TurkishArmyForThePeace and #TurkeyIsJustKillingTerrorists.

Asked about the photos and hashtags used to spread the images, Twitter spokeswoman Liz Kelley told the AP the tech company has not seen any evidence of coordinated campaigns to share false information about the Turkish offensive on its site.

But VineSight's independent analysis of several accounts that promoted these and other misleading pro-Turkey photos on Twitter in the invasion's early days not only found signs of automation, but also noted that an overwhelming majority of the accounts' followers listed locations in Pakistan.

The online campaign mirrors Turkey's more official efforts to boost online support for its operation in Syria.

One of the most widely shared photos was first posted to Twitter by Turkey's ministry of defense, hours after the White House announced that US troops would clear the way for an expected Turkish assault in northeastern Syria.

The image, which has been used by Turkish propaganda sites before, showed a kneeling Turkish soldier holding the hand of a little girl in a blue sweater against the backdrop of a military vehicle adorned with the Turkish flag. It was shared by Twitter users in subsequent days on Twitter, accompanied with the #TurkishArmyForThePeace hashtag.

"Turkey never shoots civilians," one Twitter user wrote when sharing the photo.

At home, Ankara has detained at least 452 people for social media posts critical of the operation in northeastern Syria.

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