The earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday February 6 with devastating effects was major news. A lot of information started circulating immediately about the natural catastrophe, including articles, images and videos. Mis- and disinformation began spreading as well, and many fact-checking organizations part of the EDMO network detected false news in their own countries. Notably, a lot of these false news were the same detected in Turkey, as verified by Turkish fact-checking projects such as Teyit.
At the European level, the quantity of false information appears to be very relevant, in accordance to the tragic, dramatic scale of the event. The vast majority of the false news consisted of old videos and images from other contexts, miscaptioned to induce the readers to believe they came from the affected areas. Videos of buildings collapsing (detected, for example, in the Netherlands), tsunamis (e.g. in Spain), nuclear explosions (e.g. in Italy), and others have been fact-checked almost immediately all over Europe. It is important to underline that spreading mis- and disinformation (e.g. baseless alarmism, scaremongering, false information about the geographical areas impacted etc.) during emergencies can be very dangerous and can strongly affect the lives of the people involved, directly or indirectly, in the cataclysm, as well as the perception of the event in other geographical areas.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that for now the vast majority of the detected disinformation in the EU (in Turkey and Syria the situation is different, with political actors involved in mis- and disinformation, according to IFCN independent fact-checking organizations) about the earthquake does not seem to have a specific agenda, i.e. to foster or suggest specific narratives in the general public. One notable exception is a conspiracy theory blaming the High-frequency active auroral research program (Haarp) technology for the disaster: in some social media posts spreading this idea, it is claimed that the earthquake is a punishment against Turkey by NATO or the US for a supposed misalignment on foreign policy (the false news is often conveyed using an old video from 2022). However, aside from this marginal case, as for now, the false news detected in the EU appear to be basically click-baiting that do not push any specific disinformation narrative, but simply aim at maximizing the number of views, reactions or shares.
This marks a notable difference with the disinformation dynamics observed around the war in Ukraine. In this case, in the first days of the war a lot of “agenda-free” disinformation was detected (e.g. videos of planes flying over Ukraine): however, very soon a significant amount of detected disinformation was clearly supporting Russian propaganda about the war, as documented in the Periodic Insights and Monthly Briefs by the EDMO fact-checking network.
In conclusion, when analyzing disinformation, it is always important to focus first on the false news even if without a specific agenda, since disinformation during humanitarian crises can be very dangerous and add to the confusion. Equally important is to be on alert to detect if, among the mere click-baiting disinformation, narratives conveying specific political, geopolitical, commercial etc. agendas start making their way, to exploit the catastrophe and the general public’s attention to bring dividenda to malicious actors.
Tommaso Canetta, Pagella Politica / Facta news
Photo Credit: Flickr, Focal Foto