As Turkish forces invaded northern Syria in early October, supporters of the offensive launched a different kind of campaign -- online.
Dozens of images claiming to show Turkey's soldiers cuddling babies, feeding hungry toddlers and carrying elderly women spread across Twitter and Instagram where they were liked, retweeted and viewed thousands of times thanks also to popular hashtags.
Except some of the photos weren't of Turkish soldiers, none of them were recent and some had been taken in parts of Syria unconnected to the invasion -- even in other parts of the world.
In last month's instance, the images began making the rounds in the days after President Donald Trump's withdrawal of U.S. troops opened the way for the Turkish offensive against the Kurds on the border with northeastern Syria.
They weren't the only ones. Social media posts sympathetic to the Kurds also wrongly linked Turkey to horrifying images of military assaults or war victims. Such tweets included a photo of a girl with severe burns on her face that purported to show that Turkey had dispersed white phosphorus on Kurds. In fact, the April 2015 image was shot by a Reuters photographer in Yemen.
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 behavior on Twitter," said Gideon Blocq, the CEO of VineSight, a technology company that tracks misinformation online and reviewed the pro-Turkey tweets at The Associated Press' request. Their analysis examined the frequency of the tweets, 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 behavior.
"One can conclude that these automated accounts are there to push content," Blocq said.
A supposedly recent photo showing a Turkish soldier giving a Syrian girl water was, in fact, shot by an Associated Press photographer in 2015. An image that purported to show a Syrian woman in purple being carried by Turkish soldiers made the rounds on Twitter but was, in fact, taken by Associated Press in 2010, during flooding evacuations in Pakistan.
Turkey itself, which as of last week had detained 452 people for critical social media posts, has also put out a tightly controlled narrative on Twitter.
One of the most widely shared photos was first posted to Twitter by Turkey's Ministry of Defense, hours after the White House announced on Oct. 6 that U.S. 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.
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.
However, 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.
While it's impossible to determine who is behind the accounts using only the publicly available information on profiles, VineSight's findings suggest they are part of an automated network promoting certain hashtags, images and tweets.
"It's extremely difficult to build up such a network -- it takes some time and manual work," said Yoel Grinshpon, vice president of research for VineSight. "I would guess it's somebody who has resources."
Separately, a Syrian protester was killed Friday after a Turkish military vehicle ran him over as it drove through an angry crowd protesting a joint Turkish-Russian patrol in northeastern Syria, Kurdish forces and a Syria war monitoring group said.
The Turkish Defense ministry said Friday's joint patrol from Qamishli city to the town of Derik "has been completed as planned with due care and attention to the safety of our personnel and the public against the provocateurs."
The Russia-Turkey deal endorsed a cease-fire after Turkey's invasion and establishment of a Turkey-administered stretch of land, about 75 miles long inside Syria. The deal also arranged for joint Turkish-Russian patrols on the flanks of the Turkey-controlled area and for Syrian Kurdish fighters to withdraw from border areas, Ankara's key demand.
The man killed Friday was among a group of residents who had chased and pelted the joint Russian-Turkey convoy with shoes and stones, prompting Turkish troops to fire tear gas to disperse the protesters.
Ten people were hospitalized, according to the Rojava Information Center, an activist-operated group in Kurdish-held areas.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, said the man was run over in the village of Sarmasakh near the border by a Turkish vehicle that was conducting a joint patrol with the Russians.
Information for this article was contributed by Elena Becatoros, Mehmet Guzel, Bassem Mroue, Sarah El Deeb and Suzan Fraser of The Associated Press.
A Section on 11/09/2019
Print Headline: Twitter posts push propaganda photos of Turks