Turkey earthquakes: Online misinformation triggers panic and real-world harm

Turkey earthquakes: Online misinformation triggers panic and real-world harm
Turkish fact-checkers and officials have warned that false claims made online about the devastating earthquakes could harm rescue efforts and prey on peoples' fears.
4 min read
08 February, 2023
False information about the earthquakes that devastated large parts of Syria and Turkey is spreading online [AAREF WATAD\/AFP via Getty Images]

Online accounts sharing false or misleading information about Monday's devastating earthquakes, which killed at least 11,000 people in Turkey and Syria, have been criticised by scientists and the medical community for playing on people's fears. 

Dutch 'seismologist' Frank Hoogerbeets, who is being widely lauded online for allegedly 'predicting' the quakes, has been among those criticised, with modern scientists saying it is impossible to predict earthquakes.

"This account is quickly approaching 1 million followers, mostly from our region. Scientists agree there is no scientific method for earthquake prediction. Please don't let him take advantage of people's very real fears," tweeted Richard Salame, a journalist at Lebanese outlet L'Orient Today

Hoogerbeets allegedly released a video days before the earthquake 'predicting' the disaster using the geometry of planets and other celestial bodies - a method widely viewed as unscientific. 

In response, Diego Melgar, an Associate Professor of geophysics at the University of Oregon tweeted: "We call this 'snake oil' in the US. Could also be referred to as a 'quack'."

Several other accounts have been criticised for sharing false videos of the damage, including accounts using videos of the planned demolition of buildings in India or the 2020 Port of Beirut blast, claiming they were from Turkey or Syria. 

A number of Turkish and international users are attempting to combat this misinformation, which can be used to take advantage of viewers or spread panic during this natural disaster. Turkish fact-checking website Doğruluk Payı fact-checked several such claims and urged users to be more careful when sharing information online. 

Fahrettin Altun, the chief of communications for the Turkish Presidency, urged Twitter and Elon Musk "to pay special attention to disinformation and misinformation efforts on the platform", adding it "can cost lives and slow down our efforts".

"In times of crisis misinformation often thrives online because everyone is trying to share information they believe is true, or which can be helpful to others. These claims, despite being false, misleading or inaccurate, aren't usually shared out of malicious intent but can still pollute the online information space," Esther Chan, editor at RMIT FactLab, a research hub dedicated to countering misinformation, told The New Arab

"This could have an impact on people's survival as most of us count on social media for useful information such as escape routes, locations of shelters etc. "

The Turkish government in fact launched a smartphone app a day after the quakes to catch those who share misinformation - a move criticised by experts who see it as an attempt at censorship. 

"A careless mistake, [such as] clicking on the 'share' button too quickly could lead to 1-3 years of imprisonment if found guilty under a new "disinformation" law passed in [the] Turkish parliament last October," said Chan.   

The series of earthquakes and aftershocks in southern Turkey have devastated densely populated urban centers, including Gaziantep, Diyarbakir, Adana and Iskenderun in Turkey and Aleppo, Latakia, Tartous and Hama in Syria.