Is Turkey a new target for Russian information operations?

Over the past month, the number of fakes about Ukrainians has increased dramatically in Turkey. Russian propaganda is trying to undermine Turkish society and put President Erdogan at odds with the West. Why is this profitable for Russia and will Russian propaganda use the earthquake to strengthen its narratives?

Photo: Kremlin Palace Hotel in Antalya, Turkey / official website

The target is Ukrainians, and the zone of influence is the whole of Europe

Earlier, we reported on the distribution of fabricated leaflets and emails among the population of Poland, claiming that the Polish authorities are allegedly collecting data on Ukrainians for mobilization.

This strategy is not new. Narratives directed against Ukrainian refugees in Europe have become one of the main types of Russian disruptive information operations. 

Research shows that anti-refugee messages are fueled by an extensive, coordinated Russian network of fake news sites, Telegram channels, YouTube and Instagram channels, and even petitions. And it is systematically reinforced by armies of fake social media accounts, pro-Kremlin influencers, and Russian state media accounts on almost all major social platforms.

A September report by Meta, the company that owns Facebook, stated that the disinformation campaign relied on “an unusual combination of sophistication and brute force.” Accordingly, those who carry out these information attacks are well-funded, experienced in disinformation campaigns, and very persistent.

The main goal of such operations is to discredit Ukrainian refugees, and the aim is to change public opinion. 

Each of these operations is aimed at different audiences: Russian, Ukrainian, and the population of countries that host refugees from Ukraine. Among the latter, propaganda spreads traditional anti-immigrant fakes about economic losses from refugees, rising crime rates, cultural differences, and related conflicts.

The emphasis of Russian attacks is on the fact that Europeans are getting tired of feeding and supporting refugees, and by the way, Ukraine. Accordingly, Russian information operations want to disrupt any European support for Ukraine, from sheltering refugees to transferring weapons and increasing sanctions pressure on Russia. 

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, hundreds of fakes about Ukrainian refugees have been spread. 

For example, last December, a 23-second video was circulated online showing an elderly woman allegedly complaining to Polish authorities that she had been “robbed” by Ukrainian refugees she had sheltered in her apartment. Several variations of this “story” can also be found online, according to which either the woman’s children or the city authorities persuaded the 73-year-old Polish woman to give shelter to a Ukrainian family.

Instead, this video was filmed back in 2018, and the woman is seen quarreling with representatives of the Internet provider over the services not provided.

Another case occurred in Germany when in November 2022, messages were spread around the network that “Ukrainian refugees opened a second-hand store in Germany and resell things that were given to Ukrainians as state aid.” In fact, in October, Ukrainian citizens who fled the war did open a second-hand store in Germany. Their managers provided the fact-checkers with all the confirmation papers of the official purchase of clothing in the UK. 

In fact, this is a positive example of Ukrainian refugees who do not live on state benefits but try to work and start a business. In other words, Russian propaganda distorted this positive example and tried to discredit people.

Russian disinformation also speculates on painful topics for Germans. For example, this summer, a wave of publications swept through Germany claiming that Ukrainian refugees in Germany had allegedly made a giant swastika in a field. Instead, an official investigation revealed that the banned symbol was carved by a local resident, probably 36-year-old Stefan B. 

Photo: Julian Röpcke, Fabian Matzerath / Bild

The success of such disinformation campaigns primarily depends on the readiness of society to counter them. 

Turkey is not an exception

“Publications describing various “stories” on the same topic have begun to appear on the Internet, which casts a shadow on Ukrainians living in Turkey,” reads a recent statement from the Embassy of Ukraine in Turkey.

For example, at the end of January this year, the Turkish media reported that a Ukrainian refugee living in Antalya had allegedly filed a complaint against the Anatolian High School because of the mandatory performance of the Turkish national anthem in the morning. After a wave of outrage spread online, Turkish journalists were able to establish that the story was fictitious. This information was denied by the Turkish Ministry of National Education.  

“Social media accounts and Kremlin agents of influence have reappeared in Turkey, carrying out deliberate propaganda activities against Ukrainians,” the Turkish media outlet Kirim Haber Ajansi concluded.

Another case of spreading disinformation about Ukrainians in Turkey was a video allegedly uploaded to TikTok in mid-January by Ukrainian women temporarily residing in Antalya. Turkish media and popular social media accounts began to spread this short video with the phrase “They call us foreigners, but Turks have already become foreigners in Antalya.” The news attracted hundreds of angry comments on social media calling for the deportation of the video’s authors and a response to the excessive immigration of Ukrainians and Russians. “This is an open occupation,” the authors of the comments were indignant.

The TikTok video was allegedly deleted from the social network almost immediately, along with the account itself. StopFake journalists were unable to find its source. Then, on January 19, the video appeared almost simultaneously on the pages of major Turkish public and media outlets. It was accompanied by the same text message claiming that the girls in the video were Ukrainians (although there is no clear evidence of this, their faces are hidden by glasses). Even Turkish users themselves, reacting to the thesis of “ungrateful migrants,” confuse them with Russians, complaining about the dominance of Slavs in Turkish cities.

 What is the benefit?

Disinformation campaigns in Turkey fit into the Kremlin’s policy. The emphasis on the refugee issue is obvious: at the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine, about 420,000 Ukrainians left for Turkey. They were soon joined by a large number of Russians who left Russia after the mobilization was announced. In total, 150 thousand Russians received official residence permits in Turkey in 2022.

The new wave of migration (which was preceded by an influx of Syrian and Afghan refugees) could not but affect Turkish society. This topic may become one of the key issues during the presidential elections to be held in Turkey in May 2023. Therefore, according to SropFake, Ukrainian refugees will be in the spotlight. 

The Kremlin uses any internal tension within countries to its advantage. Because the more unstable the situation inside, the more cooperative the Turkish partners will be in the Russian-Turkish dialogue.

In words, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supports Ukraine in the war and promises to help rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by the Russians. Turkey also supplies the Ukrainian army with Bayraktar attack drones and Kipri armored vehicles. Turkey has closed the Bosphorus to Russian warships and is an important mediator in the issue of a sea corridor for Ukrainian grain.

At the same time, Ankara refuses to impose sanctions against Russia and is even increasing its cooperation with the aggressor. Erdogan and Putin publicly shake hands and agree to “deepen cooperation.”

Turkey has increased its imports of Russian crude oil and is working with its Black Sea neighbor on a planned natural gas hub and the construction of a nuclear power plant. This comes at a time when Europe and its allies are trying to curtail Moscow’s revenue from energy exports over the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan is also providing a safe haven for Russian money to help keep Turkey’s economy afloat after years of instability that economists say resulted largely from his government’s own mismanagement.

In addition, Turkey is Russia’s important lever to stop Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. It is Turkey’s decision that ultimately determines whether the Alliance will expand even closer to Russia’s borders. In light of reports of Russia’s involvement in the provocative actions of ultranationalists burning the Koran in Sweden, the question arises as to whether these actions were coordinated.

It is highly possible that the terrible earthquake will not go unnoticed by Russian propaganda. Any social tension, any crisis caused by the disaster will be used by Russia to its advantage. So we will soon see what the next steps will be.

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