Analysis: An array of misinformation about earthquakes in Turkey

Annie Lab examined some popular social media content posted after the devastating quakes in Turkey and Syria. Here’s a list of misleading or groundless claims we investigated.

Catastrophic earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria last month. Reportedly, the combined death toll has now surpassed 50,000.

Meanwhile, on the internet, fact-checkers worldwide found many irrelevant photos and videos with tens of thousands of shares, sometimes more, circulating as images from the two quake-hit countries.

At Annie Lab, we also investigated a number of questionable claims and content on social media. This included:

  • A now-deleted tweet by a Chinese diplomat who misleadingly claimed a Chinese-built sea-crossing bridge was still standing after the quakes;
  • Another popular tweet with a collage of four photos falsely implied all images were taken at the quake scenes and described them as the “saddest pictures on [the] internet” one day after the natural disaster violently shook the region;
  • And a tweet posted on Feb. 7 claiming Turkey was attacked by the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, making a groundless suggestion that it has caused the quakes.

Misleading: Bridge is neither ‘Chinese-built’ nor hit by earthquakes

Zhang Meifang, Chinese Consulate General to Belfast, tweeted on Feb. 13 that “The bridge built by China in Turkey’s withstood the earthquake” with the hashtag “#ChinaTech.”

It included a video that purportedly shows a sea-crossing bridge built by China. It had over 800 retweets and likes before it was deleted.

The same claim was also made by other users (for example, here). However, the claim is misleading.

We identified the bridge in the video as the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge, a 3.7 km-long suspension bridge with six lanes in both directions sitting in northwestern Turkey that was inaugurated last March.

Our research shows the bridge was constructed mainly by two South-Korean companies Daelim and SK Ecoplant, as well as two Turkish-based contractors, Limak and Yapi Merkezi.

Another Turkish company Çimtaş was listed as a steelwork contractor, and a Danish firm COWI was named as the project’s engineering consultant.

Annie Lab could not find any record of Chinese companies involved in the main construction of the bridge despite it being hailed by the State Council Information Office as one of the landmark projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

We could only find one Chinese engineering firm, the Sichuan Road and Bridge Group, mentioned in a report by state media Xinhua. According to the article, the company was responsible for the bridge’s steel box girder hoisting.

The bridge was not hit by the earthquakes, either.

It is located nearly 1,000 kilometres away from Gaziantep, a southeastern Turkish city and the epicenter of the Feb. 6 earthquakes.

Locations of the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge in northwestern Turkey and the earthquake’s epicenter.

Annie Lab checked the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale by the U.S. Geology Survey and found the levels of tremors felt in different regions.

A map showing the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.

A very high intensity (Level 8) was recorded around the epicenter after the quake, indicating the damage was “great in poorly built structures,” but no intensity data was recorded in the vicinity of the bridge.

Misleading: Three out of four images are irrelevant to the Turkey earthquake

A tweet on Feb. 7 posted a collage of four photos and implied the four “saddest pictures” were all related to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

It has been shared more than 390 times and received more than 1,000 likes at the time of writing.

The first image shows a dog sitting on ruins next to a person’s arm whose body appears to be trapped under rubble.

However, the same image can be found on stock photo websites such as Alamy and iStocks. They credit the image to a photographer named Jaroslav Noska.

We then found the photographer’s Instagram account. He also posted the same image on Oct. 19, 2018, with hashtags #rescuedog and #earthquake (the third picture in a series). There were no further details as to where the image was shot.

This has also been investigated by many fact-checking organizations, such as the Associated Press, the Quint, Full Fact, Reuters, and USA Today.

The image on Twitter (left) is identical to the image posted by the photographer on Instagram (right).

The second photo shows a boy squatting over what appeared to be ruins of collapsed buildings.

Image search led to another stock photo service Shutterstock, which credited the image to photographer Zapylaieva Hanna.

The image on Twitter (left) is identical to the image on Shutterstock (right).

The same photo can also be found on Adobe Stock.

On Feb. 7, after the photos had gone viral on Twitter, the photographer clarified on her Facebook page that the image has nothing to do with the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

Zapylaieva said it was part of an illustration package she took in a Ukraine national park in 2018.

Screenshot of the Facebook post by Hanna Zapylaieva on Feb. 7.

The third photo shows a distraught elderly man carrying loaves of bread in front of a dilapidated building.

Image search led to an Instagram post on Nov. 12, 2014, by photojournalist Abdurrahman Antakyaligot. The photo was taken 15 years ago during a 1999 earthquake on Nov. 12 in Düzce, a province in Turkey, according to the description.

The image on Twitter (left) is identical to the image on Instagram posted by the photographer (right).

This photo was also featured in a news article on November 13, 2020, commemorating the disaster.

The last image showing women crying over rubbles is the only photo relevant to the latest Turkey earthquake.

It was shot on the actual day of the disaster, Feb. 6, 2023.

Screenshot of photo from the Hungarian news portal.

This photo was published in an article by the Hungarian news portal “444” with a caption that says, “relatives at the edge of ruined houses in Diyarbakir.”

It was credited to photojournalist Esra Hacioğlu and Anadolu Agency, the state-run news agency in Turkey, distributed by AFP.

The image on Twitter (left) originally came from Anadolu Agency (right).

This collage of four images has also been fact-checked by Snopes, a U.S. fact-checking organization.

No evidence to show Turkey was ‘attacked’ by HAARP a week before the deadly quakes

A Twitter video featuring a saucer-shaped orange cloud posted on Feb. 7 claimed that it was spotted one week before the earthquakes wreaked havoc in Turkey.

It said “Turkey was attacked with HAARP,” implying that the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program could be the cause of the natural disaster.

The tweeted video, which came with a TikTok watermark, has over 5,000 likes and nearly 3,000 retweets as of this writing.

However, the video has nothing to do with the earthquakes or the HAARP.

It actually shows a lenticular cloud, a natural meteorological phenomenon, that was spotted in Turkey in January.

Screenshot of a Turkish tweet showing a similar cloud being spotted in the city of Bursa.

Annie Lab found similar photos and videos portraying the lenticular cloud uploaded on Twitter as early as Jan. 19.

One of these videos’ captions gave a hint that the cloud may have been spotted in the morning in Bursa, a city in northwestern Turkey.

We then landed on another photo by Anadolu Agency captured on the same day and location.

Meteorologists cited by the Washington Post identified the structure in Turkey’s sky as a lenticular cloud.

It is generally formed as a result of strong winds blowing across complex terrains, such as tall mountains or valleys. Water vapor in the air gets condensed and forms such a shape, according to a National Geographic education blog.

Meanwhile, we found no evidence to support the claim that the earthquakes in Turkey had anything to do with HAARP, a system that was previously operated by the U.S. Air Force and Navy.

Since 2015, the high-frequency transmitter studying the ionosphere has been run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Leung Wing-mo, a spokesman with Hong Kong Meteorological Society, told Annie Lab in a recent interview that it was far-fetched to connect HAARP with the earthquake, a natural disaster in which “humans play no part”.

He said the program could not be used to “attack” a country or manipulate meteorological phenomena.

According to Leung, the radio wave energy from HAARP can only be amounted to a few megawatts, while the New York Times quoted seismologist Januka Attanayake saying that the recent earthquake released around 32 petajoules of energy or 8.8 million megawatts of power for an hour.

This claim was also investigated by Reuters and USA Today.