It's said that lies travel faster than the truth, and as Turkey battled forest fires, Twitter became a hub of misinformation.

As Turkey battled to contain fires that spread along its Meditteranean coastline, social media sites became an incubator for widespread misinformation as different sides battled for supremacy.

In particular, the hashtag "#HelpTurkey" garnered more than 2.5 million tweets on Twitter, which calls for outside intervention in the country in a bid to help combat the fires.

While the campaign may have had many well-meaning users, it's likely part of an "influence operation", says Dr Marc Owen Jones designed to make the government "look weak and incompetent."

Influence campaigns are the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent.

"I think while many people probably used the hashtag with good intention, it does appear that the trend itself ‘help turkey' is quite loaded," says Jones speaking to TRT World.

Jones, an Assistant Professor at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, trawled through thousands of tweets to identify how social media interactions shaped the debate around Turkey's forest fires.

The online Twitter trend seems intent on emphasising "Turkey's incompetence and weakness in dealing with adversity," says Jones, adding that the "messaging and multiple infographics suggested some form of campaign too."

According to the government, in recent days, Turkey saw more than 129 spontaneous forest fires across 35 provinces, of which 122 have now been brought under control.

The fires have resulted in at least eight deaths and as many as 271 others affected.

Against this backdrop and with emotions running high, misinformation on Twitter "muddies the waters of legitimate debate and reduces complex issues to slogans and talking points," says Jones.

People the world over generally follow specific accounts on social media and news outlets that validate pre-existing political positions. In recent years, social media platforms like Twitter have only exacerbated the problem.

One tactic used by fake accounts is "handle switching", where users will change their Twitter handle after engaging in an active campaign to promote a trend. After they switch their handle and often delete their Tweets, the account operators erase their tracks.

Recent research on Twitter trends in Turkey found that more than 47 percent of local trends in the country "are fake [and] created from scratch by bots," and more broadly 20 percent of global trends are fake.

Twitter trends often get more attention amongst normal app users. In addition, they are more likely to get people involved in the debate with international media outlets reporting on it, which only gives a manufactured trend greater credibility.

Such events end up "distorting the public view of what conversations are actually going on," said one of the research paper's authors titled "The Case of Fake Twitter Trends."

One salient example in recent years was an artificially created hashtag in Turkish called 'Syrians get out', which was widely picked up by the international media and in academic papers as a reflection of what ordinary Turks are thinking.

"In reality," said the researchers, "it was completely fabricated."

This is not to say that tensions with migrants do not exist or, for that matter, that a different strategy or a higher level of preparedness to tackle forest fires could have resulted in a different outcome.

What fabricated social media trends tend to do is deepen polarisation.

"Fundamentally, it erodes the public sphere by replacing public discussion with simulated discussion," says Jones.

So who could be behind the latest attempt at fabricating Turkey's debate around forest fires? Well, it's "hard to be sure," says Jones.

Internal political rivals to the governing AK Party and, by extension, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be one factor, says Jones, "foreign actors like the UAE, or even the Russians. Basically, look at a list of Turkey's enemies."

Source: TRT World