Programmatic Propaganda In Action: #OperationOliveBranch
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
― George Orwell, 1984
In January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation, code-named Operation Olive Branch, in northern Syria, against the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD), its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions surrounding the Syrian city of Afrin.
Operation Olive Branch and its preceding one, code-named Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016–2017 are the first invasions by Turkish ground forces into a sovereign nation since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
This research highlights the incorporation of the cyberspace dimension to that conflict. Managed through forums and social media, noncombatants proxies of the state engaged in disseminating propaganda joined the fight to win the battle for controlling the narrative.
We analyzed Twitter activity (tweets and retweets) and profiles connected with the hashtag #operationolivebranch and identified activities of the Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements to influence audiences perception around the world.
- Two high-volume programmatic profiles (we’d classify as cyborgs being a combination of human and machine), one that poses as a journalist/blogger @PelinCiftek, and the other positioned parody profile @AkPartiNet. At the time of our research, these two profiles were tweeting at a rate of 465 tweets per day (seven-day average) and sharing the same content from 22 other profiles, which also displayed suspicious behaviors.
(In line with the DFRLab position “For the purposes of this analysis, a level of activity on the order of 72 engagements per day over an extended period of months — in human terms, one tweet or like every 10 minutes from 7 am to 7 pm, every day of the week — will be considered suspicious. Activity on the order of 144 or more engagements per day, even over a shorter period, will be considered highly suspicious.”)
We also note these two profiles were created within one month of each other, and have nearly an identical tweet to like ratio.
- These seemingly two unrelated (not directly connected) profiles are highly programmatic and serve as the hubs of a tightly connected network that is clearly amplifying the Turkish government message on the war in Afrin and other issues. This serves as an example of computation propaganda in action.
Our research highlights how this network operates in a programmatic manner, as a mass amplifier, and with the intent to manipulate or influence public perception.
Findings from our research point to an orchestrated campaign connected with the hashtag #operationolivebranch. Again, these two profiles (@PelinCiftek and @AkPartiNet) at first glance have nothing in common nor appear to be connected. Yet, we found they were operating in concert with the identical volume, timing and tweets themselves (small sample noted below).
The 22 profiles they are amplifying and whose related content undoubtedly met with Turkish government approval in relation to the conflict in Afrin.
Notes and network visualizations:
*red-avatar profiles are presenting bot-like characteristics.
Map I: This is the network visualization of #operatonolivebranch that started this investigation. The symmetry between @AkPartiNet and @PelinCiftek raises too many questions not to explore the nature of these two profiles and these connections.
Map II: shows on 03/16/2018 @AkPartiNet’s last 200 tweets the five most mentioned profiles, and the two most used hashtags. The thickness of the lines indicates the volume of tweets. Profiles in grey have been mentioned by the profiles in @AkPartiNet network. It’s interesting to see the network connectivity between the first-degree profiles and the second-degree ones.
Map III: 03/16/2018 from @AkPartiNet last 200 tweets these were the 22 profiles mentioned, and the two most used hashtags.
Map IV: 03/16/2018 from @PelinCiftek’s last 200 tweets these were the five most mentioned profiles and two most used hashtags. Profiles in grey have been mentioned by the profiles in @PelinCiftek’s network. Again, we were interested to see the network connectivity between the first-degree profiles and the second-degree ones.
Map V: 03/16/2018 from @PelinCiftek’s last 200 tweets these were the 22 profiles mentioned, and the two most used hashtags. It’s important to note the identical pattern of activity between these two profiles.
1: we have documented two programmatic Twitter accounts that are posing as journalists/bloggers. They served as the key network hubs and amplifiers (as illustrated above):
The “Journalist” — @PelinCiftek (no links to personal sources or professional bylines)
The Parody — @AkPartiNet → website linked to the account, akparti.com is unreachable.
2) Additional programmatic and/or cyborg Twitter accounts amplifying the Turkish government’s message about the war in Afrin. We conclude these are likely government approved proxies or messengers (if not, it’s highly improbable this content and network would exist) whose tweets are relayed by the two accounts above. At the time of our research we noted these ten profiles have a daily tweet average to classify them as cyborgs.
PopulerGundem = 229 tweets/day
BoraDemiraslan = 200 tweets/day
Enesicoo = 172 tweets/day
EsmaUyumlu = 172 tweets/day
FetoGercekler = 140 tweets/day
SiyasiKulis = 115 tweets/day
TCsonBasbakan = 97 tweets/day
AkPartiNoktaOrg = 86 tweets/day
BestepeCB = 86 tweets/day
SaameetDeemiir = = 80 tweets/day
The 12 other profiles that made up this network include the following — (cumulatively they account for another 285 tweets/day)
This research and project was done in collaboration with Flavius Mihaies
While 2017 is behind us, many of the past years troubling themes are not. We’ve seen investigations into Russia’s interference in the US Presidential Election unfold, CEOs of digital platforms being questioned about how their contributing to the information crisis, along media outlets and information itself being deemed untrustworthy. With few solutions in sight, 2018 is giving us more of the same.
To help you see through the complexities of this rapidly evolving landscape, we’ve written the four-volume eBook series, Ecosystem of Fake: Bots, Information & Distorted Realities. We invite you to learn more about today’s information battlefield, proposed solutions, and a further reading resource today. Let’s work towards making cyberspace of more human place.
John (CEO & Co-founder)
Mentionmapp Investigates: See if your information landscape is at risk or explore collaborative research opportunities with us. Contact: john [at] mentionmapp [dot] com