Programmatic propaganda in action in Syria's conflict: #OperationOliveBranch

The ongoing conflict in Syria blends conventional warfare with social media manipulation operations to influence public opinion, according to research.

The backstory: In January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation, code-named Olive Branch, in an around the northern Syria's city of Afrin.

Key findings: There is a social media manipulation dimension to Turkey's war in Syria. The Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence public opinion on the conflict, backing up the Turkish state message in a computer automated manner and orchestrated campaign connected with the Twitter hashtag #operationolivebranch.

The details: Research identified two ways the Turkish state or pro-Turkish state elements sought to influence audiences perception on Twitter.

  • Automated Twitter accounts that pose as journalist and political account: Two high-volume automated accounts, one that poses as a journalist/blogger @PelinCiftek, and the other a political profile AkPartiNet. At the time of the research these two accounts were tweeting at a rate of 465 tweets per day (on a seven day average) and sharing the same content from twenty two other accounts. These two accounts at first glance have nothing in common nor appear to be connected. Yet, research found they were operating in concert with the identical volume, timing and tweets themselves. These two accounts were created within one month of each other, and have nearly an identical tweet to like ratio, and following to follower ratio.
  • A network of automated amplifiers. These seemingly two unrelated (not directly connected) accounts are highly programmatic, and serve as the hubs of a tightly connected network that is 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 computer automated manner. Additional automated Twitter accounts amplifying the Turkish government's message about the war in Afrin and other issues. Research concluded 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 the research it was noted that these ten accounts have a daily tweet average to classify them as cyborgs.

The big picture: Turkey's military operation in the conflict in Syria is the first invasion by Turkish ground forces into a sovereign nation since the Cyprus conflict in 1974.

Go deeper: A recent study by Oxford University shows widespread use of social media tactics by governments to shape public discourse and spread misinformation.

This analysis was first posted on Medium, including research findings and methodology.