False social media posts are hindering earthquake relief efforts in Turkey. You can help stop that | Abbas Panjwani

A video shared on social media shows a column of thick smoke billowing from a harbour-side building before a cataclysmic explosion. The caption says it is, incredibly, footage of a nuclear power plant in Turkey exploding after the earthquake that ravaged the country.

Except Turkey doesn’t have any operational nuclear power plants. The footage actually shows a fertiliser storage facility in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, exploding in 2020.

This video is just one of countless posts spreading on social media, falsely claiming to depict catastrophic events in Turkey. Ever since, factcheckers across the world, including Full Fact, have been trying to verify real events, to limit the spread of misleading and dangerous misinformation.

Factcheckers on the ground are especially stretched – last Tuesday, our counterparts based in Turkey, Teyit, got in touch to ask for support in stemming the tide of misinformation. Syrian factcheckers, Verify-sy, told us they have had to mostly stop their work due to the damage to their homes. With the death toll now climbing to more than 33,000 people, it’s crucial that those working on the relief efforts have access to good information online.

False information can directly hinder aid and disaster relief. People and organisations may be using footage they see online to help identify those affected, or reunite people with missing family members. As far back as 2017, the Canadian Red Cross was trying to educate people about the reliance of victims of a disaster on any information they can find. Misleading content online can prevent those trying to help people getting the right information and support. And for the people affected by this tragedy, the last thing they need to see is their social media feeds clogged with misinformation. Victims don’t deserve to have their traumatic experiences exploited just for the sake of shares, whether well-intentioned or not.

In addition, some of these accounts are directly asking for viewers to donate funds, allegedly for the relief effort. Given the inauthenticity of the content being posted, it’s possible they are deliberately exploiting events for personal financial gain. Legitimate fundraising operations such as the Disasters Emergency Committee have now raised more than £50m – it’s important that bad actors are prevented from trying to capitalise on the fact that so many people want to help.

Turkey: rescues continue 100 hours after quake – video report

It’s understandable that people want to share footage of the tragedy, and more often than not, this is done in good faith. But when we see highly emotive breaking news stories take over our social media feeds, it creates an opportunity for misinformation to thrive.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, we saw a similar story emerge. It wasn’t long before clips from previous wars, different countries and even video games were being shared across the internet, used to falsely illustrate the war. We even had to fact check the BBC after it used footage of an old Russian military parade that we had debunked the day before.

When this sort of tragic event happens, some people unfortunately want to find ways in which they can benefit from the widespread attention to the topic. In our monitoring of online content at Full Fact, we’ve seen accounts set up seemingly with the intention of just gaining influence by posting fake clips of the tragedy.

It’s hard to stop the people who appear to be sharing this kind of misinformation for money or fame. But we know that most of them are not malicious, bad actors seeking to exploit a tragedy. They are simply people looking to find and share information in the wake of an upsetting event. And in situations like this, we all have a role to play.

When you see a video regarding the earthquake, the first thing to ask yourself is: does this seem plausible? The video claiming it showed a nuclear power plant exploding could be debunked with a quick Google search.

Ask yourself if anything in the footage seems obviously out of place? A video we’ve seen claiming to show a tremor in Turkey was actually from Nepal. How do we know this? The cars pictured have Nepalese, not Turkish, number plates.

With so much work being done by factcheckers worldwide, it’s also worth checking if the video you’re watching has been debunked already. And if you’re still unsure, we have a toolkit for spotting misinformation online that anyone can access.

At times of such tragedy, we can all come together and play our part by being just a little more careful about what we share online. When bad information spreads, it can ruin lives, and in this instance, it can risk hindering the relief effort during a continuing disaster.

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