Turkey-Syria earthquake was made in Alaska, say conspiracists

Isobel Cockerell

 

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, a disinformation narrative is spreading on Twitter that the earthquake is the fault of the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Alaska, conceived over 30 years ago. It’s a project that investigates the ionosphere — the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and the vacuum of space. 

The program pulses a signal into the ionosphere which is then studied. But for years now, conspiracy theorists have believed the Research Program can trigger earthquakes and extreme weather events — oh, and be used for mind control, of course. 

Every time there’s an earthquake or tsunami, conspiracy theorists make the same old claims that this obscure facility in deepest Alaska is behind the devastation. In 2016, two men from Douglas, Georgia loaded a vehicle with assault rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition and bulletproof vests and planned to blow up the place. There was a machine in the complex that they believed was “trapping human souls.” Luckily, police thwarted them before they even managed to leave Georgia.    

But conspiracies about HAARP are not limited to the outreaches of obscure fringe groups. In 2010, the then-president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the UN that he believed floods in Pakistan were the fault of the HAARP program. The same year, Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, also blamed the Chilean and Haiti earthquakes on the program. 

Now, conspiracy Twitter has jumped on the bandwagon. A flurry of copy-and-paste tweets showed up this week, suggesting the U.S. and other NATO countries knew about the earthquake before it happened and evacuated their embassies. Disinformation researcher Marc Owen Jones found 300,000 tweets and 130,000 accounts tweeting about it — far more, he said, than he expected. 

“I get the sense that given the scale of this earthquake, the scale of the disinformation was much higher and the fact that there’s so much conspiratorial thinking now facilitates that,” he told me, saying how discussion of HAARP spiked dramatically immediately after the earthquake. “At this point it’s almost predictable,” he said. Those tweeting about HAARP and linking it to the earthquake were often anti-vaccine activists, right-wing, QAnon and MAGA-linked U.S. accounts, and anti-semitic conspiracy theorists. From examining the online conversation, Jones noticed that many of the narratives took on a Russia-aligned, anti-NATO slant, suggesting that NATO was using the earthquake to punish Erdogan for his ongoing relationship with Russia. 

“I am not saying this is a Russian influence operation — although as agitprop it works in their favor,” Jones tweeted. “It’s also good for the Turkish government — potentially distracting some people from focusing on state responsibility in the disaster.”

Ever thought about eating French-flies? According to Bulgarian social media, you soon might not have a choice. A fast-spreading conspiracy theory asserts that the European Union is force-feeding people insects. The EU made a recent decision to approve certain insects as novel foods. And the news quickly warped into a bizarre example of disinformation, spread inevitably by those either sympathetic to Russia or outright propagandists. 

One fringe Bulgarian politician argued that the EU was intent on giving people cancer, as the powdered insects, he claimed, could create carcinogens. Interest in the supposed conspiracy spiked when one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, Dmitry Kiselyov, picked it up and featured it on state TV as evidence of Europe’s cultural downfall. “Cultural transformation in Europe has been going on for a long time,” he said. “They are persuading Europeans to bathe less often and eat insects.” Do check out Radio Free Europe’s exemplary reporting of how this insect narrative has been weaved into Russia’s culture war propaganda. 

Russian propagandists are right about one thing though thanks to the Ukraine invasion, we are having to scale back our energy use in Europe. Even if we aren’t all eating insects quite yet. And while households and businesses struggle to cope with rising bills, it’s been a bonanza year for energy companies, who have announced bumper annual profits in recent weeks after gas prices shot up. BP said its profits had doubled to about $28 billion, and that it would scale back its climate goals and cut its emissions pledge and produce more oil and gas over the next seven years than it had previously planned. BP vastly increased its spending on greenwashing social media ads in 2022, according to a report by climate disinformation campaign group Stop Funding Heat. The report calls on Big Tech to take more responsibility for the advertising it permits on its platforms and recommends a “‘tobacco-style’ ban on all advertising from fossil fuel producers.”

Azerbaijan has launched an environmental challenge against Armenia, claiming it devastated the natural environment of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region during its three-decade rule. Azerbaijan alleges that “Armenia caused widespread environmental destruction” over the last thirty years. In September 2020, the territory was recaptured in a surprise Azerbaijan offensive. The legal challenge has been brought under the Council of Europe’s Bern convention on preserving European wildlife and habitats, and it’s a landmark case: if Azerbaijan wins, it could set a precedent for securing compensation for environmental destruction. Ukraine has been recording the environmental devastation of Russia’s illegal war, with the hope of one day securing compensation.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • You must read atmospheric and environmental scientist John Morales’ fascinating piece on the reality of life as a meteorological scientist in a post-truth world. He speaks with granular insight about the decades-long conspiracy theories and misguided ideas about how humans can — or cannot — control weather events. Like the madcap theory that we can stop hurricanes by detonating a nuclear bomb in the eye of the storm, and how even U.S. presidents (ahem, Trump) never got the memo that it wasn’t a great idea. 
  • Do take a look at Dmitry Uzlaner and Kristina Stoeckl’s open-access e-book, “The Moralist International,” which came out in December, and looks at how Russia became a global player in the traditional values culture wars.