After Shooting of Russian Ambassador, Internet Trolls Have One Message: ‘Franz Ferdinand’

Analysis: In advance of Russia-Turkey-Iran summit, trolls spin up fears of WWIII

Mevlut Mert Altintasat after shooting Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov in Ankara, Dec. 19, 2016 / AP

Just hours after the shooting of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov on Monday, before his death was confirmed to the press, social media networks in the U.S. and Europe lit up with echoing references to "Franz Ferdinand," the Austrian archduke whose assassination sparked the beginning of World War I. The trend showed all the signs of being a coordinated social media campaign to support a simple narrative in advance of today's summit between the defense and foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Moscow to discuss next steps in Syria.

The summit and shooting come on the heels of weeks of devastating media coverage on the final stages of the Russian/Syrian campaign to retake Aleppo from rebel forces in Syria. Even as Russian state media called social media reports on casualties and suffering in Aleppo a "PR campaign" fabricated by the West, demonstrations were held in Turkey in protest of Russia's policy of attacking civilians in Syria.

Just weeks before the shooting, Ambassador Karlov received a formal protest from the Turkish foreign ministry over Russia bombing Turkmen villages close to the Turkish border. Turkey asked Russia to "immediately end its operation."

Ambassador Karlov was shot by an off-duty Turkish policeman, Mevlut Mert Altintas, during an event at an art gallery. The mayor of Ankara described Altintas as a special operations officer. Altintas could be heard shouting not to forget Syria and Aleppo during the attack, and was shot dead at the scene.

Turkish and Russian diplomats gathering for Tuesday's summit were quick to decry the attack as an attempt to disrupt the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations. Presidents Erdogan and Putin spoke by phone, quickly echoing the same.

"There can be only one response–stepping up the fight against terrorism," Putin said. This was the foregone conclusion of Tuesday’s summit, though Turkey may now be more inclined to fall in line.

Russian TV reports on the shooting have largely omitted the shooter's calls for revenge over Aleppo. Alexei Pushkov, a Russian senator close to Putin, claims Western media sources presented a "distorted and false" version of events in Aleppo, which "contributed to this terrorist act."

As during the coup in July, Turkish authorities were quick to draw links between the gunman and followers of Fethullah Gulen, a renegade Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Kremlin proxies, in turn, claimed "secret services from a NATO country" orchestrated the attack.

Russia has sent an investigations team to Turkey, with Putin claiming, "We must find out who directed the killer's hand."

Ambassador Karlov was a key figure in spinning up–and down–Russian anti-Turkish sentiment as Russian-Turkish relations have ebbed and flowed during Russia's involvement in the war in Syria.

Tuesday's summit comes at a critical juncture in the war in Syria–and in the U.S. political transition. President-elect Donald Trump has expressed a desire to increase dialogue with Russia over Syria, but opponents of this move on Capitol Hill are already working to set limits on what such cooperation might be.

Addressing the shooting, Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson said: "I am confident that the summit tomorrow will take steps that will make the plans this crime's contractors and masterminds have brooded over impossible."

But the coordinated focus by internet trolls on the death of Ambassador Karlov as the new "Franz Ferdinand" set an eerie context for the summit. Kremlin ideologue Alexandr Dugin has said the attack "raises the question of Turkey's immediate withdrawal from NATO"–a goal Russia has worked toward for some time. Overall, the focus seems to be in escalating tensions between NATO and Russia.

Recent history has shown Russia can use smaller incidents than an assassination to start wars or escalate conflicts, and the Kremlin's desire to push as far forward as possible while President Obama retains office remains clear. When Trump enters the White House, surrounded by the echo chamber of the twitter-verse, he will face a new chess match–one where his options will be more limited.