Social media manipulation in Turkey: Actors, tactics, targets
Turkey has recently faced a number of domestic and international developments that range from an economic downturn to a coup attempt, from cross-border military operations to diplomatic crises. Despite the obvious differences in terms of their political, economic, military, and social contexts, these events can nonetheless be studied through a common denominator: the changing sets of tools pro-government actors employ to impose their narratives on social media as the events unfold. This frame provides a means to integrate the variety of social media users engaging in this dynamic: paid or unpaid, anonymous or identified, these users undertake online political messaging in order to suppress critical voices on social media and shore up support the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, these users not only serve a domestic political function but also, together with state actors, undertake information operations in English and other languages to influence global public opinion. For example, in July 2016, when a small group of insurgent military officers affiliated with Erdogans arch enemy Fethullah Gulen orchestrated a coup to overthrow the government, social media activity on Turkish Twitter reached unprecedented levels. While users from all walks of life overwhelmed the site with news, information, and opinion, government-backed trolls and identifiable pro-AKP accounts carried out a sustained campaign to praise Erdogan and express support for the ongoing purge against putschists (Yildiz and Smets 2019). Meanwhile, news media outlets, already highly partisan and politicised, helped circulate the AKP narrative that Western powers might be using Gulen to destabilise Turkey and that Erdogan and his government could not be accused of human rights violations as they clamped down on the coup plotters. Last, but not least, a myriad of actors consisting of Turkish diplomats and representatives around the world, state agencies, and AKP supporters shared infographics and videos in English to communicate to foreign audiences that Gulen was a terrorist mastermind and that ordinary Turks fought bravely against his soldiers to safeguard democracy.
I begin with this example since it opens up a space for the discussion of information operations undertaken by pro-government users, the proliferation of pro-Erdogan and right-wing nationalist content on social media sites, and the structural conditions of the online sphere in Turkey. In fact, the coup attempt marked an important period in the socio-political, legal, and media processes, stretching over the last decade, that has allowed the AKP and its affiliates to develop tools for the control and manipulation of information online. During the AKP era (2002—present), the majority of news outlets have become vehicles of government propaganda, and journalistic autonomy and professionalism have sustained unprecedented damage. The social media environment is increasingly polarised as pro-AKP users, both paid operatives and average citizens, overwhelm Twitter and Facebook with government narratives and harass dissenters. Obviously, these problems are not specific to Turkey, yet the AKP’s digital surveillance schemes and use of legal provisions to silence its critics make social media sites especially vulnerable to the effects of troll harassment and dis/misinformation campaigns.
In this chapter, 1 first provide an overview of the state of news media and the online public sphere in Turkey. After demonstrating how AKP’s attempts to tame both realms over the past decade have made them highly vulnerable to polarisation and politicisation, I proceed to discuss AKP-backed social media operatives as well as other groups. Lastly, 1 point to some lines of inquiry that might remedy the gaps in literature concerning dis/misinformation campaigns in and from Turkey.
Turkey’s news media and online public sphere
Turkey, a country of 80 million, boasts dozens of national newspapers and news channels and hundreds of local print and broadcast outlets. While these numbers might suggest a pluralistic ecosystem, one must keep in mind that news media in Turkey operates under conditions of clientelism, patrimonialism, and the predominance of informal arrangements in the sector. Although Turkeys news media have depended on their ties with the ruling elite for financial survival since at least the neoliberal restructuring of the country in the 1980s, party-press parallelism, marginalisation of critical voices, and the decline in journalistic professionalism reached unprecedented levels during the AKP era. Under the leadership of Erdogan, the AKP neutralised mainstream and oppositional media via legal and financial attacks, such as the prosecution of journalists, expropriation of critical outlets, and levying of tax penalties. In the meantime, it cultivated a number of partisan media conglomerates by distributing privatisation deals, public tenders, cheap credits, and government advertising to loyal businessmen (Kaya and Cakmur 2010; Akser and Baybars-Hawk 2012; Yesil 2016b, 2018; Somer 2016). The extent to which the media have become an integrated tool of the AKP government becomes especially clear during political, economic, and foreign policy crises that challenge the AKP’s hegemony. Partisan newspapers use the same headlines and publish similarly worded op-eds, while pro-Erdogan news channels peddle conspiracy theories about myriad actors (the US, Europe, Israel, George Soros, IMF, etc.) supposedly preoccupied with destabilising Turkey. For example, during the nationwide Gezi protests in 2013, one newspaper published a fake interview with Christiane Amanpour in which she allegedly confessed that she and CNN were paid to overreport the Gezi protests in order to weaken Turkey (Fung 2013). Another pro-government newspaper fabricated (using Google Translate) parts of an interview with Noam Chomsky that seemingly defended Erdogan’s policies during the Arab Spring (Peker 2013). After the failed coup in 2017, pro-AKP newspapers engaged in smear campaigns against the Open Society Foundation, Amnesty International, and foreign and Turkish academics and philanthropists, accusing them of having secret meetings to overthrow Erdogan and create chaos in Turkey (Star 2017).
The online sphere has not been immune to repression, polarisation, and manipulation either. The AKP’s earliest attempts at imposing strict controls on online communications came in 2007, with the passage of the country’s first Internet Law, which allowed the AKP to criminalise content that it deemed harmful to the youth (Akdeniz and Altiparmak 2008). Soon, government agencies and courts began to use this law and existing anti-terror laws and penal code provisions to ban websites with so-called harmful content, as well as to curb Kurdish political expression that allegedly threatened Turkish national unity. By the end of the 2000s, the number of blocked websites had reached tens of thousands, and users’ access to information had been severely limited and freedom of speech violated (Kinikoglu 2014; Yesil 2016a). The AKP’s attempts to control the online space intensified in the 2010s as politically engaged citizens, disenchanted with government interference in news media, came to rely on digital outlets to share news and information or to express critical opinions (Tunc 2014; Bulut 2016; Parks et al. 2017; Coskuntuncel 2018). Especially after the nationwide Gezi protests and the revelations of a massive corruption scandal in 2013, the AKP government imposed further restrictions to combat the alleged threats of online communications. The following year, it hastily amended the Internet Law and authorised the blocking of websites without a court order. It also amended the Law on State Intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), expanding the online surveillance of citizens (Yesil et al. 2017).
After the botched coup in 2016, the AKP declared a state of emergency, under which it passed decree laws that facilitated the interception of digital communications and the collection of private data from state institutions and private companies. Perhaps more worryingly, law enforcement began to call on citizens to inform the authorities of social media users who posted anti-state and/or terrorist content. Since then, it has become customary for the AKP’s ‘informant network’ in state bureaucracy and public institutions and its supporters to report critical voices to the authorities on charges of terrorism (Topak 2017).