Pro-government messaging

AKP-backed social media operatives not only troll, dox, and harass critical voices; they also seek to mobilise the party’s voter base by disseminating nationalist, religiously informed, and/ or populist content. An example of such an information campaign occurred during the coup attempt in July 2016. The botched coup was the top-tweeted event in Turkey since the Gezi protests, especially by pro-government operatives, journalists, and pundits as part of their efforts to overwhelm Twitter with AKP narratives (Yesil et al. 2017: 22; Yildiz and Smets 2019). In their research, Yildiz and Smets describe the coup attempt as a moment of‘extraordinary, often religiously-framed mobilization on Twitter’ wherein anonymous trolls, official AKP accounts, and identifiable pro-AKP accounts carried out a sustained campaign (Yildiz and Smets 2019: 350). Their thematic analysis of coup-related posts show that official AKP and identifiable pro-Erdogan accounts generally expressed devotion to Erdogan, asked citizens to attend anti-coup demonstrations, and accused the US and Israel of supporting the coup attempt. In contrast, anonymous trolls adopted threatening, humiliating, and intimidating tones in their posts. Their tweets were marked by binary oppositions such as ‘us versus them’, and ‘the nation versus others’ as they attacked journalists and academics and accused them of being ‘foreign agents’ (364). Such binaries are indeed central to AKP-backed information operations. As Bulut and Yoruk (2017) note, prominent AK trolls often deploy nationalist, populist themes in their Twitter campaigns to construct antagonisms between ‘the nation’ and ‘its enemies’. They frame Turkey as the underdog victimised by the ‘West’ and Erdogan as the ‘man of the people’ who is under constant attack by internal and external enemies. In tweets that seek to praise Erdogan, they attribute Turkey’s accomplishments to the ‘will of the people’, especially the pious segments of the population that comprise the backbone of AKP’s voter base (4105).

Similar pro-government campaigns occurred during other politically charged episodes such as the constitutional referendum in 2017 and Turkey’s military incursion in North Syria in 2019. In June 2020, Twitter announced that it took down a network of 7,340 accounts that consisted of fabricated users and pro-AKP retweet rings. In their analysis of the dataset, researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory found that this ‘influence operation’ network was linked to the AKP’s youth wing and that it carried out these operations and many others in order to circulate a pro-government narrative and criticize opposition parties (Grossman et al. 2020).

In my ongoing research, 1 also found that pro-AKP social media operations against the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, are laced with similar ‘us versus them’ and ‘native versus other’ antagonisms. AKP officials and their proxies in the media relentlessly criticise Imamoglu, an opposition politician who defeated the AKP candidate in local elections in 2019, effectively ending Erdogan and his allies’ 25-year reign in Istanbul. On Facebook and Twitter, there are dozens of images of Imamoglu that have been photoshopped to show him as a cross-wearing Christian with a diploma from the masonic school who buys alcohol on trips to the grocery store. Designed to depict Imamoglu as a Western-oriented elite who espouses a foreign, nonMuslim lifestyle and is alienated from ordinary people’s values, these social media posts stoke nationalist and religious sentiments. Needless to say, they are also circulated by the predominantly pro-government news media and used as fodder by the AKP as part of its populist politics.

Information operations in the international arena

As noted earlier, existing research on social media manipulation in Turkey has mostly focused on AK trolls and their domestic operations. Yet there are other actors that specifically target foreign audiences to propagandise on behalf of Erdogan and the AKP. In what follows, I provide an overview of these groups and their activities.

Bosphorus Global

Bosphorus Global is an entity founded in 2015 by a pro-Erdogan pundit Hilal Kaplan and her husband. Though they claim Bosphorus Global is an independent NGO, leaked emails have revealed that Kaplan and her husband received direct funding from Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and the minister of treasury and finance (Sozeri 2016b).

Bosphorus Global runs a number of websites and social media accounts to influence both domestic and international public opinion on behalf of Erdogan.1 According to its website, Bosphorus Global is primarily concerned with Western media representations of Turkey and thus aims to create spaces in the international public sphere wherein ‘subaltern groups’, such as Turks and Muslims, can voice their viewpoints (Bosphorus Global, Mission n.d.). To this end, Bosphorus Global runs a number of information projects on the web and social media that target both domestic and foreign audiences. Domestic accounts in Turkish primarily involve narratives about exposing Gulen and the PKK, while international accounts aim to fact-check news items published in Western media about Turkey, highlight internal problems of the putative West, and, of course, inform foreign audiences about the Turkey’s arch enemies, Gulen and the PKK.

One such account in English is Fact-Checking Turkey, which aims to monitor the ‘factual accuracy of various news and claims about Turkey’ (Bosphorus Global, Our Projects n.d.). Yet unlike genuine fact-checking initiatives, it relies on AKP officials’ or anonymous sources’ statements and unverified media reports instead of publicly available and verifiable information (Sozeri 2017). It also prioritises extraneous details over core issues and even engages in political offensives against Erdogan’s so-called enemies. Other English-language accounts, Chronicles of Shame and Crackdown Chronicles, are exclusively concerned with the West. Chronicles of Shame seeks to present an ‘archive’ of various acts of racism and discrimination around the globe against Muslims and refugees and, to this end, publishes abridged versions of news stories from international media on Islamophobia, racism, and human rights violations in Europe and United States. Meanwhile, Crackdown Chronicles focuses on the ‘inner political contradictions’ of the West: that is, the tensions between Western ideals of democracy and human rights and actual practices of press censorship, police violence, and rights violations in Europe and the US (Crackdown Chronicles n.d.).

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