Following last summer’s Gezi protests, the Turkish Government announced that it would be hiring 6,000 so-called ‘social media experts’. Their goal: to coordinate a response plan against online activists and to monitor twitter accounts critical of Turkish officials and policy.
At the time, President Erdoğan spoke of a ‘robot-lobby’, which he accused of tarnishing Turkey’s international reputation.
Tens of thousands of political Twitter-bots
One year later and it has become clear that Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP itself now controls a Twitter-bot army numbering in the tens of thousands. Several Turkish media companies appear to have links with the fake twitter accounts. According to the Hurriyet daily, one of these ‘digital media agencies’ is the elusive Stüdyo 28, based in the province of Giresun and with supposed headquarters in New York City. The website has since been taken offline, but has reappeared as a fake ‘opencart’ template elsewhere. The company’s address is now listed as ‘Lorum Ipsum,’ a veiled reference to the text-generating dummy used to fill in the websites façade.
Many of these ‘representatives’ do not live in Turkey, and recent developments suggest that many Europeans, including German Turks, have even led the attack to troll, hack and corrupt those critical of the Turkish Government, mostly by posting offensive imagery, re-tweeting posts from the robot accounts, and attacking users critical of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed political style.
Re-Tweeting fake pro-Erdoğan accounts
So it seems that the initial team of 6,000 has recruited unofficial online organizers, dubbed ‘Social Media Representatives’, who have coordinated and re-tweeted pro-Erdoğan fake accounts. Many of these accounts share a pool of fake celebrity profiles, such as Megan Fox, Robbie Williams, or even an American Gay Porn Star.
The Dutch Researcher Peter Nut, based in Turkey, has researched the role of twitter-bots in the wake of the Gezi protests. According to his findings the accounts share the same 30 to 40 tweets. In between posting propaganda messages, they also post the same tweets about topics such as John Locke and even the 2007 film P.S. I Love You. By doing so, they have successfully boosted pro-Government topics into the top of Turkey’s trending list and have drowned out pro-Gezi accounts.
Many tweets come from German Turks. They post messages betraying a fear that their country is being misrepresented in the German press. That resorting to trolling and threatening journalists would do anything else but confirm the negative stereotype does not seem to have crossed their minds.
During January’s Occupy-style protests in Hamburg, such accounts began spreading images of what appeared to be German police-men beating protestors. The tweets declared that clearly police violence is even worse in Germany than in Turkey.
Upon closer inspection, most photographs had been derived from different protests around the world and were in fact not taken in Hamburg. It soon became clear that many pro-AKP accounts were little more than anti-German bots, frantically re-tweeted by many Turkish and Turkish-German users.
— Oğuz #AK Yıldız (@RTE_Oguz) 7. Januar 2014
Nonetheless the Hashtags #stopGermanPoliceViolence and #OccupyHamburg were quickly circulated amongst pro-AKP accounts, which boosted them into Turkey’s top trending list. Many appeared to have used online translating tools to spread their message, with clumsy and comical results. Here too, photo shopped images were disseminated, one depicting Merkel laughing at the Gezi Protests and calling her ‘The German Jew Merkel’.
AKP supporters vs. Spiegel Online
Another recent incident followed a similar pattern. When Spiegel Online’s Istanbul correspondent filed a story titled „Erdoğan Scher dich zum Teufel“ (Erdoğan, go to hell), this quote from a protestor after the mining disaster in Soma became the target of social media attacks from AKP sympathizers around the world.
Within hours of publishing the article, he received over 10,000 threats, including around one hundred death threats. Some Twitter profiles bizarrely accused him of being a ‘Jewish enemy’, and seemed to have not even read his writing. The next day, his picture was plastered across social media and even featured in pro-Government newspapers. In response, Kazim publicly declared that he believes to have been the victim of an organized campaign to stop him from being able to work in Turkey.
As a result of the threats, Spiegel Online could no longer secure the safety of its reporter. He had to be withdrawn, and although Kazim later told the AFP that his absence would be temporary, many interpreted his retreat as the beginning of a worsening of Turkey’s already abominable press freedom record.
— SOSYALCİ (@Turanyusuf) 24. Mai 2014
Even while Spiegel Online posted Kazim’s response to the scandal, pro AKP accounts were continuing to circulate offensive imagery and statements referring to Nazi crimes. Under the Hashtag #ScherDichZumTeufelDerSpiegel Erdoğan-supporters posted photo-shopped images of Merkel in a Nazi uniform and various images of concentration camps. The accusation was clear: Due to the crimes of the Nazis, Germans should have nothing critical to say about Turkish affairs.
Too volatile for journalists
The English language Turkish Daily ‘Hurriyet News’, reported that no foreign journalists had been willing to comment on the situation, with some simply declaring that Turkey’s online atmosphere had become too volatile for journalists to publicly show support lest they be singled out as well.
Just this month CNN International’s Ivan Watson was detained live on-air while reporting from Taksim Square. And although he has since been released, the next day he was publicly singled out by Erdoğan who referred to him as a ‘foreign agent’.
The attacks are reminiscent of the AKP’s repeated accusation that foreign media organizations such as Der Spiegel and CNN are engaged in a campaign to weaken and delegitimize the Turkish State.
Such paranoid claims thrive in a divided society such as Turkey, where until recently it was unheard of to denounce or question the dominant hierarchy, let alone do so publicly.
And even though many pro-AKP accounts have focussed on Germany in particular, it would be wrong to characterize the majority of German Turks as being fanatic Erdoğan supporters. Rather, it appears that the Turkish Government has been able to manipulate and organize mass Twitter campaigns in exactly the same way it accused its opponents of doing during the Gezi protests.
Turning Twitter against protestors
The AKP, it seems, has started to catch on to the same mechanisms that were once deemed so vital to the Gezi movement. No longer used only by Gezi sympathizers, Turkey’s AKP supporters are now starting to successfully manipulate the same strategies that were once used against them.
In doing so they are turning the cards on those who saw social media as inherently linked to social progress, and proving as overly optimistic the claims that social media would by itself magically bring about liberalism and freedom of speech in Turkey.
Feature image: ANKARA, TURKEY – AUGUST 30: August 30th Victory Day was celebrated with an official ceremony and military parades at Hipodrom, Ankara on August 30, 2013 in Ankara, Turkey via Shutterstock / copyright: Mesut Dogan