Twitter has changed its method and language significantly to rein in Turkey’s pro-government networks, widely known as trolls, six years after the government’s first operation triggered a ban by the Turkish government.
Turkey slammed Twitter on June 12 for suspending thousands of accounts that supported President Tayyip Erdoğan as part of a wider crackdown on what the U.S.-based social media platform described as state-linked information operations in three countries. Erdoğan’s Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said; “(This) has demonstrated yet again that Twitter is no mere social media company, but a propaganda machine (in Turkish he said “black propaganda”) with certain political and ideological inclinations”, ironically on his Twitter account.
Twitter had earlier announced that it banned and removed 32,242 accounts that were part of networks operated out of China, Russia, and Turkey, pushing local political agendas and narratives, and associated with state-sponsored entities. According to Twitter’s report, the crushing majority of 7,340 accounts in Turkey were linked to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
This is not Twitter’s first crackdown on Turkey’s pro-government trolls, botnets, and partisan supporter networks. The Erdoğan government had blocked access on the day that I had reported for the Hürriyet daily in 2014 that the social media giant started to remove partisan networks in Turkey.
“Twitter, schmitter! We’ll wipe out all…”
Let’s remember what happened six years ago to see what changed in Twitter’s response today. I had talked to an executive from Twitter’s headquarters in the U.S. on March 17, 2014, who had told me on condition of anonymity that they had started to remove partisan accounts in Turkey. After confirming the information, I reported it on March 20, 2014 in Turkish and in English.
Although Hürriyet, which was Turkey’s most influential newspaper at the time, published the story on its front page, I’m not sure whether Erdoğan, then Prime Minister, had already read it when he slammed Twitter on the same day. “Twitter, schmitter!” Erdoğan said to his supporters at a rally in the western province of Bursa. “We will wipe out all of these … The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” he added.
Hours after my story and Erdoğan’s speech, Turkey’s government shut down Twitter in Turkey. Until the ban was revoked after two weeks, we could only use Twitter through VPNs and similar methods as if we live -not in an EU candidate country but- in China or Iran.
The access ban was imposed by Turkey’s Telecommunication Directorate (TIB), which would be shut down by Erdoğan in 2016 after he accused the institution of being seized by the followers of the U.S.-resident Islamist cleric Fetullah Gülen, the U.S. resident Islamist preacher indicted to masterminding the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt; the Turkish president’s ally-turned-nemesis.
The Gezi protests and the corruption claims
The first seeds of Erdoğan’s “troll army” were sown in late 2012 when his ruling party’s youth organization started to be mobilized to influence social media networks following a meeting in the western Turkish province of Afyon.
Erdoğan’s controversial development plan for Istanbul’s iconic Gezi Park triggered anti-government protests that spread in Turkey in May-June 2013, which were the first test of the ruling party’s new social media strategy.
The Gülenists were on the side of Erdoğan at the time, describing Gezi Park protesters as “terrorists” just like the then-prime minister did. As a journalist, I knew that the protesters were not terrorists by relying on objective, fact-based evidence that I had gathered on the ground. When I wrote articles like this, I was attacked on social media by both Erdoğanists and Gülenists then.
However, despite Gülenists’ support, the AKP’s youth organization failed to dominate Twitter. It led to a new drive from the ruling party, intensifying from September 2013 and on. Beside more members of the youth organization, other means -like social media agencies- were also mobilized. The first pro-government botnets were formed at that time as far as I observed.
The increasing tensions between Erdoğan and the Gülenists on a number of issues led to a divorce between the two Islamist movements; now the government calls them “Fethullahist Terror Organisation – FETÖ”. In December 2013, Gülen used his followers inside Turkey’s judicial and police systems in two corruption claims based criminal investigations that led to the arrests of several key figures close to Erdoğan.
Characterizing the Gülenist operation as a “judicial coup,” Erdoğan struck back hard. Following a long and slow purge in bureaucracy, Gülenists tried to oust Erdoğan in a military coup in July 2016. When putschist soldiers raided our newspaper building on that night, I was working there with the editor of -now- this website, Murat Yetkin.
The Twitter Wars and Turkey’s first ban
Neither individualism nor pluralism and critical thought can be found in the nature of political Islamism. As a result, both Erdoğan’s AKP and Gulen’s cryptic movement always saw social media as a domain that should be “conquered” and “dominated” just like they did with Turkey’s political and social institutions.
This is why the Turkish Twitter has been a nightmarish realm particularly since 2014. It was when the individual, independent, pluralistic, liberal, egalitarian, creative and critical rhetoric of the Gezi Park protesters became invisible on Twitter. Because the AKP on the one side and Gülenists on the other started their endless attempts to get organized hierarchically to control the Twitter discourse with trolls, botnets and partisan supporters.
The disorganized and decentralized youth of the Gezi Park retreated from Twitter -perhaps to closed groups on messaging apps- just like they retreated from the city streets, as naturally, silently and spontaneously as they had first appeared. They left the public “arena” to the paid-for and voluntary partisans of the AKP and Gulen.
Turkey had imposed its first ban on Twitter in 2014 in this context. The following year, facing the ongoing threats imposed by Gulen, the ruling party reserved even more resources to its social media operations with a more centralized approach, establishing a headquarters and appointing key figures closer to the upper echelons of power in Ankara.
Twitter’s Turkey policy in 2014 and in 2020
This is also where we can see the difference in Twitter’s policies to rein in Turkey’s pro-government networks in 2014 and in 2020. Back in 2014, my source at Twitter had stressed that the social media platform had then removed all kinds of botnets regardless of their political affiliation. The same Twitter openly accused Erdoğan’s ruling party for state-sponsored information operations in its statement on June 12, 2020.
The six years between these two developments saw the expansion of pro-government networks, especially the botnets, in Turkey. We kept hearing that the ruling party increased the number of its “AK Trolls” and raising their wages, alongside the names of politicians who allegedly run these networks. In 2015, even then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had complained about the ruthlessness of “trolls.”
Erdoğan later forced Davutoğlu to resign and it seems that the dominance of figures who believe in the effectiveness of trolls and botnets continues inside his party. Still, we also know from our sources that there are still many figures inside the party who oppose the trolls and botnets. As Twitter’s language towards these networks changed from neutral to a more politically-charged one in six years, Ankara is more or less in the same position. Despite some powerful names -except Erdoğan- change in the capital, the government keeps seeing social media as a public sphere that should be put in order. This discourse was most recently seen in the “social media guide” published by the Presidency’s Communication Directorate on June 10.
Turkey’s problem is not Twitter
The leading social media platforms of the world recently moved towards accepting that the biggest threat to social media as a democratic public sphere comes from authoritarian states. The effectiveness of Twitter’s latest policy in Turkey can be questioned, though. All in all, the recent change in their policies was the result of developments not in Turkey but elsewhere in the world. The U.S. elections, the allegations of Russian meddling and China were all underlying elements in the increasing public scrutiny and the regulatory threat over the platforms.
However, for Turkey’s democracy, the problem is neither on Twitter nor in the U.S. nor Russia nor another place. The problem is its own mainstream political culture that keeps creating all the obstacles towards the way to the freedom of speech and press without which a democracy is unable to survive.
Namık Kemal, a mid-19th century Ottoman journalist, and poet had once said that “the light of truth sparks from the clash of ideas”
Our national saga on Twitter shows that we still could not learn that the whole society benefits when individuals are able to speak out on any public platform freely and without the fear of retribution.