Türkiye’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) parliamentary chair Özgür Özel on January 12 revealed some documents showing a link between government officials and social media troll accounts in a press conference. And once again, the allegedly state-sponsored social media accounts called “Aktrolls” have become a political issue.
Özel stated that said that “a troll army of 8 thousand people” are instructed by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.
As Türkiye is heading towards an election in 2023, the global issue of social media trolls is one of the country’s most prominent problems in terms of election security.
You are probably familiar with the term, but let us define it anyway:
“Internet trolls are anonymous individuals who spread provocative and disturbing messages for a purpose.”
If we look at the global experience, internet trolls spread messages on sensitive issues such as racism, women, religion, and politics. Being anonymous, they feel comfortable spreading malicious content and saying things they would not say outside of the virtual world.
Troll groups or organizations do not form on their own; they are recruited by a volunteer or a commercial organization. Their aim is to disinform or propagandize on a particular issue or, as happened to some journalists in Türkiye, to lynch and thereby undermine self-confidence.
Another dimension of this is “cyber bullying,” which is carried out by fewer people, sometimes one. This is the online form of bullying, which we hear is increasing in high schools in physical life. If you remember, it first came up with the suicides of two young girls, aged 14 in Australia and 16 in Canada.
AKP’s trolls: Aktrolls
The internet troll group called AKtrolls is named after the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as they are believed to have been formed to disseminate political propaganda for the ruling party.
We have known about AKP’s trolls for a long time. Immediately after the Gezi protests in 2013, the AKP put great emphasis on social media. Hundreds of thousands of partisan social media accounts emerged and evolved. Today, it is understood that there are different fronts within the party that control different troll groups.
Aktrolls first came to the fore in 2014 with a leaked phone call allegedly between President Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan and then Minister of Industry and Technology Mustafa Varank. The expression “our trolls” in this conversation drew attention to the possibility that some social media accounts are within the knowledge of government officials.
Later, we see that the AKP’s senior official, Beşir Atalay, established the first official troll organization of the AKP in 2015. The then director, Gökhan Yücel, reported that 200 people would work in two branches (i.e., content and dissemination) and 24 hours a day in this office, which was opened in Maslak under the name “Yeni Türkiye Digital Office.”
Yücel defined the task as “informing the organization, producing content, and informing the media,” and said that the team includes sociologists, copywriters, creative directors, and digital analysts. Today, there is no new information on what this office is or whether it has disappeared after Beşir Atalay.
Aktrolls rivalries within the AKP
When we say Aktrolls, it is understood that there is no single group. We can deduce that from the criminal complaint made by 30 AKP officials, including Hayati Yazıcı, Mustafa Ataş, Adnan Boynukara and Nurettin Yaşar, against the aforementioned social media accounts allegedly having relations with the AKP.
The issue went as far as then Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and President Tayyip Erdoğan, with Erdoğan allegedly saying “who are these people, I don’t know them”.
Twitter closed 7,340 accounts
Social media platform Twitter suspended 32,242 accounts from China, Russia, and Türkiye in 2020 for allegedly spreading misinformation. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Stanford University Internet Observations (SIO) published details about these accounts, which are reported to be state-linked, in the sources of misinformation public archive.
The 7,340-account Turkish network was identified in early 2020. The network was mostly internal to Türkiye and was designed to spread President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s messages. Twitter and its partners say the network is associated with the youth wing of Erdoğan’s AKP, consists of many hacked accounts, and is managed from a center.
Fahrettin Altun, Head of Communications at the Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye, commented on the 7,340 troll accounts closed by Twitter and offered “very interesting” suggestions to counter the deepening political polarization on social media.
How do Aktrolls function?
It is known that some of the Aktroll accounts are opened under pseudonyms and false identities. However, in the research done before Twitter closed 7,340 accounts, it was also reported that some of the accounts were existing accounts that had been hacked.
Journalist Seyhan Avşar provided the most concrete information on how Aktrolls work in an interview with former Aktroll Orhan Sarıkaya last year:
“First of all, Ahmet Davutoğlu and his team started the first troll work. He had a paid team. Taha Ün was at the head of it. Now there are three troll groups. Berat Albayrak’s, Süleyman Soylu’s and Metin Külünk’s group,” he said referring former AKP Prime Minister Davutoğlu, former Finance Minister Albayrak and current interior minister Süleyman Soylu, who was at the center of CHP lawmaker Özgür Özel’s accusations.
Sarıkaya said that the campaigns were instructed from the headquarters, where there is a core staff of 8–10 people, and they determine the trending topics and spread them to other trolls via WhatsApp groups.
Sarıkaya stated that there are 197,000 trolls, mainly housewives, and that they are provided with mobile phones and tablets. The way these paid trolls received money was proportional to the interactions they created.
Today, Sarıkaya points to Fahrettin Altun for the management of campaigns and payments.
Agenda setting, disinformation, or propaganda tweets
If you look at the timing of some of the Aktroll campaigns, you can observe that there is some “unwanted news” about AKP or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan published on those days. For this purpose, campaigns with a hashtag such as “religion,” “secularism,” or “nationalism” are immediately created.
Another type of campaign is one that tries to disturb targeted politicians and dissident journalists and denigrate their work.
One of the most recent examples is the discussion surrounding the amount of subway constructed during Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor Imamoğlu’s term.
The government is trying to have İmamoğlu removed from this post in order to use Istanbul’s resources in the elections. Istanbul Mayorality shared a post arguing that during İmamoğlu’s term, more subway construction was finished “on an annual average” than during previous mayors. Following the tweet, you saw a lot of tweets and comments that aimed to “confuse” people or complicate the matter.
There are also campaigns that target and derogate journalists. However, we know that some of these campaigns have been taken to court, where trolls, whose identities have been revealed, have begged for the case to be closed.
To summarize, trolls pose a danger in terms of election security with all the manipulations they do and will do. Therefore, they need to be both monitored and reported.