Trolls, bots and shutdowns: This is how Turkey manipulates public opinion

  • Turkey shutdown internet access of nearly 12 million people last October and November, after elected mayors in Kurdish-majority Southeast were removed from office; shutdowns during military operations became regular.
  • Wikipedia was shutdown to suppress articles on Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil war.
  • Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Twitter are repeatedly throttled after bombing attacks to prevent news coverage and popular reaction.
  • Turkish courts are responsible for 65 percent of censored Twitter content, in the world.
  • Turkish government blocked Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft One Drive and software repository GitHub to stop hacked emails of President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, from spreading.
  • Wikileaks and Internet Archive is banned after hosting content from the leaked emails of the ruling AKP.
  • Access to VPN services and Tor network is banned, with the government’s internet authority actively monitoring the internet service providers' efforts to mitigate circumvention methods.
  • Hundreds of people, including journalists, political activists and lawyers are arrested for allegedly using a chat app, or criticising the government on social media.
  • 155 media organisations were shut down by the government, including 62 newspapers, 17 news websites, 15 TV channels and five news agencies.

When listed one after the other, Turkey’s growing restrictions describe an increasingly repressive regime; and this is precisely how the country saw one of the worst declines in the Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report.

Next to serving the government’s censorship needs, part of these restrictions also aims to prevent circumvention of censorship and ensure better surveillance.

The ruling AKP has amended the Internet Law to require internet service providers to keep traffic data of users (records of visits to all websites and use of apps) for two years. Following the State of Emergency, decree laws allowed the law enforcement to obtain these records without a court order.

The post-coup political environment also encouraged snitching, the Turkish national police announced new hotlines specifically to deal with citizen reports of online “terror propaganda.” Now, the news of ordinary people losing jobs, or being investigated for expressing discontent with the ruling party is a frequent local subject.

But restrictions and surveillance are only half of the story. After the dissident voices are intimidated and silenced, the online space gets flooded with pro-government propaganda. And that comes in many forms.

Bots are the accounts that are controlled en masse from a centre. So instead of a one-person-one-voice equal participation in the social media, they amplify their owner’s agenda. In Twitter, this often plays out with the trending topics in two ways: During times of political crises, they first try boost a pro-government hashtag, giving a wrong impression on the balance of public support (“astroturfing”). But if the balance is so off against the government that an anti-government hashtag makes it to the top 10 trending topics in Turkey, they flood that hashtag with inflammatory content to shade its original message (“hashtag poisoning”). This was visible in the recent example of the oppositional hashtag, #DemirtaşıÇokÖzledik (“We missed Demirtaş a lot”) campaign for the jailed pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, where the bots boosted counter-messages to demoralise his supporters.

Trolls are the abusive users who harass dissidents on online networks. But when their attacks are coordinated by the government, the single-handed attacks elevated to online lynch mobs. This can easily turn into real lynch attempts such as when an AKP youth branch leader collected thousands of followers to ‘protest’ Hürriyet newspaper for its criticism on Erdoğan, who then pelted stones at the paper’s building. With them being so close to the state power, trolls can deploy law enforcement too. Last April, a Dutch-Turkish columnist, Ebru Umar, was arrested and tried for insulting Erdoğan after she was targeted by a prominent “AK troll” —the name given to the 6,000-strong social media team of the ruling AKP.

Fake accounts that target civil society initiatives are perhaps the evillest. Right before the last general elections in November 2015, an account with a ‘sexy girl profile picture’ suddenly changed its name and brand to launch a smear campaign using its 42,000 followers against a legitimate election monitoring group, Öy ve Ötesi (“Vote and Beyond”). The group was already being targeted on pro-government newspapers and TV stations, and had to limit its activities over risks to their volunteer observers before the April 2017 constitutional referendum.

The 2017 Freedom on the Net report identifies a worrying trend among the world’s repressive regimes towards actively spreading disinformation, and Turkey is a leading case on that league. For many years, Turkish internet users circumvented censorship privately, but the fight against the ruling AKP’s propaganda has to be made in public, and the government is counting that it will be messy.