Tim Lowell
May 09 2018

Will hashtag wars have an impact at the ballot box?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made waves Tuesday, saying “If one day our nation says enough, at that time we will stand aside.”

The keyword “T A M A M” (E N O U G H) blew up on Twitter in response, and is now heading towards its 2 millionth tweet. Even a Hollywood celebrity got in on the action.

Pro-Erdoğan accounts responded by tweeting DEVAM (CONTINUE), and at its height, Twitter showed it to have exceeded 300,000 tweets.

Then all of a sudden, DEVAM first dropped to just over 90,000 tweets and then disappeared off Twitter’s list of trending tweets – a fact attributed by Istanbul opposition parliamentarian Barış Yarkadaş to the use of botnets, fake Twitter accounts mobilised to auto-tweet certain words when their owners are paid for the privilege. Twitter had apparently noticed that a large number of the accounts were fake and dismantled the network.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesman Mahir Ünal then accused the anti-Erdoğan hashtaggers of using botnets of their own.

Former mayor of Ankara Melih Gökçek – himself no stranger to botnets – stated that only 7.67 percent of the “T A M A M” tweets were sent from Turkey. The results of a search on a Tweet mapping service, however, suggest that 79.41 percent were from Turkey: if anything, a surprisingly high proportion given the number of Turks who use VPNs to avert censorship by appearing to be from another country.

Despite all these hashtag wars, it has long been known that the Turkish opposition has a numerical social media – and especially Twitter – advantage. Government supporters are many times more likely to get their news from the mainstream media than social media, and on most of the big media outlets there is now essentially no criticism of the government permitted at all.

However, the event still upset the governing party sufficiently to issue a second statement saying: “Government does not come from Twitter, but from the ballot box.”

Does this then mark a watershed or is it a non-event? I would suggest neither. On the one hand, it suggests the revival of an optimism that was crushed by the government after the Gezi protests in 2013. Polls suggest that the opposition has finally got together a workable election strategy and that government changes to the electoral law intended to secure a permanent majority may badly backfire. It is still unlikely that the government will willingly give up power, but the more flagrantly it must cheat in order to retain it, the lower the future life expectancy of the regime.

Also striking is how the government’s rhetoric on terrorism has now ceased to resonate with the electorate. With a lull in the number of bombings and Turkish military successes prying Kurdish militants away from the western parts of the Turkish border, terrorism has been very much replaced by the economy as the chief concern of Turkish voters. Meanwhile, government attempts to smear its secular opposition rivals as members of the Gülen movement, an Islamist group to which many of the plotters of a July 2016 failed coup attempt belonged, are being interpreted by much of the public as an attempt to cry wolf.

In times where openly communicating your distaste for government policy outside in the streets or in the newspapers would be dangerous, these hashtags, memes, and jokes suggest that the spirit of resistance is nonetheless being re-energised. This could lead to a greater willingness on the side of those who have politically withdrawn from the public sphere to campaign, or even just to argue with family members about Turkey’s way forward. “T A M A M” may not achieve its ultimate aim, but a few million tweets cannot hurt the opposition during an election campaign.