Erdoğan adviser issues warning on sharing social media posts

Turkish presidential spokesman Fahrettin Altun has issued a warning to social media users in Turkey over their posts in an interview with Hürriyet newspaper.

Altun said internet users would be held responsible for what they shared on social media under Law 5651 on online crime, and warned them against sharing or liking posts that could be deemed manipulative, provocative, or false. 

“Users are responsible for what they share on social media…it is necessary to be careful before you like or share content,” he told Hürriyet. 

Altun was talking after the recent publication by Turkey’s Communications Directorate of a social media users’ guide.

The communications director said there are now around 54 million social media users in Turkey, and that the guide had been prepared to address issues of responsible use and what he described as the manipulation of platforms by outlawed organisations and people seeking to spread fake news. 

The guide includes recommendations on how to use social media safely – including suggestions for students, children, young people, and parents. It also includes tips on how to create a successful user profile and how to ensure account and data security.

“As the Communications Directorate, we are carrying out national and global activities for clean information, clean social media and clean communication,” Altun told Hürriyet.

But critics have accused Turkey of increasingly seeking to control social media and stifle dissent online, often using the COVID-19 outbreak as a pretext for clampdowns, warnings, and attempts to pass restrictive new legislation. 

Last week, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged Turkey’s youth to remain vigilant in the face of “provocateurs hiding behind fake social media accounts.’’

“Nobody will succeed in sowing seeds of discord among the young people of this country,” Birgün newspaper quoted Erdoğan as saying, dismissing reports on social media that the government would not provide promised bursaries and stipends for students.

Erdoğan has previously described the internet as a poisonous addiction and his government has launched investigations and detentions due to critical social media posts pertaining to the economy, military operations into Syria, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials have subjected hundreds of people to criminal investigation and prosecution for social media posts prosecutors deem “publicly threatening health, creating fear and panic among the population,” during the pandemic. 

Clauses in a law drafted by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) - which would have compelled social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to employ a representative in Turkey to facilitate Ankara’s demands - were dropped in April following strong backlash from critics. 

The bill would have effectively ended user anonymity by asking social media platforms to provide the data for all their users. The platforms would also have been compelled to remove or block access to content according to decisions from the Turkish courts – which already issue about 12,000 of these decisions every year.

Turkey already blocks nearly 300,000 websites, including those of Ahval News, and an additional 150,000 URLs. Turkey has in the past blocked Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and other leading social media platforms, while Wikipedia was blocked for more than two years before that ban was reversed in January.

Turkey issued the most requests to Twitter to withhold content in 2019, more than 6,000, although just 5 percent of these were granted.

However, some analysts expect the shelved clauses to be rehabilitated in the future. 

“We will see another incarnation of this draft,” Yaman Akdeniz, faculty of law at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Ahval in a podcast in April. Akdeniz said the government had likely spent considerable time putting the regulations together and would thus be reluctant to dismiss them. 

“It will come back, like a zombie spawning back to life. This is well thought out from the government’s point of view,” he said. “This is not going to go away.”

In April, the AKP’s parliamentary allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) proposed a law that would require social media users to register an ID number to access popular online platforms. 

MHP Deputy Halil Öztürk, who submitted the proposal to parliament, said the bill aimed to stop the spread of fear-inducing “fake news’’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, earlier this month the AKP announced a 12-clause ethical guideline for social media users. The list instructed users to maintain transparency and abstain from posts that it said could spread fear during times of heightened sensitivity.

Dubbed the "Ethical Rules for Social Media", the initiative is part of a voluntary effort to fight disinformation, AKP deputy Chairman Mahir Ünal told Kanal 7 TV on May 17.

Ünal said the need to hold social media users to account was more pressing than ever before, as people were spending an increasing amount of time on online platforms due to social distancing and restrictions imposed to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Mustafa Yeneroğlu, a former AKP lawmaker who quit the party in October to help launch the breakaway DEVA party, blasted the social media initiative, saying the AKP was responsible for unethical behaviour by organising troll accounts to demonise opposition figures.

"They have no concern such as ethics,’’ Yeneroğlu said on Twitter.  "They are just trying to form the basis for social media prohibitions.’’

An independent Twitter account that judges content on the platform according to the new guidelines - @KurulEtik -  swiftly denounced Yeneroğlu’s post as containing hatred and lies. 

Likes and shares on social media have also formed the basis for many of the thousands of prosecutions brought against people for “insulting” Erdoğan over recent years – a practice which is ongoing. 

Earlier this week, a Turkish opposition member accused of insulting Erdoğan in social media posts dating back to 2013 was released from custody and placed under house arrest. 

Dila Koyurga, a youth representative and district council member for Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the Turkey’s third largest city of Izmir, was 17 years old at the time the social media posts were made.

For some analysts, the moves by the Turkish authorities over the past few months have deepened the climate of fear around social media use. 

In April, Akdeniz told Ahval he expected Turkish citizens to find themselves in an even more authoritarian state after COVID-19 passes.

“There will be more self-censorship and people will not be willing to raise their concerns on social media,” he said.