Erdoğan’s ruling AKP resolute in war on social media

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is determined to continue its battle against social media despite its decision last month to scrap clauses in a bill that would allow the president to exert direct control over various platforms.

The draft law, which would have compelled social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to employ a representative in Turkey to facilitate Ankara’s demands, was dropped following strong backlash from critics. 

But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is giving clear signals that its mission to censor social media is still going strong.

Turkey’s strongman on Tuesday appealed to the country’s youth, urging them 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 come through on bursary and stipends for students. 

These recriminations against social media users are regular utterances for Erdoğan.

The Turkish president has gone on record saying the internet was a poisonous addiction and his government has had no qualms about launching investigations and detentions due to critical social media posts pertaining to the economy, military operations into Syria and most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials briefly detained hundreds of citizens, subjecting them to criminal investigation and prosecution for social media posts prosecutors deem “publicly threatening health, creating fear and panic among the population,” during the pandemic. 

The ruling AKP earlier this month announced a 12-clause ethical guideline for social media users. The list includes subjective items instructing users to maintain transparency and abstain from posts that 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, has blasted the social media initiative, saying the AKP itself 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 -  was quick to brand Yeneroğlu’s post as containing hatred, saying it violated the AKP's ethical rules.

But social media users pointed out that most of the posts marked as unethical by @KurulEtik were posted by opposition accounts, and several said the account was pushing the AKP's line while posing as impartial.

The AKP is not alone in its endeavours to maintain a chokehold over social media.

Its junior coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, in April 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.