Turkish government one of three actors to coordinate info-ops this year, says Twitter

Twitter on Thursday announced networks of state-linked social media operations that were suspended over the month of May. The announcement shows Turkey as one of the three state actors that have coordinated “information operations,” along with China and Russia.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was “employing coordinated inauthentic activity, which was primarily targeted at domestic audiences within Turkey,” Twitter said. According to the study done by the social media platform, “collection of fake and compromised accounts was being used to amplify political narratives favorable to the [AKP], and demonstrated strong support for [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan].”

A total of 7,340 accounts were suspended as part of Twitter’s efforts. Data on the network is available on demand.

Twitter found indications that point to an association with the AKP’s youth wing “and a centralized network that maintained a significant number of compromised accounts.”

The network includes several accounts that were originally critical of Erdoğan and the government, and were later targeted in account hacking and takeover efforts by Turkish state actors, according to Twitter’s statement.

The Turkish government controls up to 90 percent of traditional media outlets in the country, and various publications have in the past ran with the exact same headline on occasion. It has also been investing in social media platforms for years to achieve influence.

Turkish society’s increasing mistrust towards traditional media and overreliance on specific sources of information are two trends that have undercut the state’s years-long efforts to control the media, according to a report published on Wednesday by the Center for American Progress (CAP). The overall lack of trust in news outlets is pushing citizens toward “online media sources that tend to be more independent of the government,” according to the report.

The government has entertained possibly exerting stricter control over the Internet several times over the years, from forcing Turkish sites to fully disclose all user information available to them proposing to use ID numbers to access online content.

Among successful attempts was the implementation of Deep Packet Inspection technology, which allows the monitoring of user activity, on Turkey’s infrastructure in 2012.

In May this year, the AKP proposed a new bill that would allow the exertion of direct control over various platforms, and compel social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to employ a representative in Turkey to facilitate Ankara’s demands. The proposal was later dropped following strong backlash from critics.

Afterwards, Erdoğan urged the country’s youth to remain vigilant in the face of “provocateurs hiding behind fake social media accounts.”

The AKP also issued a 12-clause ethical guideline for social media users, while the party’s deputy chairman Mahir Ünal encouraged the use of a green dot emoji and a Turkish flag emoji in users’ handles to signify they were “national” accounts that complied with the guideline.

The initiative was part of an effort to “fight disinformation,” Ünal said.

Shortly after the initiative was launched, by late May, Presidential Spokesman Fahrettin Altun warned the populace that social media “shares and likes” as well as posts could be subject to penalty under Turkey’s Law No.5651 on online publications and crimes committed on online platforms.

Some 229 people were detained for threatening public health and causing fear and panic among the population via social media posts about the COVID-19 pandemic in April, while on Thursday, June 11, Vice Director of Communications Çağatay Özdemir announced the government would take legal action against persons who criticised the government for spending too much money on a series of live concerts as unemployment skyrocketed during the pandemic. Thousands have been investigated for allegedly insulting the president on social media in recent years.

The government’s efforts to pass the social media bill will likely come back, “like a zombie spawning back to life,” Yaman Akdeniz, faculty of law at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Ahval in a podcast in April, considering the amount of time spent putting together the regulations included in the draft. “This is well thought out from the government’s point of view,” Akdeniz said. “This is not going to go away.”