Although Twitter detected and closed thousands of accounts that were amplifying the political narratives of the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, bots still exist.
From my daily monitoring of the platform and other social media sites, I can still see hundreds of accounts (mostly new accounts) that work coordinately against whoever criticises dictator Erdoğan and his foolish policies.
Inside Turkey, people are afraid these days to express their political opinion that opposes Erdoğan’s vision as they easily could face long jail terms. According to The Guardian newspaper, every year in Turkey, “thousands of people are arrested for online posts usually over allegations of insulting Turkey, or the president, or for supporting terrorism”.
In one case, a Turkish journalist named Oktay Candemir was arrested for “insulting the memory of a dead person” after he mocked a TV series that was broadcasted to whitewash notorious Ottoman sultans. Another person was also arrested for simply using the Kurdish name of something online, and then accused of being a member of a Kurdish group (the Kurdistan Workers Party) that Turkey designates as a terrorist entity!
Since Erdoğan came to power, he has controlled all conventional media platforms coercively. TV channels and newspapers have turned into a government mouthpiece.
Dogan Media Company, one of the last independent media companies in Turkey, was sold to a pro-regime businessman last year after years of harassments. Back in 2009, Dogan’s Hurriyet newspaper angered Erdoğan in one of its reports, and in return a multibillion-dollar fine was placed on the company by the regime’s tax authorities. Dogan barely survived a bankruptcy but learnt a lesson, and that is to never provoke the dictator.
Now and after taking control of almost all local media entities in Turkey, dictator Erdoğan wants to extend his control over social media platforms as well. Therefore, he is using a mixture of tactics to silence his online critics and spread his propaganda.
First, by contacting social media companies and asking them to remove content and accounts that criticise the Turkish regime. According to Twitter transparency reports, 6,651 requests were submitted by governments in the second part of 2017. Turkey and Russia were responsible for 74% of all requests during that period.
Unfortunately, Twitter has complied with requests from the Turkish regime and removed or censored accounts of many Turkish journalists and activists. Abdülhamit Bilici, the last editor-in-chief of the now-closed Turkish paper Zaman attacked Twitter saying that “it is a shame that Twitter silences a journalist already silenced by an authoritarian government.”
Second, the Turkish regime has repeatedly hacked accounts of dissidents and critics. In one incident, the e-mail and social media account of two journalists who revealed a story about Turkish soldiers killed in Libya were hacked. The regime did not want the story to go public and wanted to keep all Turkish causalities secret.
Another report by the Guardian newspaper shows that over 20 accounts of Turkish independent journalists were hacked and had their Twitter direct messages exposed publicly.
Furthermore, the regime also hacks accounts to post insults and illegal materials intentionally in order to indict accounts’ owners later and send them to prison. Abdullatif Şener, who was a member of Erdoğan’s party for some time then flipped, was arrested for several Twitter posts. Şener asserted that his account was hacked by the regime and he personally did not write any offensive posts.
Third, those who are outside Turkey and the regime cannot force them to stop criticising dictator Erdoğan are attacked by thousands of bots on a daily basis. The Boston Celtics star Enes Kanter is one of those who receives online death threats every week.
Erdoğan bots tyranny has extended online to the extent that even if you do not criticise the regime, someone will come and say that you did not write about certain topics which matters for Turkey and thus that person will brand you as traitor.
Female journalists suffer the most, with trolls using thousands of accounts to brand women who criticise dictator Erdoğan as “sluts” or “whores”.
Emre Kızılkaya, a prominent Turkish journalist who covers such violations and insults directed by Erdoğan bots against women explained how women are “harassed and targeted in really nasty ways.” He also said “they got death threats and rape threats”.
It is a sad reality that this is happening on social media which should have been a place for free speech, knowledge exchanging and productive debates. However, when you have a dictator who is scared from words, such an outcome is not surprising.
Erdoğan bots do not only attack critics, they also use social media to spread propaganda and disinformation. And while the US has forced TRT, Erdoğan’s English-language propaganda channel, to register as a foreign agent, thousands of bots are still actively working in various languages and no serious actions are taken by social media companies to end such horrendous activities.
It is totally unacceptable that bots still exist after all the impact they have left on the US election in 2016 and on other major events in the world. And while we should thank Twitter for removing thousands of pro-Erdoğan accounts, we should encourage them to increase their efforts to end this negative behaviour which silences journalists and threatens those who seek truth and freedom.
We should also urge social media platforms not to comply with the Turkish regime in closing the accounts of dissidents and journalists. Turkey, under dictator Erdoğan’s leadership, will keep attacking journalists and critics, and let us not forget that Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists. Therefore, it is our duty as researchers and journalists to expose his crimes inside Turkey and in other places because the Turkish media is either owned by the regime or afraid to cover the truth.
Abdulrahman Taleb, is a British-Arab researcher in Middle East North Africa studies.