Twitter recently revealed that it had detected tens of thousands of accounts linked to pro-government propaganda operations in Turkey, China and Russia. While the largest number of accounts were identified from China, the largest number of tweets were manufactured by far-right members of Ankara’s ruling AKP party. The social media company alleges that more than 36.9 million tweets were made by these fake accounts to push an agenda tied to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It may be one of the largest operations linked to manipulating social media by a pro-government network in history.
Social media companies have increasingly become aware of the role that governments have in trying to manipulate narratives. Twitter has suspended hundreds of thousands of accounts in the past, including some 200,000 accounts linked to China in August 2019. Twitter says it shared data with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Stanford internet Observatory. Twitter says the Turkish network of accounts were coordinated in “inauthentic activity,” and that this network was discovered in early 2020 and is linked to “amplify political narratives favorable to the AK Parti and demonstrated strong support for President Erdogan.”
Ankara has now accused Twitter of trying to “smear the government of Turkey.” Turkey’s presidential communications director claims the social media giant’s decisions are unscientific and that Twitter’s actions are unacceptable. “Twitter is no mere social media company, but a propaganda machine with certain political and ideological inclinations.” Turkey accused Twitter of promoting “black propaganda by anti-Turkey entities, including PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and FETO and its intention to redesign Turkish politics.”
The Stanford team researching the Turkey network concluded that “this was a prolific operation. There were 37 million tweets, mostly in Turkish.” They found fabricated personalities, all created on the same day with similar usernames. There were also “retweet rings,” where the fake personalities retweet each other to amplify a message. “The takedown included centrally managed and compromised accounts that were used for AKP cheerleading.”
The unprecedented Twitter army sought to attack any voices critical of Ankara’s ruling party, criticizing the opposition HDP, which the twitter users accused of “terrorism” and also slamming the opposition Republican People’s Party. It turns out this network also promoted a 2017 constitutional referendum that gave Erdogan more presidential power and it sought to support militarist campaigns, such as Turkey’s invasion of Syria in October 2019.
The social media hijacking campaign sought to slander groups in the region that Turkey opposes as “terrorists.” Turkey is the largest jailer of journalists in the world and it appears this social media exploitation was designed to take total control of social media narratives in Turkey, so that the ruling party completely dominated the narrative. It is not clear if the campaign was also used to critique US politics or attack other enemies of the ruling regime in Turkey, such as Israel. Turkey’s regime hosts Hamas and is one of the leading critics of US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Recently, Turkey’s president has sought to pressure Trump regarding Libya and other issues. Turkey’s pro-government Anadolu news even tweeted that Turkey’s leader had claimed that Syrian Kurdish fighters who defeated ISIS are linked to the US “Antifa” movement. Anadolu then deleted a tweet suggesting this conspiracy.
The 37 million propaganda tweets by Turkey’s network included 7,340 accounts that Twitter removed. Twitter also removed 23,750 accounts linked to China and 1,152 accounts linked to Russia. However, the Turkish network tweeted far more than the China or Russia networks. A total of 36,948,524 Turkey-based tweets, compared to 3,434,792 tweets from the Russian network.
It is not known if these thousands of accounts and millions of tweets were used to target and report critics, which may have resulted in critics of Ankara having accounts temporarily suspended. Many pro-Kurdish Twitter users have complained in the past of orchestrated campaigns to silence them on social media by accounts mass-reporting them.
The revealing of the extent of this massive pro-government ruling party operation in Ankara shows the uphill struggle that opposition parties have in Turkey. Opposition and critical media have been totally silenced, such that there are almost no critical media voices allowed in Turkey. The use of social media to go after opposition parties was merely one more step in Turkey’s trend towards authoritarianism. That Turkey is linked to Russia and China in this respect illustrates how Ankara increasingly adopts a Russia and China model in its domestic politics.