Unwilling or unable to solve its country’s economic problems, the Turkish AKP has resorted to a familiar political tool: suppressing the opposition.
Turkey’s ruling coalition, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is pursuing new legislation that muzzles dissenting voices on the internet and social media as Turkey moves towards another election cycle. Contrary to how the bill is presented as a legal framework against disinformation and misinformation, it will further strengthen the AKP’s troll armies and dominate the social media arena.
The House Justice Committee recently approved the so-called ‘disinformation’ bill, which is now awaiting a vote at the general assembly and is expected to be passed by a simple majority. The government says the new legislation is needed to prevent “fake news, misinformation, provocation and lynching of justice in social media“, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan describes social media as a “threat to the democracy “..“Never one to accept criticism of himself or the government, Erdogan’s concerns about content posted on social media. The bill was announced just as the country prepares for a critical election next year.
Erdogan’s twenty-year tenure as President of Turkey and leader of the AKP was marked by the creation of a government monopoly over mainstream media. According to a report by Freedom House published this year, “more than 90% of Turkish media networks depend on public tenders and are owned by large companies with close personal ties to President Erdogan”. Opposition politicians and government critics, who found little or no public space in newspapers and on TV stations, had to shift their critical voices to alternative digital and social media platforms. These platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, have allowed the opposition to circumvent (albeit in a very limited way) AKP censorship of media and other news platforms that dare speak to the public about party transgressions or express opinions that go against government propaganda.
The AKP government has already enacted laws “to censor and block access to online media that criticize government policies.” The Freedom House report notes that after “a restrictive new law was passed in 2020, major social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were forced to open offices in Turkey that would comply with demands removal of government content”. With the new legislation, the government aims to further restrict freedom of expression on social media and impose stiff penalties on those who publicly disseminate false information regarding national security and public order with the aim of creating fear. and anxiety in sentencing those convicted from one to three years in prison.
As general elections approach, Turkey is grappling with a deepening economic crisis and growing public discontent. Public confidence in Erdogan and his policies has eroded due to rising inflation, devaluation of the Turkish lira and rising unemployment. Controlling the narrative and dominating public debate has never been more critical for Erdogan and his party.
To win the upcoming elections and retain power, Erdogan has two options: find a quick fix for the Turkish economy or resort to heavy-handed tactics against the opposition. Because Erdogan has no viable solution to end the country’s economic crisis, he has resorted to the only tools left in his toolbox: intensifying government repression against the leaders of the main opposition bloc. , stepping up crackdowns on dissenting voices, and controlling the narrative on social media under the guise of tackling misinformation. These are the gestures of a desperate leader who falsely claims that social media is one of the main threats to the survival of democracy in Turkey.
In Erdogan’s words, the bill aims to “prevent the systematic propagation and dissemination of false news and disinformation” and to bring “new regulations and responsibilities to social media providers, social media companies and users against disinformation activities”. Yet, ironically, since early 2012 the AKP has been leading one of the largest armies of state-sponsored trolls, the so-called AK-trolls, to manipulate the public through disinformation and fake news campaigns. In June 2020, Twitter deleted over 7,000 troll accounts supported by the AKP.
As social scientists, we analyzed the archives of Turkish state-backed troll accounts identified by the Twitter Transparency Center. We looked at account characteristics and stories and found a growing trend of AK-troll accounts ahead of the election. The 2019 local elections, for example, coincided with the largest increase in the number of new troll accounts (as shown in Figure 1). In addition, the AKP increased the size of its troll army in response to major events that posed extraordinary challenges to the AKP government, such as the Gezi Park protests (2013), government corruption investigations ( 2013), the Kobani protests (2014), and the July 2016 coup attempt. The operators of the troll accounts coordinated their efforts to dominate public discourse, set the public agenda in accordance with the best interests of the administration AKP, and vilify and discredit political discontent. To spread their messages across the political spectrum of Turkish society, many of these troll accounts were given various political identities, including pro-Erdogan, Kemalist, nationalist, and pro-Kurdish.
Figure 1. Number of new troll accounts created by election month, January 2010 to October 2019.
The AKP’s disinformation bill mimics Russia’s attempt to clamp down on social media following its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian government, the biggest disseminator of disinformation, launched draconian legislation against fake news, which led to a general assault on critics of the war and criminalized the “public dissemination of false information under the guise of truthful messages ” on the Russian army and officials stationed abroad. Violations of the law are punishable by imprisonment for up to fifteen years. The proposed law is intentionally vague, allowing the government to decide whether someone is guilty of spreading lies, and harsh measures are passed to punish offenders, usually dissenting voices that the government wants to silence.
The proposed law also implicitly allows armies of AKP trolls to dominate public discourse on social media, even when trolls intentionally spread lies. The AKP will not shut down these social media accounts and will instead use the proposed law to justify the creation of a state censorship mechanism which it can weaponize for partisan purposes and control the agenda before and during the next year’s elections. The aim is to deprive the opposition of access to media platforms that it could use to inform the public about the misdeeds and irregularities of Erdogan and his party throughout the electoral process.
The question that begs an answer is: why is Erdogan so sensitive to social media? Political survival. In his own words: “Media and communication issues and the fight against social media and disinformation are of vital importance to ensure our political and social survival.
Suleyman Ozeren, Ph.D., is assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice science at Barton College, North Carolina, and adjunct professor at George Mason University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Orion Policy Institute in Washington, DC. He previously served as President of the Global Policy and Strategy Institute and Director of the International Center Against Terrorism and Transnational Crime (UTSAM) in Turkey.
Suat Cubukcu, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University (in Washington, DC), specializing in terrorism, policing and the media. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Orion Policy Institute.