At least one Turkish columnist, described as pro-government by the newspaper Hurriyet, is blaming an aggressive Internet strategy to smear critics of the majority AK Party for its own losses during Sunday’s parliamentary election. The AKP recently announced the launch of a major social media strategy employing at least 200 people to promote the party and attack detractors online.
The AKP, an Islamist, pro-business party, had maintained the majority in Turkey’s Parliament for 13 years before losing on Sunday. While they remain the plurality, they do not have the majority necessary to govern and will have to form a coalition with a minority party or call elections once again for the state to run. The party is currently working to find one minority party that will accept ruling the country alongside them.
In the aftermath of the AKP’s historic loss, Turkey’s political class has begun reflecting on how the election went wrong for them. One columnist, İsmail Kılıçarslan of the newspaper Yeni Şafak, protested that any constructive criticism online was met with vicious ad hominem attacks from anonymous online characters. “It happened because those so-called [AKP] supporters would declare me a ‘crypto’ and ‘traitor’ for writing this article,” he writes, noting that he received a high level of criticism for suggesting the AKP’s social media team was “a group of useless, nondescript people.” The AKP, he concludes, turned “a blind eye to criticism of any kind,” a practice that “was almost turned into a party tradition.”
During much of his tenure, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received heavy international criticism for attempts to censor the Internet, which went as far as banning, unsuccessfully, the social media platform Twitter. Erdogan eventually joined Twitter, using the platform to ward off young people from taking up smoking.
At least 68,000 websites have been banned in Turkey under Erdogan’s rule, including the site of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted by jihadists in January.
Simultaneously, the AKP began developing a social media presence. In the months preceding the election, the AFP announced the creation of a “New Turkey Digital Office,” in which 200 people would work in 24-hour shifts to “inundate social media with posts, showering the regime with adulation while threatening and harassing any opponents or critics.” Of particular note is their attacks on the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a minority group that received enough votes to enter Parliament for the first time on Sunday.
The office appears to be a much less sophisticated variation of the Russian government’s official social media operation, in which hundreds of employees work long hours fabricating identities online that appear real, posting a high number of non-political posts to make fellow users believe the person writing exists when they criticize the Ukrainian government, the United States, or support Putin’s expansions west.
The AKP trolls had existed long before the announcement of an official division for them. Hurriyet reports that “obviously centralized” accounts began attacking journalists in droves who dared question the AKP’s political strategy. AKP spokesperson Beşir Atalay responded to criticism of this move by assuring journalists that AKP “accounts will be officially announced. Our messages will be determined at the party headquarters. None of the other accounts would be related to us, including those ones [trolls].”
The trolls have also gotten the attention of opposition party members. The largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), questioned the potential use of public funds to pay trolls on the Parliament floor. CHP Deputy Chairman Veli Ağbaba asked:
How many people constitute the AK troll team? Is there a hierarchy among its members? Are these trolls paid a salary? If so, how much do they get paid? Is it true that these trolls are subordinates to AK Party [D]eputy Chairman Süleyman Soylu? Was Soylu’s transfer to your party for this purpose? How do you assess the claims that the troll team has now become autonomous and began serving the presidency rather than the AK Party? Are this team’s activities of defaming and threatening people legal?
The AKP has not definitively answered most of these questions, other than Atalay’s remarks.