The rotten politics infecting Turkey’s social media

turkey flag combined with the facebook logo

Turkey has a problem, and it’s only getting worse.

Despite its benefits, social media is also full of pranksters, scammers, bots and trolls. And it only gets worse when politics is involved—particularly in Turkey.

Turkish daily newspaper Yeni Şafak, known for its pro-government coverage, announced last week that their official Facebook page, with 10 million likes and the perceived influence that goes with them, was suddenly removed by Facebook “without any notice or reason.” Calling it a politically motivated “censorship,” the daily portrayed Facebook’s move as an international plot to silence Turkish media, blamed rival political groups for conspiracy, and was quick to have government’s Internet authority on their side condemning the U.S. company for “restricting the freedom of communication.”

It was a sly move coming from the Turkish government, which tops the global censorship record by sending thousands of content removal requests to Facebook and Twitter, mostly for political criticism and government misconduct. And it highlights broader problems with online free speech in Turkey.

Turkish social media researchers soon pointed out that Yeni Şafak’s number of Facebook followers has increased “abnormally” compared to other newspapers in Turkey, while independent news outlets claimed that the daily has been purchasing unrelated Facebook pages and merging them with the main Yeni Şafak page in the last few months. The daily had also been, until recently, URL hijacking the ‘buzfeed.com’ domain (with one ‘z’) to their English page. A webmaster told me that redirecting Facebook users by merging groups is a known method to boost likes of a page and claimed it is “allowed by Facebook,” meanwhile a person with knowledge of the matter, who asked to remain anonymous due to the nature of the information provided, pointed out dedicated Turkish forums for webmasters and businesses to buy followers on Facebook and Twitter en masse.

Indeed, the archived copies of Yeni Şafak’s Facebook page from July 2015 and March 2016 show 5 million increase from 4.8m to 9.7m in just eight months.

Yeni Şafak editors did not respond to requests for comment.

Facebook re-opened Yeni Şafak’s page after 10 days of suspension, but deleted 2.5 million of the page’s likes, as of this writing. Facebook’s statement to Turkish press confirms that Yeni Şafak had artificially boosted its likes, saying they noticed “irregularities” on the number of likes of Yeni Şafak and re-opened the page after removing “spurious likes.” Facebook added that editors are still reviewing the page in question.

The Yeni Şafak debacle is just the latest in a string of apparent scams that have tainted social media in Turkey—and some are even more devious.

A sexy Twitter bot was employed to discredit a civilian election monitoring group, and pro-government trolls were lynching critical journalists. Now that Turkey is drawn into an internal conflict with the Kurdish armed group, PKK, and has been targeted by bombing attacks in major cities, the black propaganda took a drastic turn.

A ‘parody’ account by the Twitter handle @HDPenter shares political posters to claim Kurdish opposition party in the Turkish parliament, HDP, is responsible for the civilian deaths in the conflict. It has been popularized by the pro-government trolls in the lead-up to the last general elections in November.

Another account, with 63k followers, JITEM, or @BeyazToroscular, (warning: graphic images), has attracted much media attention for releasing photographs of dead bodies, purportedly of Kurdish guerilla killed during the conflicts. Named after an illegal branch of the army, “JITEM,” known for extrajudicial killings of Kurdish politicians during 1990s, and the account is filled with racist slur and hatred towards Kurds.

Both of these accounts were mostly followed by bots and were tweeting sexist jokes until they were sold, renamed and rebranded into political tools. @HDPenter was originally @ErkeklerTerimi (translation: “@TermsOfMen”), @BeyazToroscular was @romantikveokuz (roughly “@RomanticAndRude”). The jokes made them not only popular on Twitter, but gave them a particular follower profile—a young, mostly male population fit for the white Turkish supremacist messages they now spread.

Turkey has a very dynamic social media userbase and an Internet market that is certainly growing, but its development is marred by political manipulation that taints the entire stream.

Illustration via Max Fleishman

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