How Turkey’s Government Gamed Twitter

Turkey’s crucial presidential election is heading for a run-off. Incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is seeking another term in the most important vote in the world this year: Turkey is both a member of NATO and an ally of Russia.

Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian during his time as prime minister and president, and a key part of his strategy is suppressing opposition online, especially on Twitter.

In order for there to be a strategy, there needs to be a base of users. And Turkey has that base: according to DataReportal, Turkey is Twitter’s seventh biggest market, with 16.1 million users, just behind the UK on 18.4 million.

Erdoğan’s playbook is four-pronged. Here’s how it works.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacts to supporters as he holds a rally ahead of the presidential elections in Istanbul on May 12, 2023. Turkey is the leading requester of content removal on Twitter and has increased media restriction in the last few years.
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1) Impose stringent content laws

Turkey is not the only country in the world to restrict media freedoms, but according to Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit organization, it ranks 165 out of 180 countries tracked, dropping 16 places from 2022. Nearly 40 journalists are currently jailed in the country. RWB estimates that 90 percent of the country’s media is under government control.

There have been two new laws in recent years. In October 2022, Turkey’s parliament adopted a law that gave the government the power to jail journalists and social media users for up to three years for spreading “disinformation.” The law’s Article 29 said those who spread false information online about Turkey’s security to “create fear and disturb public order” will face a prison sentence of one to three years.

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, “the law… looms heavily over freedom of expression in Turkey, making it a new indicator of the country’s already receding democratic credentials.”

Before that, in 2020, Turkish lawmakers gave the government wide-ranging powers to regulate social media content and mandated that foreign tech companies—including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube—had to open offices in Turkey. The government also imposed financial penalties and threatened to slow the traffic to these sites if their conditions were not met.

Prior to those two legal changes, Turkey had seen attacks on the media intensify after an unsuccessful coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016, with independent news organizations closed down and a state of emergency imposed that curbed press freedom.

2) Use those laws to request content takedowns

Lots of governments ask social media platforms to take down content to comply with laws. However, Turkey has pushed the limits, especially with Twitter.

As the chart below shows, Turkey is currently the leader in Twitter content removal requests, and has been for many years. Under Elon Musk’s ownership, Turkey’s requests have increased, and the platform’s overall compliance is now around 90 percent, according to the Lumen database, which tracked Twitter content removal requests. This has gone up since Musk took over Twitter in April 2022.

Before 2021, Turkey was the country with the highest rate of Twitter post removal requests in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. In 2018, according to Twitter’s Transparency reports, it was the leading country alongside Russia. Twitter’s data for 2019-2020 is unclear, but Turkey was cited as one of the leading countries requesting content removal.

3) Create your own grassroots operation to flood the platform

Twitter can also be useful for governments to create lots of seemingly-natural pro-regime accounts. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2013, Turkey’s government created a 6,000-strong social media team to promote the government’s views.

Twitter isn’t keen on this practice, and takes down accounts that are against its terms of service. However, the official AKP ruling party has been effective at promoting its views, according to experts.

A 2021 paper published at Pennsylvania State University that examined Twitter accounts in Turkey, and looked at the success of Twitter taking down propaganda accounts, the authors concluded that: “Due to their grassroots approach, it is incredibly difficult to distinguish Turkish Information Operations (IO) actors from ordinary AKP supporters.”

The research paper (Information Operations in Turkey: Manufacturing Resilience with Free Twitter Accounts) showed that Twitter is effectively in a game of whack-a-mole with Turkey’s pro-government social media accounts, with various strategies to get around attempts to shut them down.

“These include explicit signals to bolster alliance and visibility, such as national account hashtags and groups, which we suspect are also used to engage ordinary citizens and appear as grassroots government support,” the paper said. “After accounts are shutdown, IO actors preserve their social networks by standing up highly similar replacement accounts which are easy for their followers to find, even if it makes them more vulnerable to detection again.”

4) If in doubt, pull access

Turkey has a history of simply threatening to cut platforms off. This happened to Wikipedia from 2017 to 2020 and in 2016, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were blocked.

Twitter was restricted following the devastating earthquake in February, which hindered some of the rescue efforts. The government blamed the outage on a technical problem.

Social media access was also restricted after a deadly explosion in Istanbul in November 2022. Likewise there was a restriction in 2020 following the attack on Turkish forces in Idlib, on the Syrian border, which resulted in more than 30 fatalities.

All the above restrictions were tracked by the organization NetBlocks, a global internet monitor.

Alp Toker, Director at NetBlocks, told Newsweek: “Turkey has been fine-tuning its approach to Twitter for years. At the moment, many of the accounts being restricted aren’t headline opposition accounts, but more Erdoğan’s traditional political enemies.

“This [restriction] paves the way for other countries to try to follow suit, and also sets a precedent for other social media companies in the country.”

Confirmation of the power of simply threatening to pull access comes straight from Elon Musk. On May 13 he replied to journalist Matthew Yglesias who had pointed out that Twitter was censoring government opponents: “Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias? The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”

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