In 2007, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had its second election victory, increasing its vote share to 47,8 and consolidating power. In the same year, it imposed important regulations to ‘clean’ the Internet of undesirable content. Law 5651, On Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Combating Crimes committed by means of such Publication, was passed quietly without any opposition in the parliament and only faced some reaction from NGOs working for Internet freedom. The regulations it established—banning some websites, forbidding some words from domain names, and denying access to certain social media—were generally considered to be “illiberal.”
This law was not only a critical step towards one-man rule, but also a major advance in digital authoritarianism in Turkey. Because social media is now one of the few remaining spaces for anti-authoritarian political mobilization, the story of the rise of digital authoritarianism in Turkey is illustrative of the worldwide struggles on social media in countries ruled by the authoritarian governments.
From Illiberal Digital Practices to Digital Authoritarianism
Digital authoritarianism refers to an authoritarian regime’s use of information technology to control and shape the society. Digital authoritarianism includes implementations such as advanced surveillance systems, blocking of social media websites and messaging applications, controlling of content with online censorship laws, detaining people for online posts, conducting online manipulation by paid trolls, as well as creating a “national Internet” which is disconnected from the global internet system. On the other hand, the illiberal digital practices refers to the common digital practices of surveillance, disinformation and violation of the freedom of expression which are often implemented by all transnational or public–private institutions or governments.
Since 2007, AKP has continued to systematically use advanced surveillance systems, block social media websites and messaging applications, control online content through censorship laws, detain people for their online posts, conduct online manipulation through paid trolls, and it has disconnected from the global Internet system in order to suppress the opposition at critical times, revealing its intention of creating a “national Internet.”
The process was gradual and an outgrowth of the developments in the previous decade. In fact, illiberal digital practices in the form of surveillance, disinformation and violation of the freedom of expression already characterized AKP’s control of social media in the 2000s.
The important point, however, is that Turkish regulations of the Internet are not so different from illiberal internet regulations in democratic countries. For example, on July 29, 2020, Turkey’s parliament passed a bill amending Law No. 5651. This amendment to law 5651, which requires international social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to appoint Turkish-based representatives to address authorities’ concerns over content, has been modelled on the German Act to Improve Enforcement of the Law in Social Networks for combating hate speech on the internet and a similar provision in France. However, the amendment approved by the Turkish Parliament in July 2020 is aimed at complete control over social media platforms. Generally, these amendments mandate social media platforms with more than two million daily users to appoint a local representative in Turkey; a failure to do so could result in advertisement bans, steep penalty fees, and, most troublingly, bandwidth reductions by up to 90%, practically blocking access to those sites.
The story of Turkey thus shows how an Internet policy framework containing some illiberal digital practices, can easily turn into full-fledged digital authoritarians. After the intensification of the legal and technological restrictions in 2007, legitimized on the rhetoric of family values, national security, economic security and copyrights, the “Secure Usage of Internet” project was introduced in 2011. All Internet subscribers were forced to choose one of the four profiles to access the Internet— “family,” “standard,” “children,” or “domestic.” These “voluntary” profiles worked like filters blocking “unwanted” material. This had provoked the major demonstrations by Internet activists. However, as of the summer 2013, 1.4 million subscribers had opted for a filter.
After winning the elections in 2011 the AKP government faced two important challenges in 2013. First, boiling discontent against the AKP policies turned into the nationwide Gezi Park protests in June 2013. Nearly four million people protested the AKP in various cities. The mainstream media under the control of the government ignored this historic event. The two biggest news channels chose to broadcast cooking programs and wildlife documentaries instead of covering the protests. In response to this media blackout, the protesters used social media to communicate, mobilize, coordinate and spread their messages. Social media was also used as a means of resistance against police violence.
Second, towards the end of 2013, supporters of Fetullah Gulen, a Sunni cleric in the government bureaucracy launched the Gulen Movement later decried as an underground Islamic sect that instigated the 2016 coup attempt. The movement had millions of followers, and tens of thousands of its members worked in Turkish state institutions, including the judiciary, security and military. However, no one was sure who they were, how they worked and or were organized, because the movement had no formal structure, no visible organization and no official membership. Its organization and activities within the state bureaucracy were opaque and secretive.
The AKP had collaborated with the Gulen Movement until 2013 after which they split. The Gulen Movement, whose adherents were very active in the Turkish state institutions, started to expose the wrongdoings of the AKP, and posted wiretap recordings of phone conversations between the AKP officials and businessmen on various social media platforms documenting the large-scale state corruption. This time Erdoğan vowed to wipe out Twitter and qualified the incident as a coup attempt.
The initial government response to these incidents involved obstructing social media by exerting pressure on the social media companies and the Internet access providers. However, the AKP soon developed different strategies to control internet use. These control strategies were composed of a distributed network of government and non-government actors using both legal and illegal methods. The AKP government also applied judicial and technical restrictions to curb social media use.
After 2013, Internet regulations took the form of a surveillance tool through social media, involving illegal access bans against independent news portals and the mobilization of pro-government Internet trolls to spread fake news, conduct online lynching and disseminate populist, racist and fascist messages.
The AKTroll Army
The critical component of Turkish digital authoritarianism is the political troll army funded by the AKP. The AKP mobilizes the trolls not only to spread propaganda, but also to control politics through the Internet and social media. A closer look at the organizations and functions of the troll army within Turkey’s digital authoritarian regime becomes important.
In the immediate aftermath of the Gezi protests in 2013, the AKP formed its own social media team. The initial objective of the team, composed of about six thousand anonymous pro-government influencers, was to promote a positive image of the government. The 6000 members of this ‘social media army” were recruited by the party organization. They came to be known as the AKTrolls (as pro-AKP political trolls).
The AKTrolls army was not restricted to just 6,000 members. According to leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son in law, there were some attempts to set up other professional social media teams composed of graphic designers, coders, and former army officials who had training in psychological warfare. The most famous of these teams is the Pelican Group, which was believed to be directly involved in the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in 2016, and the 2019 decision regarding the renewal of local elections in Istanbul.
The primary objective of the AKtrolls is to target and harass government critics on social media, and intimidate dissidents. They have taken on the responsibility of online monitoring, hacking and “snitching.” Their methods include lying, insulting, levelling baseless accusations, and intimidation. They deny facts and peddle conspiracy theories, blurring the line between truth and falsity.
Source: Hafiza Kolektifi (2015), The network map of Aktrolls (The Memory Collective), October.
The AKTroll Organization
In 2015, an anonymous group of researchers exposed the web of connections between pro-Erdoğan trolls and AKP cadres, especially youth members, based on Twitter data. These connections are graphically represented in the image above. The orange-colored users at the bottom of the map are the AKP officials and pro-AKP columnists who appear on Twitter with their real names. Those colored green are mostly trolls with fake names. The map illustrates the AKP media ecosystem composed of politicians, columnists, civil servants, and trolls in 2015. It also identified the most influential and active accounts within it.
This organization is very dynamic, and although the networks of relations between party members and the troll army has changed since 2015, the troll organizations still play a major role in Erdoğan’s regime. They publicly name targets by posting screenshots of an opponent account’s tweet and starting smear campaigns against them. Incidentally, several AKP personalities have also become targets of AKTrolls and victims of hate speech when they strayed from the party line. Thus, the troll organization also serves to maintain party discipline for AKP.
Additionally, thousands of fake Twitter bots also play an important role for the AKTroll army. The goal of these bots is to manipulate Twitter trends, block certain hashtags and suppress opponent voices and critical views. According to a Symantec report, Turkey has the highest bot population in the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East, Africa), with Istanbul and Ankara having the highest concentration of bot infestation in 2015. In 2020, Twitter had to ban and remove 7,340 accounts from a network that was used to amplify the political narratives favorable to Erdoğan’s AKP.
It is undeniable that AKP has been trying to exert control over digital media in the same way it controls the traditional media. More than 90 percent of Turkey’s conventional media is now controlled by the conglomerates close to the government. Scores of journalists critical of the government have been fired or jailed over the years.
In this regard, we cannot overlook the fact that illiberal digital practices are not restricted to Turkey alone. In fact, such practices are common in liberal democracies. For instance, the aforementioned NetzDG of Germany has raised concerns for pro-democracy groups around the world who are leery of overregulation of social media, and view it as a threat to the freedom of speech. Since this legislation took effect in Germany, it has both inspired and justified the censorship legislation of many authoritarian regimes.
Similarly, restrictive Internet policy changes that followed after the Snowden revelations are commonly justified using a “Cyber Warfare” narrative and became the means of censoring and punishing both independent news media and social media users by narrowing down the scope of the freedom of expression. Particularly after the alleged Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the same narrative justified the use of algorithms developed by Google, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet platforms to filter the fake news. These practices can easily serve as tools of censorship.
We now know, thanks to the Snowden revelations in 2013, that the U.S. government is involved in control over social media as much as authoritarian countries like Russia. Snowden documents provided solid proof that not just the United States but many others used extensive manipulation to control the content in the Internet.
This is likely still the case. In fact, the two reports published by The Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University document that 28 countries in 2017 and 48 countries in 2018 paid political trolls for false news, misinformation and manipulation on the Internet. However, these findings probably reveal only the tip of the iceberg, because the institutional measures available to make the governments accountable for such activities are still very limited.
In other words, while all authoritarian regimes develop versions of digital authoritarianism, non-authoritarian regimes not only extensively use illiberal digital practices but also paradoxically develop the practices that authoritarian regimes later appropriate for their use. The recent Internet policy changes that use cyber security as the pretext to curb the freedom of expression in the Internet should sound warning bells not only for what is left of the Turkish democracy but also for democracies around the globe.
Funda Başaran is Visiting Professor of Communication at Paris Dauphine University.