ANKARA: Twitter has removed more than 7,000 “fake and compromised” accounts associated with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP).
The operation was carried out on Thursday night and the axed accounts were linked to the AKP’s youth branch.
“Based on our analysis of the network’s technical indicators and account behaviors, the collection of fake and compromised accounts was being used to amplify political narratives favorable to the AKP, and demonstrated strong support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Twitter said.
It revealed that the main tools used by the Turkish accounts were “a network of echo chambers used to push propaganda, spread misinformation or attack critics of the government.”
The Turkish presidency released a strongly worded statement condemning Twitter’s move, saying that the allegations were baseless and politically motivated.
“It is a historical scandal that a US-based company tried to market ideological approaches under the guise of scientific data in order to legitimize them,” the presidency said, adding that such moves were aimed at shaping Turkish domestic politics from abroad.
Coordinated activities of Turkish accounts – bots and compromised accounts with fake personalities, similar usernames and pro-government retweet rings – have been a hot topic in the country’s polarized political climate.
The coordinated accounts sometimes carried out large-scale hacking activities toward dissident voices and organizations, while also trying to consolidate domestic support for the country’s cross-border interventions, especially in Syria and Libya.
The Twitter operation also covered 1,152 Russian accounts and 23,750 Chinese accounts. According to Twitter rules, every account and piece of content associated with these accounts has been permanently removed.
Dr. Sarphan Uzunoglu, from Istanbul’s Kadir Has University and editor in chief of NewsLabTurkey.org, said the Twitter operation was one of the boldest moves from a social network platform against government-linked or government-sponsored disinformation networks.
Based on the information shared by Twitter with the Stanford Internet Observatory, the network comprising about 37 million tweets promoted the AKP and criticized opposition parties, especially the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“The takedown included centrally managed compromised accounts that were used for AKP cheerleading,” the Twitter report said.
Uzunoglu said the decision to remove the accounts must have been a challenging one for Twitter because its activities in these countries may not be easy in the future.
“As will be remembered, Turkey’s government tried to pass a law that aimed to force social networks to open branches in Turkey or assign local representatives recently,” he told Arab News. “The government stepped back. However, things can get complicated after this move by Twitter as well.”
Uzunoglu added that Turkish municipality resources had been used to finance pro-government astroturfing activities, organized attempts to create a positive but false impression of support for a policy, an organization or a person. There had been a drop in astroturfing after opposition wins in local elections, he said.
“However the ruling party is still known to have their media operations running their astroturfing operations under different organizations linked to the government or the ruling party itself.”
But he did not expect there to be serious damage to the ruling party’s operation in the digital media landscape because Turkish state propaganda continued to be carried out, especially on WhatsApp or Telegram. Nor did the Twitter operation take into account pro-government supporters, who used the social media platform to push AKP propaganda.
“During the Gezi Park protests of 2013 some Turkish academics revealed pro-government networks via simple network analysis. They even named the pioneers of this network and explained how this activity worked. But, this latest operation has not touched the accounts of these people, many of whom are still actively leading pro-government propaganda because this contradicts Twitter’s free expression agenda. At the same time, however, it makes the fight against disinformation and state-sponsored propaganda, the main purpose of Twitter, less functional than it should be.”
Uzunoglu said that Twitter’s operation against Turkish accounts confirmed what Turkish citizens already knew.
“There is a network that uses state resources to make propaganda in the new media in Turkey. So, actually, we had an opportunity to talk about the secret that everyone knows. No judicial institution will be able to investigate this issue. State authorities will also not be transparent in this regard.”
Erkan Saka, a communications professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, said troll discourse was mostly produced by AKP-related columnists and the country’s politicians and bureaucrats.
“Bots help in disseminating the discourse but they are not particularly efficient,” he told Arab News. “In that sense, I find this move better than nothing, but too late and not very effective.”