By Thanos Kamilalis
In May 28 of 2013, a demonstration of Turkish ecologists against the urban development plan of the Gezi Park in Ankara caused a chain reaction. An enormous, mass protest wave against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rocked the entire country, with at least 2,4 million Turkish citizens -according to the estimation of the Turkish ministry of Internal Affairs- taking part in the first month of the uprising. The Turkish president, instead of complying to the demands of the protesters for more freedom of expression and Press, and less police violence, decided to follow the opposite direction by gradually transforming his government into an even more authoritarian regime.
From the first days of the Gezi park uprising, and due to the government's censorship in the large traditional media organizations of the country, the demonstrators and those who opposed Erdoğan's policies turned to the social media, mainly Twitter, in order to inform and get informed. In the first 12 hours after the demonstration of May 31st, over 2 million tweets were posted with the hashtags #OccupyGezi and #DirenGeziParki (Resistance Gezi Park). 88% of those tweets were from Turkey and caused the immediate rage of Erdoğan, who announced the social media as “the worst threat for society”. Very quickly, Taksim Square became the center of the demonstrations, with tens of thousands of people gathering there daily.
While the movement against Erdoğan on Twitter was growing, the media of the country were demonstratively ignoring it. In June 2nd, CNN was covering live the demonstrations while CNN Turk was showing a documentary about... penguins. On the 7th of July, seven Turkish newspapers had the same front page title.
According to the Union of Turkish Journalists, 22 journalists were fired from their jobs and 37 were forced to quit because they chose to cover the demonstrations. Although censorship, propaganda against the demonstrators, and the pressure towards the press became quite frequent, they were not enough for the Turkish government, which tried, in various ways, to confront the “threat” of Twitter
The secret group of propaganda and psychological warfare
In an email dated 18th June 2013, leaked by WikiLeaks, it was revealed that Albayrak was looking into recruiting a group of graphic designers, IT professionals, and former members of the army with the purpose of training them in psychological warfare. The suggestion was made by the US-based Turkish diplomat, Halil Danismaz, member of the organization “Turkish Heritage”. Danismaz points out that the above mentioned group will be necessary in dealing with the publications of the international media on Turkey and the weakening of the demonstrations wave in the social media, through the spreading of the government propaganda. For this to succeed, Danismaz recommends analyst Cüneyt Arvasi, to whom he has spoken two days earlier. Both Danismaz and Arvasi believe that Erdoğan's government has suffered big damage from the social media and they need not to just answer but to strike back.
“We need people whom we can work with, whom we can control, and who will support us”, Arvasi mentions distinctively and suggests the form of a New York-based group which will be constitute of academics, interpreters, and psychological warfare specialists, and will have propaganda in social media as their main job. Arvasi claims that the content produced by this team can have an impact on at least 100 million Muslims in the Islamic World, a power that AKP doesn't have just by using the traditional media and the party members they control. “We are ready, but we need your support in hardware, infrastructure, and financing”, he emphasized. He also suggests that the people who are not party members but share the same views, can be the ones to convey the messages of the propaganda team. He gives the example of approaching 25-30.000 radical Islamists who are a part of the country's third party, MHP, because the messages will seem more objective if they don't come from the direction of the AKP.
At the same time, Arvasi talks about the cost of financing this group alongside with how the government can decrease the credibility of the notable members of the movement against it, suggesting the “black propaganda” (the spreading of false information and material) together with attacks on journalists who work for the opposing media. As he distinctively mentioned to Danismaz on the 16th of July, in the second part of his email, the basic aim of the group must be:
- The organizing, and dealing with, of the social media
- -Confronting the “misleading and destructive forged news” regarding the -then- Prime Minister, Erdoğan.
The network of research, process, and support of the governing party, AKP, appears to be ready for action.
6.000 internet “trolls” at the AKP's service
According to the 2013 disclosures of the Wall Street Journal, besides the aforementioned secret teams, the Turkish government formed a group of at least 6.000 supporters in the social media whom were under their total control. The presence of this team of internet “trolls” is confirmed in one of Albayrak's emails.
Specifically, in an email dated 28th June 2013, AKP's secret group announces one of its first internet campaigns supporting Erdoğan, with the hashtag #DirenCozum (resistance, solution). The propaganda team proposes six messages which would be reproduced, usually unaltered. The messages concerned the “peaceful settlement” that Erdoğan accomplished in the conflict with the Kurds, and were the following:
- Gezi's provocateurs are trying to block the peace process.
- No blood was shed and people didn't die in the past 6 months.
- The nation won't be misled. Long live the will for settlement.
- AKP's volunteers from Istanbul to Lice are protecting the peaceful settlement.
- This nation reacted to the challenge of 2002 and shouts “long live the brotherhood” in 2013.
- My beautiful and strong country, you aren't alone. The brothers won't be deceived.
As the thousands of the Twitter accounts were interacting in a vast network of propaganda and influence of the public opinion, their target and operation became quite obvious. A team of anonymous researchers recorded and illustrated the main participants of the propaganda network in a chart that includes ministers, AKP executives, and popular Twitter accounts. The researchers' website went down, but the online newspaper Daily Dot managed to republish the basic chart of their study.
However, the group of “trolls” didn't stop reproducing the government propaganda. They additionally adopted the suggestions of the analyst Al Kishi, to attack and disparage the members of the movement. In the group's daily activities were the slandering of the opposition's politicians, journalists, popular social media users, and personalities who opposed Erdoğan. The Daily Dot observed that a certain person was targeted with a predetermined hashtag, in order for the defaming posts to be amongst the most popular of the Turkish Twitter. In spite of the many “successes” of the group of “trolls”, which are reflected in the fact that many eminent Turkish persons deactivated their accounts under the burden of mass web attacks, the online circulating evidence against Erdoğan was still very disturbing. In December 2013, a massive network of corruption inside the AKP was revealed and was attempted to be dealt with by the government with “clearings” of police members. A few months later, and with the presidential election approaching, Erdoğan banned the access to Facebook and Twitter.
Controlling the third largest media group of the country.
As mentioned above, the majority of the traditional media (press, radio and television) was and is controlled by Erdoğan's government on a scary level. For example, the Turkish public television, TRT, has been repeatedly convicted by the European Council for biased coverage of the Turkish president and the unequal distribution of air time between the AKP and the opposition parties. The TRT network is estimated that it offered 125 times more air time to Erdoğan's activities compared to his opponents, during the pre-election period of 2014. Indicatively, between the 4th and 6th of July 2014, Erdoğan appeared on public television for 533 minutes, while his main opponent, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, appeared for just 3 minutes and 24 seconds, and the leader of the pro-Kurdish party, Selahattin Demirtaş, for 45 seconds...
In the following time, the attacks against media that criticized Erdoğan escalated. From 2015 and onwards, the Turkish authorities raided and attacked the larger media groups which supported the opposition, starting with shutting down the pro-Kurdish ones. AKP's executive Abdurrahim Boynukalın, leaded a “mob” which attacked the offices of the newspaper Hürriyet. The police raided the offices of two television channels, that belong to the third largest media group of the country, Ipek media group, Bogun TV and Kanalturk TV. Both channels ceased their broadcasting while two newspapers, Bogun and Millet, changed ownership and became rather friendly to the government under their new administrations. The last hit before the attempted coup was the interference to the newspaper Zaman, that caused a big reaction both in and outside Turkey. After the failed coup of July 2015, the prosecutions against journalists became even more intense.
The new WikiLeaks disclosures confirm the allegations that members of the government are working on the background - under the pretext of police and justice investigations- having as their only purpose the changing of the administrations of the country's larger media groups and their handing over, directly or indirectly, to the control of the regime (via business groups that are friendly to Erdoğan. In an email sent from Albayrak to the head of the parliamentary group of AKP, Hasan Doğan , Erdoğan's son-in-law expresses the opinion that Ipek media group should not be handed back to its owners, stating obviously that the group should either go under the control of the government or handed over to businesspeople who are closely related to the AKP. It was the latter that happened in the end.
More specifically, in his email to Doğan, Albayrak is concerned about the fact that while the staff of the media were replaced with people who can be trusted by the government, the company that funds it hasn't changed the composition of its boards, members of which have ties with the movement of Fethullah Gülen -the exiled to the US former ally and now strong opponent of Erdoğan's. The problem in this control process is the procedure supervisor, Arif Yalçın, who isn't willing to abide to the government's wishes, which leads to the government seeking for other means to achieve its goals.