Turkish government uses troll armies to control public discourse - analyst

Süleyman Özeren, a Turkish scholar at the George Mason University and a fellow of the Orion Policy Institute, said that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has utilised its youth organisations to dominate public discourse and intimidate the political opposition through social media.

Özeren spoke in an interview with Nervana Mahmoud for the Ahval podcast series ‘’Turkish Trends’’.

He said that he and his fellow scholars have recently publish a report on pro-government campaigns on social media in Turkey.

The research, entitled “Political Astroturfing in Twitterscape: The Role of Troll Armies in Turkey's Democratic Backsliding” analysed 6,252 Turkish state-sponsored accounts suspended by Twitter.

Özeren defined political astroturfing as “state-sponsored campaigns on social media by using trolls in a centrally orchestrated top-down organisation”.

“The youth organisation of the AKP has extensively carried out disinformation campaigns on social media. The AKP youth has been utilised to dominate the public discourse and to intimidate the political opposition in Turkey.”

Özeren said that Twitter erased more than 7,000 accounts linked to AKP youth organisations.

He said that there are two distinct periods where AKP trolls become very active on social media - critical national events and the lead-up to elections.

The AKP decided to establish its so-called troll army following the Gezi Park protests that shook the government in 2013, Özeren said. These “AK trolls” attempted to discredit the protests describing demonstrators as an extension of foreign powers.

Özeren pointed out that during its initial years, the troll army was only reactive and apologetic. However, they have become more pro-active following the 2014 local elections, he said

Özeren said that the troll accounts not only cover domestic issues but also foreign affairs. For instance, AKP proxy accounts disseminated false information during the 2014 Kobani protests where Kurdish protestors took to the streets in Turkey’s southeast provinces to criticise the government’s closure of a border gate.

Pro-government trolls also became involved in anti-Egypt smear campaigns, according to Özeren.

The trolls have blamed the U.S and other European countries for being complicit in organising anti-government protests or events in Turkey because domestic and foreign issues have gradually intertwined thanks to the policies pursued by the Turkish government, Özeren said.

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