[OPINION] Exposing generals in Erdoğan’s troll army

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Abdullah Bozkurt

For several years now senior Turkish government officials clustered around President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been running an army of social media trolls in order to smear and defame critics and opponents while fuelling a campaign of hatred to target vulnerable groups such as Christians, Jews, members of the Kurdish political movement, participants of the Gülen movement and others.

Abdullah Bozkurt

The troll army, estimated to be between six and twelve thousand, has been effective in ratcheting up anti-Western, especially anti-US, sentiment in Turkey. When the political conjecture warranted, neither Russia nor China has been spared from the fury of this digital army funded and administered by people close to the Turkish president. They have been using local municipalities and grass roots of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) such as youth and women’s branches to empower this xenophobic, nationalist, Islamist army and have drawn support from politicized government agencies.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, former deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, Erdoğan’s chief advisor Mustafa Varank and Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın are senior generals in Erdoğan’s troll army, while family members Bilal Erdoğan, his son, Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law, and Sümeyye Erdoğan, his daughter, serve as tacticians in shaping and organizing campaigns according to the whim and emotions of the family crime boss, President Erdoğan. Soylu, a right-wing politician and a staunchly anti-Western figure, runs the operational command, while Atalay, a die-hard supporter of Iran’s mullah regime and an academic, generates the content. Varank is the liaison officer between the army and the office of President Erdoğan. When Erdoğan family members have wanted feedback on running specific campaigns, they run it by Varank, who then gives orders to the generals in the field.

In a leaked February 2014 telephone conversation between Varank and Sümeyye, Erdoğan’s daughter was heard appealing to Varank to order what she called “our trolls” to support a campaign she was about to launch. In the Red Hack leaked emails of Albayrak dated Oct. 23, 2013, Erdoğan’s son-in-law was also identified as a man who coordinated some dozen anti-Semitic and anti-Western video clips that were uploaded to YouTube from four different countries. Various themes like an anti-NATO plot against Turkey in the face of a possible purchase of Chinese long-range missiles, alleged British and German intelligence operations in Turkey, secret Masons, an Armenian conspiracy and other fringe media stories were featured in these videos. They were approved by Berat before being uploaded to the Internet. They were also sent to Serhat Albayrak, Berat’s brother, who manages the Sabah media outlet in Turkey for Erdoğan’s family. Kalın, then a coordinator for public diplomacy and now spokesman for the president, is also involved in content generation and coordinating the trolls. Bülent Turan, the AKP’s parliamentary group deputy chairman, is another senior AKP official who can be listed as among the chief trolls in Erdoğan’s digital army.

On the second tier, people with experience in social media and pro-Erdoğan journalists and propagandists are stationed. They jointly coordinate among themselves on how to put into action plans that were devised by the names mentioned above in the upper echelon of the troll army command and control structure. One name stands out from the rest: Muhammet Burak Gültekin, a 28-year-old man who has been working as the social media coordinator for the AKP since 2013. He has been managing Erdoğan’s official Twitter and Facebook accounts. Forty-one secret wiretap records, authorized by the Istanbul 2nd High Criminal Court on Nov. 28, 2013, show how he runs the troll and bot accounts and directs traffic for requests coming from the top to different troll army troops in order to run campaigns on behalf of Erdoğan and the AKP. He often uses fake accounts and email addresses to flood discussion forums, post comments on news stories and often parrots the same government narrative in an effort to downplay, challenge and beat out competing narratives.

Gültekin has been working directly under Zafer Çubukçu, a 31-year-old man who served as the head of the AKP youth branches before he was appointed as an advisor to then-Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2014. In May 2016 Çubukçu became Erdoğan’s chief advisor and moved to the presidential office. On Dec. 2, 2013 Çubukçu calls Gültekin to talk about increasing the fake accounts by changing IP numbers and reaching 10,000 marks for a campaign. The two also talked about tweets posted by critical journalist Adem Yavuz Aslan, who is now in the US in exile, and discuss how they can run a smear campaign to discredit this veteran journalist. They went on discussing on how to fabricate banners to defame educational institutions run by the Gülen movement and launch the banners discreetly to prevent any tracing back to the AKP. Gültekin also calls a man named Fatih Aydin to ask him to borrow fake email accounts in bulk.

On the same day Gültekin also calls Emin Şen, an advisor to the AKP on social media, and talks to him about support for the signature campaign for Erdoğan run by Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye. Gültekin hopes to reach 10,000 tweets by opening accounts with fake emails and cash offerings and says he has given orders to AKP branches to do so as well. In another phone call dated Dec. 6, 2013 Şen explains an elaborate scheme to Gültekin on how to manufacture retweets and engineer screen shots to smear opposition politician Mustafa Sarıgül for the upcoming mayoral election in Istanbul.

In a wiretap dated Dec. 6, 2013, Gültekin reveals that Twitter user name Ak Kulis @Akkulis is actually operated by Erdoğan’s party. The messages shared from this account were even chiding AKP ministers who did not toe the line with Erdoğan on some issues. He tells Çubukçu that he passed the information to Ak Kulis to disseminate it in their own channel. When asked by Çubukçu who operates the accounts, Gültekin says it was handled from the office of Ibrahim Kalin, the senior advisor to Erdoğan and former coordinator for public diplomacy. He says a man named Ismail Cesur, a 29-year-old aide to Kalın who started to work as an advisor in the Office of the Prime Ministry in 2012, manages the account. Cesur is now one of the people who manage Erdoğan’s personal social media accounts as an expert in the presidential office. He regularly writes op-eds for radical Islamist daily Yeni Şafak. In April 2015 Twitter suspended the user @akkulis following many complaints lodged against the user, but a new account with @AkkulisAK was opened to replace the suspended account.

Gültekin appears to have been panicked by a story in the Taraf daily that exposed illegal orders from the AKP to government agencies to use government social media accounts for the support of the political party. In a wiretap dated Dec. 2, 2013, he reveals that the party decided to slow down the activity in the troll army and keep a low profile for a while after the exposure. Taraf was shut down by the government in July 2016. But in a wiretap dated Dec. 12, 2013 he shares new information from the Prime Minister’s Office, saying that Erdoğan chided senior party officials who brought the complaints to the attention of the party’s Central Executive Committee (MYK) about the trolls’ inflammatory messages. “Erdoğan scolded them” and defended the trolls. He added that Soylu, who controlled the trolls as the deputy chairman responsible for research and development first panicked, too, about Taraf’s story but later relaxed when Erdoğan stood behind the trolls. Knowing that Erdoğan was fully behind the troll army, Gültekin was seen as downplaying the parliamentary question posed by an opposition deputy about a 6,000-strong troll army run by the AKP.

Gültekin received a call on Dec. 2, 2013 from a man named Erkan Karakaya, who says he was with Hasan Doğan, the chief of cabinet to President Erdoğan, and Doğan asked the troll army to increase his followers. Gültekin asks whether he wants real or fake followers and promises to deliver from five to ten thousand immediately. Karakaya says he is not sure and talks to Doğan and then calls Gültekin back to inform him that an instant increase with fake followers is OK with Doğan. In the following days, 5,000 bot accounts were added to Doğan’s follower list.

In some defamation campaigns, Gültekin was seen coordinating with Fatih Tezcan, a government propagandist and journalist who unashamedly called for the assassination of main opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Fethullah Gülen and urged the setting ablaze of Slivri Prison, where political detainees were kept. A wiretap dated Dec. 9, 2013 shows the two talking about how to make defamatory video footage about Gülen by cutting out segments to separate them from their context. Tezcan says Gülen will be finished off within one or two months if the AKP follows his lead. When the video was finalized, Gültekin informs his boss Çubukçu that he sent to Tezcan, the radical Akit daily and other outlets to spread it.

Another mid-size troll army officer is a man named Taha Ün, who mostly runs vicious slanders and disseminates repulsive messages under popular accounts. He works closely with Gültekin, according to the transcript of a wiretap recorded on Dec. 15, 2013 during which the two talked about how to discreetly spread a slander campaign. Ün is very close to President Erdoğan, who attended his wedding as a witness when Ün married the chief of staff of Emine Erdoğan, the president’s wife, in Istanbul on June 13, 2015. Ün stirred a lot of controversy by posting scandalous messages on his Twitter account under the handle of Sağlam İrade @tahaun. He was accused of hate speech when he had suggested on Twitter that “the best way to communicate” with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) could be through a knife.

Erdoğan’s troll army can only parallel Putin’s trolls in manipulating public opinion mostly through anonymous accounts while regularly engaging in a campaign of slander, threats, harassment and intimidation of critics and opponents. Some of the troll divisions were run directly from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) as a confidential probe in 2013 into the harassment of journalists revealed. But when the probe found that lines were actually traced back to MIT headquarters in Ankara’s Yenimahalle district, the government stepped in and thwarted the investigation. Later the journalists who filed the complaints of slander and harassment were charged by partisan prosecutors, and indictments were filed against them.

This troll army is a major threat to Turkish democracy as it fuels hatred, xenophobia and runs slanders, fake stories, half-truths and defamations. Atalay tried to sugar coat it by setting up what the government called the New Turkey Digital Office, which is supposed to produce pro-AKP content. That is nothing but a smokescreen for a posse of vicious vultures that keep sniffing the trail of Erdoğan’s critics and opponents in a vendetta campaign. They have to be dealt with when the time comes for Turkey to return to the rule of law and democracy.

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