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[ANALYSIS] Could Putin use troll farms to manipulate the presidential election for Erdoğan?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

On Nov. 24, 2015 a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft, straining relations between the two countries and highlighting the high risk of increasing regional tensions over the war in Syria due to the violation of Turkish airspace on the Syrian border. Bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia went into a crisis. Erdoğan’s back-door diplomacy effort to repair relations was successful. Vladimir Putin accepted Erdoğan’s letter of apology, and Erdoğan offered to compensate the family of the deceased Russian pilot. On June 29, 2016, 15 days before a coup attempt, Putin announced in front of the cameras that relations with Turkey were beginning to normalize.

Following the abortive putsch on July 15, 2016, Erdoğan made his first foreign trip to Russia, on Aug. 9, 2016, meeting one-on-one with Putin in Saint Petersburg. At that meeting, as the price of normalizing relations, Putin demanded Erdoğan sign the TurkStream natural gas pipeline agreement, purchase the S-400 air defense system and agree to begin construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant. Erdoğan agreed to all of Putin’s demands and after that date moved Turkey from the axis of the West and democracy to the path of the East and authoritarianism. Putin has gained an ally with whom he can manipulate the NATO alliance.

For this reason it is of great importance not only for Erdoğan but also for Putin that Erdoğan win the presidential election in Turkey scheduled for 2023. Evidence has surfaced indicating that Putin interfered in the 2016 US presidential election with the help of “troll farms” he set up in Saint Petersburg. Could Putin use his troll farms this time to manipulate the 2023 election on behalf of Erdoğan?

What are trolls and troll farms?

According to NATO a troll is a person who provokes conflict by raising sensitive issues or insulting other participants, while a troll factory or farm is an organization that engages in online deception and propaganda. This activity is often disguised by an inconspicuous name, a P.R. firm, an Internet research center and the like. As a rule troll factories focus their activities on the political or economic sphere. The goal of the operations may be to attack political opponents, unfairly attack a competitor or perform some other action specified by the client. Troll factories achieve their goals with fake news and hate speech, among other things.

In 2015, the term “troll factory” appeared in the media for the first time. At that time journalists uncovered the existence of a 300-person troll factory in Saint Petersburg. Officially called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin headed the organization. Its employees were responsible for publishing posts online, primarily on social media, praising Russian President Putin and denouncing nations that do not support Russia.

Russia began investing modest sums in troll farms in 2014. Ambassador Sarah E. Mendelson, president of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Washington, D.C., stated that Putin had little interest in social media as a political tool prior to that time. Putin witnessed citizen protests against corruption, including his return to the presidency, in 2011 and 2012; these citizen uprisings grew spontaneously and organically through social media.

Russian troll farms find grievances in other countries and then interfere in the relevant conversations to inflame them. Rather than supporting a particular political viewpoint, professional Russian trolls focus on inflaming Americans’ emotions on contentious issues such as gun control and immigration and turning Americans against each other. The strategy is literally to divide and conquer. “They are not making up these details. They are amplifying existing conflicts on Facebook and Twitter,” Mendelson said. “It’s direct social marketing, using social media in a highly profitable way, and not too expensive for the amount of chaos they have created.”

“Internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk spent two months working undercover at the troll farm in 2015, creating fake social media accounts and writing blog posts meant to sow divisions in the US and turn Russians against Americans,” NPR reported in March 2018. “The factory worked 24 hours a day. There was a day shift, a night shift, and even shifts over the holidays. The factory worked every single second,” Savchuk told NPR.

Troll factory employees create false identities and manage their social media presence. It is necessary to make it appear that the account created is real; therefore, not only things related to the troll factory’s goal are posted here, but also materials that give credibility to a fictitious profile, such as information about private life. The profiles contain photos taken from pre-existing Internet archives altered to fool Internet search engines. Since the troll factory employs hundreds of people and each employee has multiple accounts, it is easy to build a social network that links fake profiles together and gives the appearance of a real network. The longer the accounts are kept, the easier it is to create the illusion of reality. The employees of troll factories often work in shifts so that their messages can be posted 24 hours a day.

The above-mentioned activities of Internet trolls are facilitated by bots, which are computer programs that automatically send messages, for example, in response to the appearance of a phrase. However, while the messages sent by bots are not very reliable and can easily be classified as spam (language problems, duplication of messages), the content transmitted by troll factories can appear more credible, making their disinformation efforts more effective.

Troll factory active again for Russian invasion

According to a study funded by the United Kingdom, trolls paid by the Putin government are trying to change public opinion in line with Russian rhetoric by waging information warfare on social media and in the comment sections of major media outlets. The report describes how the Russian president’s government uses trolls to post pro-Moscow statements on social media and in the comment sections of news websites. According to the researchers, the accounts of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell are among the trolls’ targets.

The activity was found on Twitter and Facebook, but it was mostly concentrated on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, where the study is limited. According to the report, TikTok influencers are paid to spread pro-Moscow stories. One of the strategies allegedly used by the trolls is to amplify actual statements made by legitimate social media users that agree with the Kremlin’s position in order to circumvent the platforms’ anti-disinformation mechanisms. A Telegram channel called “Cyber Front Z” is believed to play a crucial role in the network, with the letter Z representing Russian support for the conflict.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We cannot allow the Kremlin and its shady troll farms to invade our online spaces with their lies about Putin’s illegal war. The UK government has alerted international partners and will continue to work closely with allies and media platforms to undermine Russian information operations.”

Putin and Turkish elections

Although Russia and Turkey are seen as strategic partners due to the dirty and dark relations between Putin and Erdoğan, Turkey has always been a country that should be kept under control and monitored closely according to Russia. For this reason Russian intelligence is very active in Turkey. It has sufficient knowledge of the country’s social fabric, character and weaknesses, and most importantly, under which conditions voter behavior can change. The continuation of Erdoğan’s concessions to Putin and Turkey’s pro-Russian political stance depend on Erdoğan’s re-election. For this reason, Putin will do everything in his power to ensure that Erdoğan wins the presidential election scheduled for 2023. Troll farms and the Russian intelligence agency will be Putin’s two most essential tools for Erdoğan in the polls.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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