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Turkey introduces app to combat online ‘disinformation’ in wake of major earthquake

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The Turkish government has introduced a smartphone application allowing users to report people who are believed to have produced or disseminated fake news or disinformation online as the country grapples with the repercussions of a powerful earthquake, local media reported on Tuesday.

Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun in the early hours of Tuesday announced that the application called “Disinformation Reporting Service” was made available for download on both iOS and Android devices.

“You can download our application to your phone and report the news produced and spread about the earthquake disaster that you think is suspicious/fake,” Altun said.

Turkey’s most powerful earthquake in almost 100 years struck near the city of Gaziantep, which is home to around 2 million people and on the border with Syria, on Monday, killing more than 5,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria.

The 7.8-magnitude quake, which struck as people were still sleeping, was followed by dozens of aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude tremor that jolted the region in the middle of search and rescue work on the same day.

The application comes after opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists, who have been reporting on the latest situation, mostly from regions affected by the earthquake, accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of poor performance in coordinating search and rescue efforts after the massive quakes.

The government is mainly accused of failing to mobilize enough people for the efforts and lack of coordination among the teams, which resulted in civilians in some regions trying to pull their loved ones from under the rubble themselves and finding them frozen to death although they sustained no critical injuries in the collapse.

Many social media users also complained about the lack of basic necessities, such as water, blankets and tents as well as medical supplies.

 Erdoğan says ‘keeping note of lies of distortion’

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who on Tuesday announced a state of emergency for the 10 provinces affected by the quake, said he was “keeping note of all the lies and distortions and will open his notebook when the time comes.”

Erdoğan’s remarks have been interpreted by many as an attempt to silence criticism against his government due to what they say is its poor response to the disaster.

“This vengeful motif is definitely a theme of the AKP response. It seems the AKP is far more concerned about what people say about the response than they are about the response itself. … I don’t think this is a narrative they can control, even with all the aggressive threats,” Twitter user Can Okar added.

A “disinformation” law, which cements the government’s already-firm grip on social media platforms and news websites while criminalizing the sharing of information, was approved by parliament with the votes of the ruling AKP and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in October, although it was vehemently opposed by Turkey’s main opposition groups.

The legislation, which came only seven months before a general election for which President Erdoğan is trailing in the polls, was described by critics from within and without Turkey as yet another attack on free speech in the country.

Criticism of the bill mainly focuses on Article 29, which amends the Turkish Penal Code by adding a provision (Article 217/A) that would subject persons found guilty of publicly disseminating “false or misleading information” to between one and three years in prison and would increase by half the penalty for offenders who hide their identity or act on behalf of an organization.

The AKP government has been relentless in its crackdown on critical media outlets, particularly after a coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

As an overwhelming majority of the country’s mainstream media has come under government control over the last decade, Turks have taken to social media and smaller online news outlets for critical voices and independent news.

Turks are already heavily policed on social media, and many have been charged with insulting President Erdoğan or his ministers, or criticism related to foreign military incursions and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

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