Any journalist or commentator who is critical of Turkey‘s foreign policy or who appears to cover groups such as Kurds has gotten used to being subjected to social-media abuse, particularly on Twitter, by pro-Turkish accounts over the past few years.
Most of these accounts appear to be fake, have only a few dozen or hundreds of followers and tend to retweet the same information, usually speeches of the president of Turkey or militarist slogans.
In June, more than 7,000 Twitter accounts were linked to Turkey’s ruling party. Since then, the army of social-media accounts that cheer Turkey’s invasions and threats against Israel, the UAE, Greece, Armenia and other countries appears to have grown again. Evidence for the number of these accounts shows the systematic harassment of reporters who follow Turkey, dissidents from Turkey and anyone who is critical of the president of Turkey or the recent involvement of Ankara in the war against Armenia.
The accounts have certain commonalities. Most include images from Turkey’s history, including sultans such as Abdul Hamid II or sometimes symbols linked to far-right groups in Turkey such as the Grey Wolves. The accounts almost always include Turkish flags as symbols, similar to right-wing pro-Trump Twitter users who use the American flag in their tweets and profiles on social media.
A new trend in Ankara’s troll army is that the users will include Azerbaijani flags and those of other countries they consider allies, namely, other Muslim states that have a similar crescent flag as Turkey, such as Libya. They don’t seem to use the Malaysian flag because it includes stripes similar to the America’s Stars and Stripes.
The pro-Ankara social-media harassment campaign has also begun to target accounts in the UAE that support Israel-UAE relations or that are critical of Turkey. For instance, a recent post by a popular account in the UAE received dozens of apparently coordinated replies by the pro-Turkey army.
One said, “We’re coming for you.” Another wrote, “There is a saying in the world, strong like a Turk.” Another included just a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the word “Reis.” One, with a Pakistani flag as a symbol, replied, “Ottoman Empire.” Another wrote, “Your turn will come too, you should be afraid.” A fourth account posted the Turkish, Pakistani and Azerbaijan flags.
Other accounts said the UAE is an “American puppet,” and one seemingly more creative one posted a photo of a hot pepper with a Turkish flag. The terminology “your turn will come” was common among many of them. Some wrote this phrase in Turkish or in English and with the Turkish flag at the end. References to the Ottoman Empire were also common.
It does not seem reasonable to conclude that so many people all replied to this one tweet with similar replies and nationalist flags, but rather that Ankara is operating a sophisticated social-media operation that has become more extreme over time. Where it once supported the ruling party, it has increasingly targeted any critics abroad, including journalists. This includes direct threats, such as saying that critics are “terrorists” who will be executed with MAM-L missiles, the kind carried by Turkish Bayraktar drones.
Ankara uses social media to harass critics and showcase Turkish drone strikes. These images apparently are designed to help drone sales, as Ankara has become one of the world leaders in armed-drone production and has used its Bayraktars in Syria, Libya and, in the hands of Azerbaijan, against Armenia. It has recently said it will sell them to Ukraine.
So far, Ankara has avoided the criticism the US received for drone strikes, including accusations of extrajudicial killings when its drones targeted Kurdish unarmed female activists in Syria.
Reports indicate that since 2014, Twitter has also suspended accounts at the request of the Turkish government. An article at the Committee to Protect Journalists notes that Turkey’s regime “silences journalists online, one removal request at a time.” It noted that a Turkish journalist was silenced in Turkey, one of the 1.5 million tweets belonging to journalists and media outlets censored under Twitter’s “country withheld content” policy.
Ankara uses legal demands to get content removed or make it so that people in Turkey can’t see it. Basically, anything that is critical of Turkey or its ruling party may be targeted.
Turkey is a member of NATO but has become one of the more repressive countries in the world in recent years, sentencing people to long prison terms for critiquing the government on Twitter, removing 60 mayors from the opposition HDP Party and seizing assets of critical journalists. The country is the largest jailer of journalists.
Censoring tweets, getting accounts removed and harassing critics online are methods that appear to be deployed in an increasingly aggressive manner. This combines using the tools of the West’s freedom of expression against it by getting Western-based social-media companies to remove content of critics but to continue hosting the pro-government propaganda media of Ankara. For instance, while Twitter labels Russian and Chinese media as state-affiliated media, it does not label Turkey’s state-backed Turkish Radio and Television Corporation or other media as such.
Ankara’s social-media army appears to back whichever foreign policy the government is about to unleash each week. One week it supports claims in the Mediterranean or bashes Egypt and Libyan fighters; another week it attacks Armenia, Israel or the UAE. Opposition to Israel and the UAE are key to Ankara’s new foreign policy, and it appears the social-media campaign of “your turn will come” or “we are coming for you” is part of that.
In recent months, Turkey’s presidential office has said it will “liberate” al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and said, “Jerusalem is ours.” Israeli officials have warned that Turkey is destabilizing the region, hosting Hamas and escalating its threats.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.