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Twitter removes over 7,000 'fake and compromised' accounts linked to Turkey

The Turkish government accuses Twitter of 'black propaganda' after it removes pro-government account network
A Twitter logo on a mobile phone, in Arlington, Virginia (AFP)

Twitter has deleted thousands of "fake and compromised" accounts set up to promote the Turkish government and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In a statement released on Friday, the social media giant announced that 7,340 accounts linked to Turkey were being suspended as part of a clampdown on "state-linked information operations", along with a similar clearing out of Russian and Chinese linked accounts.

"Detected in early 2020, this network of accounts was employing coordinated inauthentic activity, which was primarily targeted at domestic audiences within Turkey," read the statement.

"Based on our analysis of the network’s technical indicators and account behaviors, the collection of fake and compromised accounts was being used to amplify political narratives favorable to the AK Party, and demonstrated strong support for President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan."

They said that the evidence pointed to a centralised network of accounts associated with the AKP's youth wing.

A number of accounts linked to organisations critical of the Turkish government had also been "repeated targets of account hacking and takeover efforts by the state actors identified above" and were thus removed.

The news provoked a furious reaction from Turkish presidential spokesman Fahrettin Altun, who accused Twitter of promoting "black propaganda" by enemies of Turkey with a mind to "redesign" Turkish politics.

"We would like to remind this company of the eventual fate of a number of organisations that attempted to take similar steps in past."

Turkey has had a tumultuous relationship with Twitter - the government banned the website in 2014, though the ban was lifted a few weeks later after a court ruling.

According to Twitter, Turkey accounts for the majority of content removal requests on the site.

Online astroturfing

In a post on Thursday, the Stanford Internet Observatory analysed the range of accounts that Twitter suspended.

They found that Turkish tweets revolved around criticism of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) - associating them with "terrorism" - and the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP).

Other focuses included promoting the 2017 constitutional referendum and supporting Turkish military operations in Syria.

'If these networks were encouraged by the party, it could suggest elites are using seemingly antagonistic astroturfing to increase the legitimacy of impending policy change'

- Stanford Internet Observatory

Among the authentic social media accounts most frequently referenced in the tweets were those of Erdogan (with 1.7 million mentions or retweets), finance minister and Erdogan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak and former Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek.

The hashtags #CumhurbaskaniErdogan and its English equivalent #PresidentErdogan were used almost 13,000 times in the dataset provided by Twitter. Hashtags such as #ErdoganIsTheLeaderOfTheWorld and #SeddeliFasistCHP ("two faced fascist CHP") were also frequently used.

Perhaps most peculiarly, a number of the accounts mentioned in the data released by Twitter appear to have been impersonating businessman Elon Musk. One fake Elon Musk account attracted 177,741 followers. The Stanford white paper suggested these had been set up for "financial gain" rather than political motivation.

The Turkish government's use of social media as a political battleground dates back many years.

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that the AKP was recruiting a 6,000-strong social media team to push a pro-government narrative, mainly on Twitter and Facebook, and counter "disinformation" about the ruling party by the opposition.

The initiative came in response to the 2013 Gezi Park protests that saw millions of people - particularly those from a younger, internet-savvy demographic - taking to the streets in opposition to Erdogan's rule.

The Stanford Internet Observatory said that still active accounts linked to the pro-AKP networks should be monitored to see what they prioritise going forward.

"If these networks were encouraged by the party, it could suggest elites are using seemingly antagonistic astroturfing – messaging that pretends to be grassroots – to increase the legitimacy of impending policy change and make the government appear to be more responsive to citizens," it said.