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Demos vs. state in the digital arena: the case of Turkey

TurciaNet
©wikipedia.org 

Ever since the appearance of the Internet and the advancement of the World Wide Web, in the 1990s, it was generally thought that they would decisively contribute to the global democratisation of information. And this they initially did, the demos all over the world gaining unprecedented access to an immense variety of information in all fields of human thinking and action. However, governments and inter-governmental organisations also entered this digital arena and their first instinct was to try to control it.

The and arrival the digital troops in the brave new world

The People's Republic of China pioneered a model of government-sponsored, repressive actorship designed to use Internet tools in the interests of that state and against citizens. Armies of millions of so-called "digital troops" serve nowadays the agenda of the communist regime. One team of researchers has demonstrated in 2017 that those troops monitor and report any kind of dissent. At that time, they were also capable of flooding social media and the internet in general with around half a billion fake news per year, most of them designed to counter alternative, citizens' narratives about various policy areas. And the Chinese archetype was replicated by other non-democratic regimes.

Although North Koreans' access to the Internet and social media is close to none, the authorities in Pyongyang use hundreds of “digital troops” to promote a paradisiac image of that totalitarian regime and discredit South Korea and other “capitalist” foes.

Russia also employs several thousands of such agents. They are busy to discredit the domestic opposition, NATO and the European Union, while promoting a positive image of Putin and his regime in digital news and social media. Although relatively less advanced technologically, the two non-democratic regimes indicated above follow the Chinese logic of controlling potential popular dissent. In effect, they impact negatively individual freedoms, especially the freedom of thought and expression.

Turkey also falls into this category (details below), but “digital troops” can also be found in democratic countries, such as the UK, Israel, or Ukraine among many others, where they serve the respective governmental agendas.

The Internet is not only the venue used by autocratic regimes for their propaganda – it is also a tool used by those challenging them. And the regimes know that all too well. In the Mediterranean region, the digital social media was decisively used by large masses in North Africa and the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring movement. It all started in December 2010, when people organised online to gather in Tunis to protest against the government following the public suicide by fire of an impoverished vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouzazizi. Massive anti-governmental rallies spread throughout the region over the next months until 2012, leaving behind ongoing civil wars in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, plus a crisis and a coup in Egypt. Authoritarian regimes in the region responded with strategies for controlling and manipulating digital news and social media.

Turkey: the authoritarian state is claiming the digital arena

 One of the most advanced on this path is the AKP-Erdoğan regime, in power in Turkey since November 2002. After the shock of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, when mass rallies were organised around the country on social media, the government became increasingly authoritarian. Soon, an office with around 6000 “social media representatives was established with the mission to promote the AKP perspective and fight critics.

Seven years later, in June 2020, the Internet Observatory at Stanford University published an analysis of a Twitter operation in which 7,340 Turkish accounts were taken down. It was found that those accounts, most of them fake, were responsible for almost 37 million tweets critical of all opposition parties and supporting the government's narratives about operations in Northern Syria and the AKP-Erdoğan proposition for a presidential system in the 2017 referendum. Such campaigns are accompanied by lynching operations directed against critics of governmental institutions, officials and policies.

Thus, thousands of journalists, university teachers and students, and many artists have been subjected to massive social harassment campaigns, many of them being forced to renounce their careers. All this is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of purges and arrests that followed the failed coup of July 2016 and to the almost 130,000 people, including over 900 children, prosecuted for "insulting the President of the Republic" (Article 299 in the Turkish Penal Code).

Over the last years, the government also developed new capabilities and used state institutions to increase control of the domestic digital arena, with restrictive legislation adopted and implemented to that end. By October 2020, according to the last Engelliweb (Eng. "disabled web") monitoring report, the government had blocked more than 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs and 42,000 tweets in Turkey.

And repression will increase with the gradual application of the new social media law, which entered force on October 1, 2020. The name of that legal act is “Law on the Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publications” (Law no. 5651/2020). As the name suggests, it does not refer only to social media, but to any internet-based form of communication, making it subject to the country's draconic anti-terrorism laws and judicial practices. The history of implementation shows that prosecutors tend to use the vague definitions of terrorism in those laws to actually criminalise most forms of dissent.

Under Law no. 5651/2020, all social media platforms with more than 1 million users daily must have a legal representative in Turkey. With physical representatives on Turkish soil, the respective platforms will have to execute court orders. In a country where justice has been subordinated to the executive power under the presidential system since 2018, this means that social media platforms will actually have to implement the Turkish government's policy about whatever it designates as terrorist and terrorism. At the moment of writing, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Facebook have initiated the process of appointing representatives in Turkey. Those who have not yet done so (Twitter, Periscope, Pinterest and others) face bandwidth reductions of 50, then 9 per cent and bans for commercial advertising on the respective platforms. In effect, they have to either obey, or simply disappear from an important market.

Turkish Cyber Forces fighting alternative narratives

Given that the government already controls more than 90 per cent of the mainstream media in Turkey, alternative narratives to governmental versions of each and every event will be increasingly difficult to produce and access. This, in turn, may drastically aggravate the legitimacy crisis that the state has experienced ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s.

Imagined by the elites of the time as a homogenous political construction that had to be imposed on the highly diverse demos, the Republic has remained ever since a highly contested form of authority. Millions of conservative Muslims, Kurds, Alevis, and other minorities simply did not fit into the definition of the nation by the new, ethnocratic state. The result is a never-ending conflict between the state and its own citizens, on multiple levels. The imposition of the governmental hegemony in the digital arena, under the AKP-Erdoğan regime, can only aggravate this conflict because it simply leaves no room for demotic dissent and alternative conceptions of things. Of anything.

Take, for instance, the protests at the Bosphorus University in Istanbul against the appointment by President Erdoğan of a new Rector by virtue of his sweeping powers conferred under the presidential system. Having been accused with clear evidence of multiple acts of plagiarism, the appointed Rector Melih Bulu is a person with an academic record far below ordinary academic standards, let alone those for becoming the Rector of the country's most prestigious university.

From the first day of the protests, on January 4, the Turkish media initiated a massive campaign propagating the idea that foreign powers, especially the United Kingdom, supported the protesters. Using the fact that the BBC and The Economist evidenced the brutal police response to protests, the staunchly pro-government AHaber claimed that the UK itself supported the protests and the "chaos plan" (kaos planı).

This narrative was replicated in many other pro-government media outlets and the regime's trolls also propagated the same narrative on social media, while also discrediting the academics and students involved in protests. In the end, most Turks were therefore exposed to the government's version of things and may have failed to understand the legitimacy of the protests by academics and students trying to defend the values and prestige of their University.

The same logic applies in another interesting case. On January 13, the hacking group Anka Neferler Tim claimed responsibility for the crash of the websites of Kati Piri and the Dutch Labour Party that she represents in the European Parliament. Piri is a former rapporteur of the European Parliament on Turkey's EU membership who repeatedly called on Ankara to free political prisoners and respect human rights and freedoms.

The hacking group, described in its very logo as Turkish Cyber Forces (Türk Siber Kuvvetleri), claimed it crashed the respective websites because Kati Piri supported "the provocateurs from Bosphorus [University]" and "the terrorist Selo". The "provocateurs" are academics and students protesting the appointment of the new Rector. The terrorist "Selo" is former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş. He has been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 under yet unsubstantiated accusations of cooperation with the terrorist organisation PKK and a condemnation has not been issued yet. However, the pro-government media and "digital troops" continue their campaign of demonising Demirtaş, his family and the HDP.

Taking over the Internet in the interest of state authority

Although clear evidence is extremely difficult to find regarding the Turkish government's institutional involvement, it is beyond doubt that the "digital troops" involved promoted in fact Ankara's narrative in those two and many other similar cases. They are therefore illustrative of how a regime uses the digital arena to impose its own views about specific issues as to (1) discredit any alternative narrative and (2) discredit opponents to the governmental versions of things.

And, while hoping for the contrary, I do not think governmental control over the digital arena will ever diminish in Turkey. Neither the current regime, nor subsequent ones will renounce such control because it serves the (superior) state authority that is at the foundation of that political system. On the contrary, like in many other cases, the institutional control may actually increase. Sadly, citizens may eventually find no reason for participating with their inputs about politics and policies. Such development would certainly aggravate the crisis of legitimacy that has marked the entire history of the Turkish state, with consequences impossible to calculate.

Tags: mass-media, Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

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  • Ever since the appearance of the Internet and the advancement of the World Wide Web, in the 1990s, it was generally thought that they would decisively contribute to the global democratisation of information. And this they initially did, the demos all over the world gaining unprecedented access to an immense variety of information in all fields of human thinking and action. However, governments and inter-governmental organisations also entered this digital arena and their first instinct was to try to control it.
  • The Internet is not only the venue used by autocratic regimes for their propaganda – it is also a tool used by those challenging them. And the regimes know that all too well.
  • Given that the government already controls more than 90 per cent of the mainstream media in Turkey, alternative narratives to governmental versions of each and every event will be increasingly difficult to produce and access. This, in turn, may drastically aggravate the legitimacy crisis that the state has experienced ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s.
  • Neither the current regime, nor subsequent ones will renounce such control because it serves the (superior) state authority that is at the foundation of that political system. On the contrary, like in many other cases, the institutional control may actually increase.
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