Did trolls play a role in demotion of AKP strongman?

Did trolls play a role in demotion of AKP strongman?

The deputy chair in charge of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) organization has been ousted surprisingly, leading to questions in my mind about whether the party’s controversial social media strategy played a role in his demise.

During the AKP’s congress on Sept. 12, Süleyman Soylu was re-elected to the party’s 50-member decision-making committee, the MKYK, with the lowest number of votes compared to all other candidates. 

Worse than that for his career, he was not selected for the 21-member executive committee, the MYK, in which he was in charge of the party’s organization. Mustafa Ataş, an AKP co-founder and a long-time aide of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, replaced Soylu in this top job.

Soylu, who had been a career politician in center-right parties until 2009, joined the AKP in 2012 by Erdoğan’s invitation and always stayed close to him. In 2012, he became the party’s deputy chair for R&D and in 2014, its organizational leader. 

Both of Soylu’s jobs were closely linked to the AKP’s social media strategy, which was seen by ruling party leaders as increasingly important following the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013. And how was this strategy developed? Let’s take a look at the chronology first:

- May-June 2013: 31,000,000 Facebook users and 7,200,000 million tweeters in Turkey turned to social media to be informed about the Gezi Park protests, which were censored by a large portion of traditional media due to government pressure. An Ebrandvalue search showed that during that time, there were 85 social media users opposing the government for each social media user supporting it.

- September 2013: The digital organization of AKP youth branches was overseen by Soylu, even before the Gezi Park protests. After the protests, however, the AKP formed a 6,000-strong digital team to forge public opinion on the Internet too.

- October 2013: Journalists have been a frequent target of massive networks of trolls and bots. I personally discovered pro-AKP trolls in October 2013 when I was targeted by a torrent of abuse on Twitter over my article for Hürriyet, which criticized the Turkish government over its handling of a hostage crisis in Lebanon. 

- December 2013: Two corruption investigations that implicated the government increased the scale and aggression of the pro-AKP trolls. Turkish media reported claims alleging that Erdoğan’s advisor, Mustafa Varank, was in charge of them. He neither denied nor confirmed the claim.

- March 2014: Twitter removed thousands of Turkish bot accounts with “manipulative” motives days before local elections. Hours after my story was published in Hürriyet Daily News, Erdoğan vowed to “eradicate” Twitter and the government blocked access to the social media network.

- May 2015: Following its successes in local and presidential elections of 2014, the AKP decided that its social media activities should be “put in order” before the general election. AKP spokesman Beşir Atalay opened the party’s “New Turkey Digital Office” in Istanbul where some 200 people produce pro-AKP online content.

- August 2015: After it lost its single party majority in the parliament, the AKP began in soul-searching. Due its massive but highly disorganized pool of online supporters, a cadre of uncontrollable trolls had also emerged. Even Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu felt uncomfortable. And party heavyweights, including Atalay, called for a stop of trolls’ online abuse.

- September 2015: Daily Hürriyet’s Istanbul headquarters was pelted with stones twice in 48 hours. The first attack on Sept. 6 came after pro-AKP trolls’ provocative calls. AKP deputy Abdürrahim Boynukalın, known for his controversial tweets, joined the protest. He heads AKP’s youth organization in Istanbul, which was overseen by Soylu until the congress where Soylu was replaced and Boynukalın was elected to the steering committee.

Soylu’s removal may or may not lead to a significant change in AKP’s social media strategy and fate of pro-AKP trolls, which the party has always tried to distance itself from, officially. The fact that Soylu received the lowest number of votes within the party could be related to the trolls who have recently been targeting some AKP figures too. However, more important than social media, Soylu has become a target in the party over perceived failures in the selection of deputies and members of grassroots organizations.

Soylu never returned my calls, but an AKP insider told me that Davutoğlu has been sincere in his support to intra-party attempts to get rid of trolls for the good. However, the source also stressed that figures close to Erdoğan, not Davutoğlu, have been selected to the AKP’s new executive board. Their stance will be decisive.