Turkey’s pro-gov’t ‘trolls’ hit hard in latest Twitter battle

Turkey’s pro-gov’t ‘trolls’ hit hard in latest Twitter battle

Turkey’s pro-gov’t ‘trolls’ hit hard in latest Twitter battle

A fiercely anti-Gülen user with more than 14,000 followers tweeted a picture of a jumping cat on April 3 that she jokingly described as a 'representation of the return of Esat Ç,' one of the most popular pro-government social media users whose account was suspended due to a massive spamming campaign by opposition supporters.

If the Lord of the Rings universe has the Battle of Helm’s Deep, the first epic clash in the famed Tolkien series, then Turkey’s highly polarized social media world has the virtual political battle of April 3, 2015.

Thousands of social media users who either supported or opposed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) engaged in a “spamming” war, which started April 3 and continued for at least two days, leading Twitter to suspend the accounts of many users who had hundreds of thousands of followers.

The first battle of the war was apparently won decisively by anti-government forces when immensely popular pro-government accounts, dubbed “AK Trolls” by the opposition, were suspended by the San Francisco-based platform.

Users with the Twitter handles Esat Ç. or @esatreis, @akkulis and @kuscu_e, were among the popular pro-government accounts suspended automatically by Twitter after they were flagged as spammers by thousands of users.

On April 4, pro-government users whose accounts were not suspended announced their new Twitter accounts, including Esat Ç.

Soon afterward, the new account @esatreis__ claimed the massive spam attack was started by the followers of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, the government’s erstwhile ally.

Although there is little doubt several pro-Gülen users spammed the pro-government accounts in the first hours of the attack, they were soon joined by other users from Turkey’s wide political spectrum.

“Spam Esat Ç., who had insulted the Alevi community,” one user tweeted, while another one, bearing the emblem of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), replied, “He had also told lies about the Gezi Park protests.”

Some pro-government users, on the other hand, claimed the new accounts, alleged to belong to a “social media phenomena” like Esat Ç., were actually decoys created by Gülenists themselves.

It was not immediately possible to identify the real users behind these accounts opened with aliases, but most of them, including almost all the pro-government ones, remained suspended as of April 5.

Although unprecedented in its scale and in the way that pro-government users suffered heavy losses, this is not the first time AKP supporters have engaged in a social media war with Gülenists.

In September 2013, Turkish media reported the AKP had formed a 6,000-strong team “to set the agenda, drive trends and counter its critics on social media.” At the time, more than 30 million Facebook users and almost 10 million Twitter users logged in from Turkey every day.

After the ground-breaking Dec. 17, 2013, corruption investigations, the fragile coalition between the AKP and the Gülenists collapsed into a war which spread to social media.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then Turkey’s Prime Minister, accused Gülenists of using fake Twitter accounts to manipulate public debate on social media. During his address to his party’s parliamentary group on Feb. 25, 2014, he also accused a “robot lobby” of targeting the government.

A study published by daily Radikal in November 2013 reported that, although smaller in number than the AKP, Gülenists had also created fake accounts to oppose the government’s move to shut down preparatory schools. Those accounts tweeted almost 10,000 times in one day, the report said.

As supporters of both the government and the opposition increased their organized activities only weeks before Turkey’s crucial local elections in March 2014, Twitter removed thousands of fake accounts in the country due to political “manipulation,” regardless of their party affiliation.

Even many pro-government Twitter users admit they lost the latest spamming battle due to a “heinous ambush” by Gülenists. They remain upbeat for a comeback, though.

Aylin Murathanoğlu, a fiercely anti-Gülen user with more than 14,000 followers, tweeted a picture of a jumping cat on April 3 that she described as a “representation of Esat Ç.’s return.”