Twitter moves to rein in ‘robot lobbies’ in Turkey

Twitter moves to rein in ‘robot lobbies’ in Turkey

Emre KIZILKAYA ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Twitter moves to rein in ‘robot lobbies’ in Turkey

Following a brief review of complaints in the past two weeks, the social media platform has decided to delete the “bot” accounts regardless of their political affiliation.

Twitter has started to remove fake accounts allegedly created in Turkey with “manipulative” political motives in recent months, daily Hürriyet has learned.
Following a brief review of complaints in the past two weeks, the social media platform has decided to delete the “bot” accounts regardless of their political affiliation.

Turkey’s tumultuous political debates have been moving to the Internet particularly since the Gezi Park protests last June when social media users and digital publicists played a key role.

Turkish media reported last September that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had formed a 6,000-strong team “to set the agenda, drive trends and counter its critics on social media," where more than 30 million Facebook users and almost 10 million Twitter users log in from Turkey every day.

With the ground-breaking Dec. 17, 2013, corruption investigations, not only the government, but also the opposition, focused their energy on social media where wiretapped phone calls were leaked and publicly debated in the first place.

The movement led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ally-turned-nemesis, Fethullah Gülen, is also implicated by allegations that Gülenists use fake Twitter accounts, too. A study published by daily Radikal last November reported that although smaller in number than the AKP, the Gülen movement has also created fake accounts to oppose the government’s move to shut down prep schools. Those accounts tweeted almost 10,000 times in one day, the report said.

Race to shape the trending topic list?

In the past three months, scores of hashtags in Turkey have been featured on the worldwide trending topic (TT) list on Twitter. Approximately half of them were pro-AKP and the other half was pro-Gülen or in support of opposition parties.

During his address to his party’s parliamentary group on Feb. 25, Erdoğan accused a “robot lobby” of targeting the government. “The robot lobby that they set up on social media hits with tweets. They tell them to increase the number of tweets,” he said.

As the March 30 local elections approach, the number of online leaks has risen dramatically – as have the number of Turkish fake accounts on Twitter.

Germany-based communication technology expert Dieter Leder investigated the allegations about politically motivated Turkish bots. According to Leder, there are individual humans behind some fake accounts, but many of them belong to a botnet, which is a collection of Internet-connected programs communicating with other similar programs in order to perform a task, like tweeting a hashtag at the same time to make it a worldwide trend.

“Don’t be surprised if you see a Turkish TV presenter, Megan Fox, Robbie Williams or an American porn star propagating for local election hashtags like #Beylikdüzünde641Proje (641 projects in Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü district). Because these fake accounts are automatically created by retrieving photos and names from real people’s profiles,” Leder said.

Ankara-based Dutch researcher Peter Nut, who also investigated the issue, claims that the total number of fake accounts or clones is over 6,000. “The botnet I monitor was created on Feb. 15-16. It started to support hashtags created for Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, a member of the ruling AKP, on Feb. 19,” Nut said.

'Spanish' followers of an opposition candidate

Hashtags driven by Turkish bots score “very high," according to Nut, while in Turkey they scored less high than the global ranking. “It leads me to the belief that some of the accounts were actually maintained from abroad. This suspicion is shared by the team of CHP’s mayoral candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavaş. After massive numbers of accounts with Spanish names started to follow their account, they suspected foul play, as one of their members told me by email,” Nut said, adding that the Yavaş team provided him with a video that shows those “Spanish” followers (See video below).

It should also be noted that 68 percent of over 168,000 followers of Yavaş’s own account is fake and another 20 percent is inactive, according to the figures provided by Same website says that only 26 percent of the followers of Mayor Melih Gökçek, the opponent of Yavaş, is real. A paid, more popular application called SocialBakers, on the other hand, finds out that 78 percent of Yavaş's followers are real. The same figure is only 47 percent for Gökçek's followers.

But who are the masterminds and the financers of these political bot campaigns?

As long as Twitter does not share all data on fake accounts, it is difficult to reach a definitive conclusion at this stage, because of the Internet’s nature which is “anonymous-friendly.”

Turkish PR agencies which appear to be linked to the botnets, like Istanbul-based SMG Ajans, strongly deny any involvement. Another “digital media” agency, Stüdyo 28 based in the small Black Sea province of Giresun, has inactive phone numbers and a mere postal code listed on its website, accompanying a map that shows its headquarters in New York City.

'The collapse of the perception empire'

Twitter, on the other hand, has declined to comment. Two sources in the San Francisco-based company, however, have confirmed to Hürriyet that the fake accounts in question are now being taken down regardless of their political affiliation. Through corroborating evidence in their studies, Leder and Nut have affirmed the news. “The January botnet is gone. All accounts are suspended. The February botnet is still active and currently running,” Leder said.

And what will happen now? How will the political actors react?

Süleyman Soylu, the AKP’s deputy chairman in charge of R&D, did not respond to Hürriyet’s request for a comment, while CHP deputy chairman Umut Oran sent the following response:

“I’m not surprised by Twitter’s move. I am pleased about it. A robot army is what the AKP wants and expects, because it’s made of individuals that don’t ask questions, but just carry out the order. The AKP has come to power by controlling perceptions and now we’re witnessing the collapse of this ‘perception empire.' The collapse is accelerated by the fact that they are now cross with some of their former allies, because of the Dec. 17 investigation,” he said.