Tweet or treat?
Authoritarian leaders don’t just hate social media. They also use it as a tool for silencing activists, spreading propaganda
Arzu Geybulla, a journalist and blogger in Turkey, wasn’t entirely surprised when she became a subject of an intimidation campaign on social media on an October night.
“When you have a voice and saying something [that] officials don’t like there will always be ways of getting back at you. Especially in countries where regimes are not necessarily democratic… This is why I wasn’t surprised when I was virtually attacked,“ Geybulla said in an interview.
Dozens of tweets posted by users from Turkey and Azerbaijan initially accused the blogger in working for the next-door neighbors — Armenians, who are seen as “historic enemies” in both countries.
Soon, the accusations were replaced with “aggressive and insulting language,” as Geybulla puts it, followed by series of hostile articles by pro-government media attacking her family, friends and then… death threats.
“I have been scrutinized for many years now, pretty much since I started blogging. The death threat though was something new… That I never experienced, so imagine my surprise when I received the first death threat via Facebook,” she said.
The threat came from Turkey, where Geybulla, a native of Azerbaijan, has for many years leaved, worked as an activist and journalist focusing on regional cooperation topics, including Turkish-Armenian rapprochement.
One of the media outlets that she regularly contributes for is called “Agos,” a newspaper that was once lead by a prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007.
In most of her recent blog posts though Geybulla was primarily criticizing Turkish and Azeri governments over lack of democratic reforms in both countries and especially their ongoing crackdown against local and foreign civil society groups and activists, which the blogger’s supporters believe, might have been the reason why she is targeted now.
Geybulla is the latest case in Turkey where local government officials often claimed to be part of “Twitter fights” against a wide array of critics, anti-government activists, and even Twitter itself.
“The rulers of Turkey, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself clearly don’t like social media, especially Twitter, but when they realize that they can’t prevent it, they do their best to use it against critics, especially journalists. Unfortunately, this has been a long policy now,” Ilhan Tanir, Washington correspondent for the Turkish daily Vatan, said in an interview.
Recently though the government officials frequently target female reporters in particular.
In August, then PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly attacked a prominent journalist Amberin Zaman, a correspondent for The Economist, calling her “shameless militant” for remarks she made that the PM condemned as an “insult” to Muslims as well as members of his constituency. Zaman later became a subject of smear campaign on Twitter as the PM’s words spread on social media.
This came just months after a high level official of ruling party, Ankara Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gokcek described BBC Turkish reporter Selin Girit as an “English agent”, launching a campaign against her on Twitter.
Geybulla, who was recently included into the BBC’s 100Women of 2014 list, said, like her colleagues, she preferred “not to fight back” on virtual stage against her attackers, leaving their campaign as “an offensive, one-sided heavy-handed attack rather than war.”
“I knew this was a campaign against me… Given the depressing situation back home and how government is targeting independent voices in the most disgusting and filthy ways I was not surprised. They always need a scapegoat to get attention away from the reality so that’s what they do,” she said.
“Official team” for digital propaganda?
Ceren Sozeri, a communications professor at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, said, even though president Erdogan “doesn’t really like Twitter,” his party is using social media for propaganda “like everyone else.“
“It is said that there is a team who were in charge of social media, particularly Twitter,“ she said in an interview.
Erdogan, she added, once called social media “the worst menace to society” and moreover, most recently he said, he was “increasingly against” Internet.
Several government officials, including ruling Justice and Development Party members contacted by the author, refused to comment on this topic.
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based senior fellow for the John Hopkins University Silk Road Studies Programme’s Turkey Initiative, said, Turkish leaders only “really see Twitter as a menace to society” when people use it to criticize the president or publicize damaging allegations of corruption about him, his family and other leading members of the ruling party.
Most recently, last week a local prosecutor in southeastern Anatolia region filed a suit against a well-known journalist Mehmet Baransu for “insulting and blackmailing” President Erdogan on Twitter.
“But, yes, it is true that Erdogan’s party has been organizing volunteers to tweet on its behalf. It is the only political organization in Turkey that does so,” Jenkins said in an interview.
In the meantime, Jenkins added, Turkish rulers reportedly use “different kinds of digital media a lot,” not just Twitter.
“They do things such as posting videos on YouTube, using websites for their campaign songs and making sure that they are all well-publicized,” he said.
That, actually, helps blogger Geybulla to identify the government propagandists in digital area. As she describes them, “usually they have very few followers and have not tweeted much. And if they had they are some kind of propaganda tweets.”
But this shouldn’t mean that most of the attacks from such kind of hired accounts. Geybulla said some of her attackers were users who “knew their way around on Twitter.”
Fake accounts, propaganda photos, and more
Erdogan is not the only world leader that is using digital media as a tool for silencing activists and spreading propaganda.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, according to many digital analysts, has used an invisible army of social media propagandists, in addition to conventional media, to support his narrative of an out-of-control Ukraine, to spread fabrications of atrocities by Ukrainian extremists, and to unleash destabilizing rumors in east Ukraine.
In Chechnya, officials reportedly control citizens’ Facebook accounts, sometimes to post conspicuously pro-regime content. President Ramzan Kadyrov has his own Instagram account where he posts pictures of how he meets with celebrities or how he is involved in charity work, etc.
Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, Uzbekitsan’s Islam Karimov, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev etc., keep citing the increased number of Facebook users in their countries as a sign of freedom of Internet and freedom of speech. In the meantime, they have reportedly been able to establish their own “digital armies” to, actually, mislead the social world.
What other tactics are the authoritarian governments using online to revamp their negative image?
Blogger Geybulla said, usually there are “links and statements that counter the criticism… That’s about all that’s possible apart from the usual badmouthing and online intimidation.“
Dr. Katy Pearce, an assistant professor in the department of communication at the university of Washington, who specializes in technology and media use in the former Soviet Union, said the authoritarian regimes are using social media “likes” as a quantified way of demonstrating support.
“This is why they buy fake Twitter accounts. This is why they love posting photos on Facebook and Instagram. It shows any competitor or doubter that, in fact, “the people” support the regime,” she said in an interview.
This is also a way for them to reach people in an “authentic” way — photos of leaders with the children and pets or seeing leaders doing charitable things are very compelling — even in democracies, Dr. Pearce added.
One needs to think about what social media can do for an authoritarian leader, she said.
The political scientist Ed Schatz argues that an authoritarian regime maintains social control in 5 ways:
· It boasts that it has extensive support.
· It controls non-supporters through material enticements.
· Those not influenced by material considerations face blackmail, harassment, and coercion.
· The regime carefully controls information flows while allowing the opposition limited access to media that generally reach small audiences.
· The regime employs discursive preemption, staging political drama to undermine opponents’ ability to grow support.
According to Dr. Pearce, while social media is the “best” thing to ever happen to blackmail, similarly, social media makes it very easy for regimes to highlight or create political drama and undermine opponents.
Given all of this, she said, “it is no wonder that some authoritarian regimes love social media.”
But then why do some, like in Turkey, block it or frame it negatively in the media?
Dr. Pearce said, “they probably want to keep more people off of it. Elites are already online, but the regimes do fear the possibility of oppositionists reaching the masses… Talking badly about social media helps keep non-elites offline.”
One also needs to think about cost. As Dr. Pearce puts it, there are both technical solutions (buying equipment to filter and monitor content) with ongoing maintenance costs, but there are also humans that sit and monitor social media activity.
“Some regimes can afford to buy “digital armies” and some cannot afford it. But once a regime realizes that the return on investment is worthwhile, they will start to invest,” she said.