If Turkey's pro-government social media trolls were a corporation, their stock would have dropped dramatically over the past three months. Having popped up a couple of years ago as a fresh political startup, promising much to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), they have since experienced a slow and painful decline.
In September 2013, the ruling AKP formed a 6,000-strong team to set the political agenda, drive trends and counter its critics on social media as part of its response to the anti-government Gezi Park protests that shook Turkish streets via Facebook and Twitter as well as on the ground. The initiative, the first of its kind for the AKP, relied heavily on the participation of its youth branches and municipal administrations.
It proved difficult to organize early on and was rather ineffective. For instance, to push a hashtag onto Twitter's international trending list, hundreds of young AKP members and municipal officers had to be online at a given moment — scheduled by party headquarters — tweeting at the same time.
As the AKP's relations with the Gulenist movement soured, the party kick-started a more concerted effort to amplify its influence on social media, hiring expertise from outside the party and wooing “phenomenal” accounts, that is, ones with thousands or millions of followers.
Meanwhile, the AK Trolls, another pro-AKP network of social media users, appeared. Thousands of anonymous accounts, controlled by humans and bots, launched a new mission — intimidating online figures who publicly criticized the government. In November 2013, I wrote in Al-Monitor about how they had targeted me because of my criticism of the AKP's foreign policy.
On March 20, 2014, the day I reported in the Hurriyet Daily News that Twitter had removed thousands of bot accounts in Turkey, many of them AK Trolls, the government blocked access to the social media site. The move came hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “eradicate” Twitter.
In the following months, the pro-AKP bots were quickly replaced. Meanwhile, most anti-AKP bots — fewer in number, not as well organized and with less financial resources — permanently left the battlefield. The lead up to the March 30 local elections represented the heyday of the AK Trolls. The AKP would win the elections, and Erdogan would triumph in the presidential balloting held Aug. 10.
The pro-AKP social media network, with its centralized decision-making mechanism, had apparently become efficient. A 2015 special report on Turkey by the Vienna-based International Press Institute, asserted, “Critics say these ‘AK Trolls’ have become a de facto, online government army capable of manipulating public opinion through anonymous accounts — an army that regularly engages in harassment and intimidation.”
Nobody would have predicted that things would turn upside down for the AK Trolls soon thereafter, but it did, and rather quickly, due to two major changes — a major reshuffling inside the AKP that created rifts within its leadership and the AKP's dive in the polls ahead of this year's June 7 general elections.
After winning the presidency, Erdogan resigned from his party, in line with Turkey's constitution, and transferred a number of his advisers to the presidential palace before the selection of Ahmet Davutoglu as his successor to lead the party and the government. These decisions, as well as the void left by the all-powerful Erdogan's retreat from active politics (at least on paper), resulted in unprecedented competition within the AKP, with new alliances and hostilities developing. The process of creative destruction was furthered by numerous leading party members being prohibited from seeking re-election to parliament after Erdogan had decided to uphold a party rule establishing a maximum of three consecutive terms for AKP deputies.
The first signs of out-of-control AK Trolls appeared earlier this year, when some of them began to target competing AKP figures and top bureaucrats, calling some of them “traitors” because of their differences of opinion on various policy issues with other AKP figures to whom they had pledged allegiance. Seeing the emerging problem, AKP headquarters took the first step to “legitimize” its online presence by opening an official digital office in Istanbul on May 8.
Some 200 people work in the New Turkey Digital Office, inaugurated by then-Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, producing pro-AKP content and distributing it through official social media channels. “There is no personnel called ‘AK Trolls’ in the New Turkey Digital Office,” said office director Gokhan Yucel at the time.
Claims suggesting that several AK Trolls were employed in public institutions as a reward for their online services have not thus far been proven. Others are reportedly on the payrolls of public relations firms close to the government, earning monthly salaries ranging from 800 to 4,000 Turkish liras ($267 to $1,336).
A so-called phenomenal social media user with tens of thousands of followers who had anonymously criticized all the parties in a clever, satirical way told me that a fiercely loyal AKP member had offered him 120,000 liras ($39,840) as a signing bonus to become an AK Troll. It was not possible to verify his claim, but the user surprisingly closed his popular account. Days later, he told me that he had rejected “being bought.”
Now, with the AKP having lost its single-party majority in the June 7 general elections, the AK Trolls are bracing for impact. The Hurriyet reported Sept. 1, “Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, too, is uncomfortable because of trolls, after voices were raised in the party saying that the curses and swear words of these impertinent, rude people should be stopped.” Atalay was referred to in the story as “one of the first names in the party who had reacted to the trolls.”
AK Troll stock appears to be suffering in the midst of a bear market. With the crucial, snap general elections scheduled for Nov. 1 straining AKP finances and nerves, it would be an unnecessary luxury to continue covering the cost of the AK Trolls' inefficient and abusive services and self-inflicted damage. If the AKP fails to win the upcoming elections outright, one can expect a more thorough liquidation not only of its social media holdings, but also of its equally inefficient, abusive and damaging newspaper and television operations.