Though ravaged by the most destructive wildfires in its recent history, Turkey also flares up on Twitter, amid controversy and suspected manipulation. In a deeply divided country where the slightest event can set off supporters and opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the hashtag
#HelpTurkey (“Help Turkey”) on Twitter is at the origin of a new controversy and an investigation by the prosecution. The Turkish president, facing one of his biggest crises in eighteen years in power, seemed outraged that his country might need help.
“In response to that, there is only one thing to say: Turkey strong,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of the #HelpTurkey tweets, which he called “the terror of lies spread from the United States, Europe and some other places.” In the process, the prosecution said it would carry out an investigation to determine whether the tweets were intended to “create anxiety, fear and panic among the population, and humiliate the public. Turkish government.”
At the same time, the media regulator threatened to fine television stations for continuing to broadcast live images of the fires and publishing articles “that generate fear and concern in the population.” Most of the chains bowed to order, reducing their coverage of the fires that killed eight people and destroyed large areas of forest along the coast. The government was criticized when it was discovered that Turkey no longer had an operational water bomber plane and for rejecting several offers of foreign aid, including from Greece, a regional rival.
The action of President Erdogan, who came to power campaigning against corruption, of which his opponents accuse him today, suddenly appeared disconnected from reality. His trip to the areas affected by the fires, in a bus under strong police escort, equipped with megaphones, from which he was filmed throwing tea bags at the inhabitants in the middle of the night, generated a new controversy on social networks. In defense, the government maintains that the #HelpTurkey hashtag is powered by fake accounts used to manipulate public opinion.
Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, estimated during a press conference organized by the presidency that almost 5% of #HelpTurkey tweets were posted by fake accounts. Digital law expert Yaman Akdeniz has doubts about the explanation for the fake accounts. “While the controversy shakes the social networks, the fires continue in real life,” he stresses. “In reality,” he concludes, “our government machinery has serious operational problems, and will undoubtedly introduce a new crime and then a new disinformation law, with the aim of further muzzling critical voices on social media.”
The controversy surrounding #HelpTurkey comes in the context of an additional twist on social media, a still-alive place for debate in a country where pro-government media dominate. After initially objecting, Twitter, Facebook, and others eventually submitted to new laws that require platforms to appoint local representatives who can take legal action to remove problematic posts.