On 24 February, we held our panel live broadcasted on the MLSA Youtube channel and Twitter account, moderated by Lawyer Erselan Aktan with participations of the NewsLabTurkey Research Hub Director, Dr. Sarphan Uzunoğlu and Reportare Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mehmet Şafak Sarı
Lawyer Erselan Aktan, who made a short introductory speech and talked about how anonymous accounts appear in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), said that according to the ECtHR, staying anonymous on social media is indispensable for freedom of expression and it should be protected. He continued his words with saying: “In the Delfi AS v Estonia decision of the ECtHR it was said that social media creates a less hierarchical and less discriminatory area for anonymous accounts, and that it is very important in terms of making the public's right to information operative.”
Aktan, who thinks social media platforms do not have much sanctions against Turkey, reminded that in 2020, Twitter announced in its report that 7340 accounts were suspended and removed due to the confirmation of these accounts to be working through a network close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He also added that last month, Republican People's Party (CHP) Leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu announced that they prepared a report on organized troll accounts in a live stream through Twitter, which had about 4.5 million viewers, and left the word to Sarphan Uzunoğlu and Mehmet Şafak Sarı.
Uzunoğlu: In order to fix the troll issue, their economic support must to be exposed
Sarphan Uzunoğlu started his speech by giving the academic meaning of the term troll, saying that it is defined as “a person who manipulates and abuses a certain social discussion or communicative process for his own entertainment.” However in Turkey, he mentioned that the meaning of troll is understood as anyone who says things that are not liked on social media platforms without using a name or photo. Touching on the political fanaticism in Turkey, Uzunoğlu mentioned that the word troll is also explained as people who manipulate certain communication processes for political reasons and make black propaganda. He said, “For example, when a politician posts on social media, troll messages are sent to him immediately and every second. In the academic conjuncture, the equivalent of this comes from the concept of AstroTurf, which is actually known as 'artificial turf'. But here, it is used as social movements that are organized within itself. I can't say that these masses should never happen because they are unfortunately a part of today’s political communication but accepting them and understanding how they work should be our main agenda.”
According to Uzunoğlu, the way the concept of troll is used restricts freedom of expression at the international level. He drew attention to the fact that the concept of troll and anonymous account are not the same thing: “The biggest misconception about trolls is that we think they are anonymous. When we say trolls, we are talking about people who create accounts with nicknames. Many people in Turkey do not use the internet anonymously anyway, because what we call anonymity is something that has technical, formal and social aspects.” Drawing attention to the concept not being unique to the political parties or groups, Uzunoğlu said “The report published by Kılıçdaroğlu was about trolling activities against him, so it is not a very reliable research. Even in hashtag analyzes on certain subjects, not only a single hashtag but all of them should be searched, so that the real troll networks in Turkey can be mapped.”
Uzunoğlu stated that in order to get to the root of the troll account problem, the political economy of the situation should be investigated. He said that economically supported networks must be exposed, lawsuits should be filed against them and the public resources should be prevented from being used outside of their duties. “Because we can’t talk about a proper political parties law, an applicable election communication law or the lack of transparency of the high election board in overseeing the processes in Turkey, it is possible to encounter such situations like this: we start conducting research on troll accounts after an opposition leader saying a group of accounts on social media insulted him. What we really need to investigate is how many troll accounts are funded with the taxes taken from the people. I think investigative journalists need to photograph the headquarters of troll networks and reveal who they are or how much they are being paid with documents.”
Expressing his views on the new disinformation law, which is expected to come into force within this year, Uzunoğlu said “Even saying 'get a license or go' to international media outlets is actually part of the election preparation. Where there is hegemony, resistance finds its own way. But just because there are methods of resistance doesn't mean we are safe. I think a comprehensive social media law will come, I also think that it will have limited aspects. The conjuncture all over the world relieves the authoritarianism of states. Since Covid alone has created an environment in the country where you can't listen to music after 12 at night, why not create a country where you can't tweet after 12 at night? But I don't think this new regulation will stop us completely."
Sarı: I don't think the problem of troll or bot accounts can be solved with algorithmic interventions
Mehmet Şafak Sarı, who started his speech by making an explanation on the psychological side of what is a troll. He first defined it as “people who spread disinformation as manipulators and provocateurs who work professionally and undermine communication processes.” He then divided trolls into two categories and first defined them as people who are angry with life, can not get what they want from the society, lives in communication environments, wants to exist in the society by attracting attention. Secondly, he defines “professional trolls” as groups that are hired and organized around companies, politicians, political parties or various political actors or as themselves. Sarı thinks that trolls or professional trolls also harm their environment and future by spreading disinformation.
Stating that Turkey has a very weak digital media literacy and does not have a healthy digital environment, Sarı said people can be easily manipulated by small groups. He continued, “There is not a healthy communication culture in the society. There are people waiting to create a conflict zone and go against what people share on social media. During the times when the political agenda increases or natural disasters occur, we observe that the people who spread disinformation are always the same accounts. From time to time, social media platforms try to block groups of accounts like these, for example, Twitter closed thousands of accounts that it thought were related to the government in the past years. However, I do not think that troll accounts and disinformation can be solved with reports, political maneuvers or algorithmic interventions.”
Stating that political communication campaigns should be considered as an extension of life, Sarı mentioned that although it is not possible to win elections through these platforms alone, the infrastructure of the platforms is very open to polarizing disinformation or communication, and it is also convenient to influence the elections. “No digital campaign alone is enough to win an election.There are still basic political propagandas at the center of political communication such as meetings with citizens, and various political campaigns. However, the infrastructure of social media platforms has made it possible for everyone to enter the timeline independently and individually. All the messages, either good or bad, can be accessed from anywhere at any time. In societies with political culture, in elections that are won by half or with very small differences as one percent means winning the election in most cases. Before there were social media platforms, reaching these audiences was difficult. Cambridge Analytica has shown that it is possible to get an idea by collecting data on all behavioral patterns of people and if there is even one or two percent of undecided audience, an environment is created to predict what people can be tempted by or how they can react. This data is based on what people share on social media, what they like and what political views they are inclined to. In this way, people can be manipulated very easily, whether through party propagandas or troll accounts.”
Sarı expressed his thoughts on the disinformation law with the following words: “If the slightest attack on freedom of expression and fundamental rights cannot be eliminated, methods of resistance to prevent the attacks have always been found throughout history and will always be found. Especially in the technological process where knowledge and experience are at this level, no matter how restrictive these attacks are to mainstream communication, the resistance will always exist in our country as well as in the rest of the world.That's why we always find a way to express ourselves and declare our ideas."