It is no secret that the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been enlisting a large number of trolls and bots linked to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on social media to target critics including politicians, journalists and celebrities in Turkey and abroad.
Nordic Monitor has scrutinized an anonymous account run by the Turkish government itself as a so-called public diplomacy tool not only to amplify its aggressive foreign policy narrative but also to defame countries, leaders and critics, which, if exposed, could certainly cause diplomatic scandals. However, Turkish ambassadors, embassies and top bureaucrats don’t hesitate to endorse the propaganda account.
The @trdiplomacy account on Twitter as well as on Facebook suggests that “we not only aim to present Turkish Republic‘s diplomatic matters that have been dealt with in the past, but also present information on current issues to our followers” on its inactive website (trdiplomacy.com). The website provides no contact information and unsurprisingly does not mention the creator of the content. The only way to reach the owner(s) is to fill out a simple contact form as is the case on many shady propaganda websites. trdiplomacy.com also uses a domain privacy service that hides the owner’s personal information from the public Whois database.
The question then is, who runs this anonymous multilingual twitter account that looks like the work of a team? Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s presidential communications director in charge of producing propaganda materials for Erdoğan, provides the first clue. Altun, who almost never retweets any Twitter accounts other than his boss’s verified one and those of his own office, retweeted a trdiplomacy post in April on the coronavirus. Given the fact that Altun is very careful and consistent in sharing only official posts, he unthinkingly shared the @trdiplomacy tweet while knowing exactly what it was.
Perhaps more importantly, Akif Beki, a former spokesman for Erdoğan, openly disclosed in 2017 that @trdiplomacy was the work of the Office of Public Diplomacy, which is now a department under Altun.
Turkey actually had an official verified account for public diplomacy, @Turkeyinfo, that was run by the same office until the end of December 2013. @Turkeyinfo is now a ghost account whose posts and archive were totally erased. It is no coincidence that @trdiplomacy was established in January 2014, a few days after the official account was deactivated.
Since the implementation of Turkey’s new presidential system in 2017, public diplomacy activities have been conducted by the Directorate of Communications of the Turkish Presidency, which is run by Altun. This also means that Altun has become the boss of two institutions formerly affiliated with the Office of Public Diplomacy: state news agency Anadolu (AA), and the Directorate General of Press and Information, which produces the content of @trdiplomacy.
At first glance, anyone who is familiar with the infographics of Anadolu and the Directorate of Communications can easily surmise that those published by @trdiplomacy were prepared by the same staff. Sharing similar graphics and topics with Anadolu, @trdiplomacy is able to use harsh language thanks to its anonymity.
Another revelation was made by a troll and an AA reporter in 2015. Hüseyin Tarık Aydın, an Erdoğan propagandist on social media and currently advisor to Minister of Industry and Technology Mustafa Varank, who Nordic Monitor previously exposed as the leader of Erdoğan’s troll army, suggested that his followers keep up with @trdiplomacy on Twitter, to which AA reporter Gökçe Küçük Topbaş replied, “public service,” with a smiley emoji.
@trdiplomacy’s posts usually include infographics and video clips highlighting key points of current Turkish foreign policy blended with Erdoğan’s Islamist and neo-Ottoman aspirations. With a deep and pervasive anti-Western sentiment, the government account repeatedly smears EU countries, accusing them of supporting terrorist activities and applying double standards to Turkey.
The account predictably targets any country with which Erdoğan faces a crisis, using Islamophobia, racism or xenophobia as a tool for an aggressive campaign Given the fact that the account also posts in Turkish, it sparks hatred against the West as well as religious minorities in Turkey. The Turkish version of the posts are provocative and racist, whereas others in different languages are propagandistic. Since Erdoğan purses a constantly vacillating foreign policy, a country that had previously been attacked could certainly be greeted with open arms later.
In the English version, the text reads “Parallel False Headlines,” whereas the Turkish version says, “Fake news from New York Times, Haaretz and Todays Zaman that exhibits hostility towards Muslims in Gaza.”
Strictly aligned with Erdoğan’s strategy of political polarization at home and abroad, Trdiplomacy often targets pro-Kurdish politicians with terror accusations that are trumped up by the judiciary, which is under the control of the government.
People affiliated with the faith-based Gülen movement, a critic of the government, are labelled as terrorists and accused of being members “FETÖ,” a derogatory term coined by government to refer to the movement as a terrorist organization.
Twitter last month removed more than 7,340 state-linked accounts used by Turkey. According to the tech company’s own research the government-supported accounts were being used to amplify political narratives favorable to the AKP and demonstrated strong support for President Erdoğan.
Altun criticized the decision, posting a statement on Twitter and claiming that the company is manipulated by “anti-Turkey elements.”