How does the 280-character mechanism work?

AKP government has been employing the “280-character mechanism” for a long time whenever the society starts to discuss its policies whose legitimacy is dubious. Social media is under close watch. When a news article, criticism or harsh criticism appears on their radar, they press the button. What remains behind is a chilling silence.

AKP government has been employing the “280-character mechanism” for a long time whenever the society starts to discuss its policies whose legitimacy is dubious. Social media is under close watch. When a news article, criticism or harsh criticism appears on their radar, they press the button. What remains behind is a chilling silence.

It seems that the mechanism started being established piece by piece after the Gezi Park protests. It became operational after the terror incidents, and was launched in full force following the crossborder operations of the Turkish Armed Forces into Syria. During the military operations dubbed Olive Branch and Peace Spring, houses were raided in reaction to social media posts that asked questions, questioned these operations’ legitimacy, criticized their justification, worried about their results; people were taken under custody, arrests took place, and indictments were drafted with all the weapons provided by the Turkish Criminal Code. Any 280-character criticism, text, news article or comment… Everything was targeted.

The clamor of the mechanism which began to run during Operation Peace Spring suppressed the freedom of press and expression, and the freedom to spread critical thinking.

The most effective tool used to this end by the Justice and Development Party, which has been making extraordinary efforts to align the whole society with its ideas, attitudes and ideology is no longer television but social media … Because, in “perception management”, televisions which used to be in every home, have been replaced by social media channels now accessible via everyone’s mobile phones.

When did the fight around concepts start on social media platforms? When did the AKP government set in motion the first components of this mechanism?

AKP government turned social media into a perception management tool as a result of a series of processes which reinforced one another. The habit of responding to all kinds of news articles, columns, television commentary and criticism through the articles of the Turkish Criminal Code started with the 2007 Ergenekon trials. Some journalists and writers were declared as “putschists” and “terrorists” before the whole public. Those journalists had not actually dropped their pens and taken up arms, or used violence to overthrow the government. Yet criticizing the government through news stories, articles, cartoons, comments was now considered tantamount to acting in partnership with those who tried to overthrow the government. The indictments were based on such logic.

In the following years, the impact of newspapers and televisions on the expansion of various ideas became increasingly limited. It was very easy to blame someone for the slightest criticism, launch an investigation, and drag them before a court, whether detained or not. While newspapers and televisions started being filled with “appropriate” news, columns and comments, the field of criticism was narrowed down through accusations of “putschism”, “terrorism”, “being sentenced like a member of a terror organization without actually being one”, “insult”, “slander”, “inciting the people to hatred and hostility”.

Social media appeared as a suitable medium for the dissemination of critical ideas in this climate of intellectual restriction.

The biggest example of this was the Gezi Park protests. People transferred their criticisms from the streets onto the social media. The protesting millions did not just read the news stories, but directly penned them. Millions of people who wanted to report, and express their harshest criticisms as well as the journalists who wanted to access these joined together on the social media. However, the government was also active on the social media.

Is the social media a field of struggle?

After a meeting of the Council of Ministers on January 3rd 2017, the government spokesperson Numan Kurtulmuş stated, in his remarks on terror incidents in the country, “We are keeping an eye on provocative social media accounts in the country. This is not a free-for-all.” The Ministry of Interior launched investigations against 347 social media accounts. The reason stated for this was “inciting hatred among the populace.”

The argument that the target of the crossborder military operation was terrorist groups helped brand even the slightest criticism against the operation as “propaganda for a terrorist organization”, “membership of a terrorist organization” or “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization”. The government spokesperson added the following:

“Everyone must keep watch. Our nation must unite in the face of the terrorist threat.”

The 280-character mechanism was also employed during Operation Olive Branch into Northern Syria. The Ministry of Interior announced that legal investigations were launched against 251 individuals from January 20th 2018, when the operation began, until February 26th 2018.

The state not only conducted a crossborder military operation, but also issued publications to guide social media posts. The prime minister’s office, which had become the highest bureaucratic instance before being closed down with the subsequent transition to the new administrative system, issued a flyer, entitled “Misinformation Activities Against The Operation Olive Branch.”

In this flyer, it was claimed that certain photographs shared in the social media were not actually related to the operation. However, it was also stated,

“As the propaganda mill of terrorist groups continues to run, certain media outlets are instrumentalized by this propaganda, whether willingly or not, thus preventing the population from understanding the importance of the struggle against terrorism -the common enemy of the entire humanity.”

The government then toughened its domineering stance by issuing lists to show journalists how articles should be written. The Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım met with newspaper and television executives and gave them a 15-item list. According to the list, the news articles had to emphasize “the operation was intended to eliminate terrorist organizations.” They had to underscore that the operation protected the civilian population. The journalists ought not receive opinions from people who may present a negative image of Turkey. When citing unfavorable news stories by international news outlets, journalists had to protect Turkish national interests.

The journalists who violated this framework designated by the government would be swiftly prosecuted for their social media posts. At least 18 journalists stood trial. As a result of the legal proceedings, five journalists were sentenced to prison. Four journalists were acquitted.

For instance, the indictment drafted for the Özgürlükçü Demokrasi Newspaper Trial cited such news stories about the military operation as evidence. The ground for accusation was that the newspaper presented the operation as an occupation. According to the indictment, the news stories in the newspaper were designed to “create a negative perception.” It was noteworthy that the logic of the indictment was in parallel with instructions given by the Prime Minister Yıldırım to journalists. In the lawsuit filed against 9 journalists, 3 journalists were each sentenced to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison, while one journalist was sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in prison. The trial against the remaining five journalists continues in their absence.

İshak Karakaş, Editor-in-Chief of Halkın Nabzı Newspaper, was charged with spreading propaganda for a terror organization. He was detained pending trial for 103 days. He was sentenced to 1 year, 6 months and 22 days in prison. The tweets and news stories were frequently mixed up in the indictment, but this did not matter for the government. Two reporters of the local newspaper Mavi Didim were put on trial for publishing the full text of a political party’s statement on the Afrin operation. 9 correspondents of the Özgürlükçü Demokrasi Newspaper were sued for the same reason.

The report titled “Turkish Extensions of International Media Outlets” by SETA (Economic and Social Research Foundation), which is a research organization close to the government and exempt from tax, constituted a guidebook in service of the government’s efforts to put a straitjacket on the society and journalists, the news source of the former, through the social media. The report provided a character analysis of dozens of journalists working for the Turkey news services of BBC, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, Sputnik, The Independent, Euronews and CRI on the basis of their personal social media posts.

During Operation Olive Branch, journalists were instructed to approach foreign news sources with suspicion. The SETA report drew attention to the news stories of these foreign news sources. It was claimed that these adopted “a journalistic language against the government”; and made criticisms concerning the freedom of press, economic crisis, and authoritarianism.

The mechanism used during the Operation Olive Branch was also employed during the Operation Peace Spring. The roadmap for how the state should play with the perceptions of the society during a military operation was established by now. The government, seasoned in the fight over concepts, did not want journalists to use the words “war” or “occupation” for the operation. On the first day of the operation, October 9th, 2019, investigations were launched against 78 people on the grounds that they spread “black propaganda” through their posts. By the end of the third day, 500 social media accounts were reportedly placed under surveillance and 121 people were detained.

As was the case in Operation Olive Branch, publications were issued about photos which allegedly misrepresented the truth. The government claimed that this was manipulation serving the purposes of the terrorist organization. Journalists were again given lists of instructions. Accordingly, “the political and geographical designations used by terrorist organizations should not be used.” Journalists had to also avoid writing news stories that would incite the public to fear and panic.

The government’s RTÜK (Radio and Television Supreme Council), which checks whether TV channels’ broadcasts are in accordance with the legislation, urged media outlets “to be meticulous in their news” in a statement. Accordingly, the news ought not to have a negative effect on the morale and motivation of soldiers. The following phrases in this statement by RTÜK foreshadowed what was about to transpire:

“We will never tolerate publications that mislead our citizens through incomplete, false or biased information that serves the purposes of terrorism. RTÜK continues to keep an eye on especially those online news outlets which are popular among the younger population. ”

Thereafter it was a matter of time before journalists were detained alongside others.

The houses of 9 journalists, including online news website Diken’s managing editor Fatih Gökhan Diler and Birgün Newspaper’s website manager Hakan Demir, were raided and they were detained.

Journalist Emre Orman was detained due to the anti-war posts on his social media account. He was arrested. He was released following 1 week of arrest.
The charges were always the same…
“Inciting the population to hatred and hostility”, “propaganda for a terror organization”…
The 280-character mechanism was working like a well-oiled machine…

CONCLUSION

When about to pursue policies whose legitimacy is dubious, the government knows that journalists, writers, intellectuals will criticize such policies built on weak foundations.

However, the Turkish Criminal Code gives the government the chance to overcome this lack of legitimacy by silencing critiques. However, the interests of the country are not served by assuming that every statement of the government is true.

The broadest exercise of freedom of opinion and expression, which is a basic human right, does not contradict the security policies of states. The main mistake by states and governments is to equate criticism with “terrorism” and “putschism” and to restrict the freedom of thought.