Bots, Kremlin media, and a fringe party are calling for Turkey to leave NATO amid tensions
On November 17, NATO and Turkey found themselves in a diplomatic row at a military drill in Norway after Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were featured on an “enemy chart.” In response, Turkey withdrew 40 soldiers participating in the drills, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued an apology.
The event occurred amid already tense relations between NATO and Turkey, which recently took a turn for the worse after Turkey signed a deal for 2.5 billion U.S. dollars of advanced S-400 surface-to-air-missiles from Russia. NATO responded by warning Turkey it risked restrictions on continued participation in NATO’s air defense system.
After the incident involving the “enemy chart,” Erdogan’s political advisor Yalcin Topcu suggested Turkey should leave NATO. A similar viewpoint was expressed by the leader of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Action Party, Devlet Bahceli, who said: “It will not be the end of the world if we are not in this structure [NATO].” Political parties from across the Turkish political spectrum, even the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, denounced the incident as “unacceptable.”
Social Media Response
The strong anti-NATO sentiment was also reflected on Turkish social media. On Twitter, #NATOdanÇıkalım, which translates as “Let’s Leave NATO,” was used more than 50,000 times.
The hashtag was trending on Turkish Twitter for most of November 17.
The trending hashtag attracted some bot attention.
The 25 most active users generated 2,655 tweets using the hashtag; a high engagement frequency indicative of bots. A machine scan revealed that out of the 25 most active users, at least 12 appear to be automated or semi-automated accounts. In total, automated and semi-automated accounts generated 1,113 tweets mentioning the hashtag.
As an example, here are four of the accounts mentioned above tweeting out a link to a YouTube documentary with the same text and hashtags at the exact same time, 2:51pm GMT.
This indicates that this small network of bots belongs to the same “bot herder”, who used popular hashtags to promote their content — a common practice in digital marketing.
The majority of the non-bot activists promoting the hashtag appeared to be aligned with Turkey’s Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi), a fringe party actively campaigning against Turkey’s membership in NATO and closer Russia-Turkey relations. 13 Patriotic Party supporters generated 1,542 tweets using the anti-NATO hashtag, which once again showed the power of highly-engaged fringe political groups on digital media.
@RgplErol, the most active account, which used the hashtag 286 times, actively campaigned for the Patriotic Party on Twitter and sends them messages of support.
Üreten emekçilerimize selam,durmak yok,direnişe devam!!!.👏👏👏👏👍👍👍👍✌️✌️✌️✌️
— Erol Ürgüplü(üsküplü) (@ErolRgpln) June 2, 2017
The second user to engage on #LetsLeaveNATO the most, was @minetay99. The account posted 197 tweets with the hashtag. Most of the account’s recent tweets were images and articles of the Patriotic Party’s protest against NATO, which took place on November 18 outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.
— Mine Hacıosmanoğlu (@minetay99) November 18, 2017
The third most active user was @TR_Cephesi, who used the hashtag 152 times. The account used the Patriotic Party’s hashtag, #VatanPartisi, in its bio and links to the party’s website.
Perincek and his team were influential in restoring Turkish-Russian ties after the crisis triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last year.
Perincek is also said to have introduced Kremlin ideologist, Alexander Dugin, to Turkish government circles. The cordial relations between the Kremlin and the Patriotic Party appears to be an organic alliance based on shared goals, namely Turkey’s closer relationship with Russia and exit from NATO.
In parallel to the developments, the Kremlin-funded Turkish version of Sputnik News published several anti-NATO articles. Sputnik’s recent headlines include: “Turkey’s departure from NATO will be the beginning of the end for NATO,” “Turkey understands that it should not expect support from the US,” “Is Turkey on the verge of leaving NATO?” “Karamollaoglu: NATO showed its true face,” and “Perincek: NATO wants to dismantle our homeland.”
Sputnik also covered the anti-NATO protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, organized by the Patriotic Party. It was highly one-sided; more than half of the article is a list of the author’s favorite quotes from the speech given by the Patriotic Party’s Secretary General at the protest.
It appears Sputnik’s Turkish version is exploiting this setback in Turkey-NATO relations to perpetuate the narrative of NATO as a threat to Turkey’s national security and sovereignty.
The incident shows exactly how in quickly developing situations political trends can be exploited by small groups of highly engaged domestic and foreign actors utilizing digital and social media to achieve their respective goals — be they scoring political points, achieving foreign policy objectives, promoting particular content, or a mixture of each.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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