Turkey’s prosecutors have launched an investigation into a social media hashtag that criticizes the government’s allegedly botched response to the country’s devastating wildfires, accusing it of spreading “anxiety and fear.”
The HelpTurkey hashtag exploded when right-wing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was photographed on a tour of the damaged region under heavy police escort, throwing tea bags at locals from a moving bus in the middle of the night as a megaphone announced his presence. .
“Help us !!!!!” Turkish comedian Enis Arikan tweeted hours after Erdogan’s visit in a typical HelpTurkey post. “We need planes urgently. We only have one world. “
But in a deeply divided country where even minor events spark culture wars between Erdogan’s supporters and opponents, the hashtag became a scandal, prompting an investigation by prosecutors.
The powerful Turkish leader, unexpectedly facing one of the gravest challenges of his 18 years in office, sounded scandalized by the idea that his country needed help to tackle the worst fires on record, which have left eight dead. along the south coast. .
His government has faced accusations of mismanagement and unpreparedness after admitting that the country has no firefighting aircraft in service.
“In response to this, there is only one thing we can say: strong Turkey,” Erdoğan said after Friday prayers, mentioning a hashtag circulated by his voters.
“The terror of lies is spreading from America, Europe and some other places,” he said of the HelpTurkey campaign.
Acting on Erdogan’s anger, the prosecution said it would investigate whether the posts were designed “to create anxiety, fear and panic in the public, and to humiliate the Turkish government.”
Around the same time, the media regulator threatened to fine TV stations for continuing to broadcast live images of the fires or broadcast stories “that cause fear and concern in the public.”
Most of the seasons delivered, minimizing their coverage of a disaster that killed eight people, destroyed forests on vast swaths of the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts and changed the lives of a generation of farmers.
The government hints that HelpTurkey is being stoked by “sock puppets,” bogus accounts designed to manipulate public opinion.
Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, told a media event organized by the presidency that his analysis showed that up to 5% of HelpTurkey’s tweets were spread by such accounts.
“I don’t know the purpose of this. What I can say is that I suppose the hashtag is being manipulated … It looks suspicious, ”said the British academic.
“If it started as a manipulation campaign, it was very smart because HelpTurkey is a really innocent message, you can understand why people tweeted. Why wouldn’t an average person want to help? “
Gareth Jenkins, a veteran analyst from Turkey, said this criticism goes both ways.
The Erdogan government “monitors thousands of fake accounts, which they use to troll and try to intimidate and silence anyone who questions their narratives,” Jenkins told AFP.
“But I think a much bigger problem is that a lot of Turks, including many of those around Erdogan, really believe in the propaganda of the regime.”
The battle for HelpTurkey comes with the screws tightened on social media, which had remained an area for spirited debate in a country dominated by pro-government media and newspapers.
After initial resistance, Twitter, Facebook and others have complied with a new law that requires platforms to appoint local envoys who can handle court orders to remove contentious posts.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism