DR. SARPHAN UZUNOĞLU
As one of the most popular social networks, Twitter is widely believed to allow its users to express their views and participate in a wide range of discussions and bypass time and space boundaries, encouraging different types of activism so that democracy can flourish. However, our recent experiences show that the platform has also become a battlefield for information warfare, with different entities attempting to disseminate content to promote political parties or leaders, push agendas and manipulate public discussions, amplifying polarisation, propagating political agitation and spreading populist voices and disinformation.
To understand these activities, we analysed politicised hashtags in Turkey’s Twitter Trends and revealed the profiles, community structures and communicational strategies of “political accounts” which are responsible for the creation and dissemination of populist discourses, disinformation and political propaganda. The main research questions were how a politicised hashtag becomes popular, which groups use it? What kind of content do they disseminate? Are they part of an Echo Chamber? Is there any evidence of coordinated campaigns pushing particular content or agendas? We addressed these questions by employing content analysis and social network analysis. First, public tweets from 28.03.2022 to 06.04.2022 were collected that contained any of the 10 selected politicised hashtags that are represented in Table 1.
We used NodeXL for extraction and systematisation of Twitter data. Out of the 164,930 relationships, 7% were original tweets, 45.9 % were retweets, and the rest (47.1%) were mentions and replies. Content analysis was conducted for the 50 most popular tweets of each hashtag. In total, we analysed the content of 500 tweets and found 268 unique accounts, 96% of which were “political accounts” who produce and share excessive political content. Then, we carried out a social network analysis for these accounts using their most recent 200 tweets and obtained a network map consisting of 17,829 nodes (accounts) and 82,492 edges (relationships).
This study points out several key findings:
– Political accounts were extremely influential and efficient in spreading these hashtags and populist political discourses. The biggest factor that makes these hashtags trending topics is the intense interaction between political accounts who retweet and mention each other and like each other’s tweets.
– A small share of users produce the vast majority of tweets using these hashtags: 51% of the total tweets came from just 11% of users.
– 26% of the tweets explicitly include disinformation. Tweets containing disinformation mostly target Nation Alliance, Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ekrem İmamoğlu (Mayor of Istanbul) and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (leader of the main opposition).
– When we analysed the content of the tweets according to the parties/political formations supported by the political accounts, we saw that there are significant differences. For example, while the most frequently seen tweets of the accounts supporting the People’s Alliance are praise and support for the leader, among the frontiers of the Nation Alliance the tweets are mostly criticising government’s policies.
– It is observed that political accounts frequently tag journalists and names known by different segments of the society in their posts in order to increase the interaction they receive and reach wider audiences. Cüneyt Özdemir, Özgür Demirtaş, Uğur Dündar, Erk Acarer, İsmail Saymaz, Sedef Kabaş and Barış Yarkadaş are among the most tagged non-political figures by political accounts.
– Circulation of media specifically produced for the agenda and shared by many campaigner accounts is also quite wide. 74% of the 500 most retweeted tweets contain any type of media (images, videos).
– The analysis of the Twitter profiles reveals that only 14% of the observed political accounts do not use any religious, national and political symbol in their bios or profile pictures.
– We discovered six main communities in the network graph of these political accounts. The two largest communities are supporters of two major political parties; AKP and CHP. They represent 34.7% and 19.29% of the total nodes respectively. The other two main networks include the supporters of MHP (3%) and İyi Parti (4.7%) and they stand close to their alliance parties in the network graph. This reveals that the structure of alliances in Turkish politics is also reflected in the activities of political accounts in social networks.
– These communities reflect the idea of “homophily,” in which individuals seek mostly to interact with others who are similar to themselves. In other words, political accounts tend to consume and produce content that conforms to their ideology. This further points to their inability to break into a wider, more diverse audience.