Social media giant Twitter is back in the spotlight for its “complex” algorithm that is enabling a covert psychological operation aimed at boosting opposition voices with less than two months until Türkiye’s May 14 vote, stoking concerns that an electoral intervention is on the agenda.
It is known that Twitter, recently described as “both a social media company and a crime scene” by its current CEO Elon Musk, has long collaborated with the U.S. government to conduct psychological warfare operations, burying and censoring certain topics while amplifying the visibility of others.
The specifically crafted spread of disinformation and manipulative schemes on social media venues like Twitter to influence public perception about standing candidates or parties has also long been public knowledge.
There is now a growing fear in Türkiye that one such operation, implemented through the manipulation of trending topics and paid promotions, is targeting the integrity of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, broadly described as the most critical vote in the country’s recent history.
Deliberate concealing of apolitical content or content created by the supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the promotion of tweets from opposition leaders and supporters, as well as real and bot accounts run by terrorist organizations like the PKK and the Gülenist Terrorist Group (FETÖ) on user timelines has been strikingly on the rise, especially in the past month.
Posts from Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the presidential candidate of the six-party Nation Alliance, have also been pushed for visibility on the platform ever since the electoral schedule has been announced.
The insistent increase in free support and engagement for the opposition accounts comes in stark contrast to the restrictions and censors imposed on accounts close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party-led electoral bloc People’s Alliance.
It’s also giving rise to the possibility that an external influence on the Turkish vote is afoot, namely from one of its closest allies.
Upon mounting criticism over Twitter’s potential influence on voter perception and public consciousness, Musk said the company would open its source code used to recommend tweets on March 31, claiming the algorithm was “overly complex and not fully understood” even internally, and assuring “We’ll patch issues as soon as they’re found.”
Following his takeover, Musk instructed the management to alter Twitter’s algorithm but the platform still allows certain companies to run manipulation schemes ahead of elections in several countries via advanced program networks, one cyber-operations expert Ersin Çahmutoğlu previously told Turkish newspaper Takvim.
Furthermore, Musk’s unfulfilled promise for transparency only heightened suspicions that Pentagon and Twitter’s regional offices can still interfere in content and user accounts and showed his social media platform remains a breeding ground for manipulation and disinformation as he fails to present a satisfying explanation.
Twitter Files made a big splash when Musk disclosed in December last year the fact that Twitter employees had built blacklists, prevented disfavored tweets from trending and actively limited the visibility of entire accounts without informing users, all but confirming that Twitter executives were aware of a fake and secret propaganda network constructed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
While claiming that such censorship was not real, the Twitter administration continued applying what many people call “shadow banning” and what Twitter executives and employees call “Visibility Filtering,” or “VF,” within the company, according to Bari Weiss, an American journalist, writer and editor.
Weiss reported in December that the group that decided whether to limit the reach of certain users was the Strategic Response Team – Global Escalation Team, or SRT-GET, which often handled up to 200 “cases” a day.
The company also employed a “Site Integrity Policy, Policy Escalation Support,” known as “SIP-PES,” frequently suspending users for no reason.
In addition to this covert operation, Twitter went one step further and amplified accounts and content supported by a “whitelist” and the Blue Tick feature. It gave special protection to the U.S. military’s online psychosocial influence operations despite the knowledge that Pentagon propaganda accounts used covert identities, according to another American journalist, Lee Fang.
While Türkiye, a strategically vital region in the Middle East, covers an area supervised by the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), its operations in Syria and Iraq are considered active intervention in territory overseen by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and it is one of the biggest targets of such psychological warfare orchestrated by Pentagon and implemented by the likes of EUCOM, CENTCOM and others.
Fang found that CENTCOM, also the guardian of the PKK terror group’s Syrian arm, the YPG, asked Twitter to grant priority and blue marks to a list of certain accounts working in the Middle East, and Twitter created a whitelist that essentially provides verification status to the accounts without the blue check, meaning they are exempt from spam and abuse flags and more likely to trend on hashtags.
Then CENTCOM shifted strategy, erased ties to those accounts and changed their profiles to seemingly organic accounts.
One notable account had a bio that read “Euphrates pulse.”
In one email alone, the DOD names some 157 Pentagon accounts, which are focused on mostly Middle East military issues, hinting at the sheer scale of this covert operation.
The extensive promotion manipulators enjoy from Twitter is not limited to the anti-state accounts either.
The algorithm also amplifies content from terrorist sympathizers, a monthlong study by the Turkish newspaper Sabah analyzing suggested tweets revealed. In the past month, since the Feb. 6 earthquakes hit Türkiye’s southeast, a targeted campaign spread false accounts and information, especially on Twitter, to incite fear, concern, and panic among citizens.
Sabah’s report delved into Twitter posts made between Feb. 6 and March 13 regarding the earthquakes and discovered that of the 266,334,080 million posts made by 21,493,445 accounts, a total of 5,362,720 were made by bot accounts, corresponding to roughly 25.55% of the total.
The report found that some 27% of these 5.3 million posts, 1,493,256 to be exact, were made by bot accounts managed by FETÖ and the PKK.
Çahmutoğlu too argued Washington “directs Twitter however it wants” regarding its foreign policy.
“Twitter has been used as a propaganda tool way before Musk, especially in U.S. elections, with, say Clintons and Democrats wielding it against Trump or Republicans,” he said.
Stressing that Türkiye, as well as the world, laments such an intrusion on democracy, Çahmutoğlu said, “It’s such a clever system that is designed to show you what you don’t want to see. You can’t help but think ‘Is this a scheme to create different perceptions?’”
He also confirmed it was “possible” for terrorist and anti-Türkiye formations like the PKK and FETÖ to collaborate with companies that operate such programs to interfere in the pre-election period using bots trained to attract Twitter’s algorithm in cultivating engagement and trending topics.