Turkish Social Media And Anti-Refugee Rhetoric

This article was written as part of Advox’s partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays that highlight digital rights challenges in countries undergoing the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process.
There is a wave of anti-refugee rhetoric unleashed on Turkish social media. From overtly racist statements made by leaders of far-right political parties to accounts claiming to be “news agencies” spreading disinformation to incite violence, social media is not making life any safer for the more than 4 million refugees within Turkey’s borders. There were several points of escalation in the rhetoric. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter provided a safe space for Turkey’s far-right, as did its fellow internationals, and Turkey’s elections in May 2023 saw refugees targeted by political campaigns. Yet, regardless of these spikes, this trend of increasing hate speech against refugees in Turkish social media has a longer history.

An intuitive explanation would be based on numbers; because the number of refugees increases, anti-refugee sentiment also increases. There is, however, little to back up this narrative. There is more empirical evidence for the exact opposite phenomenon: social contact with immigrants leads to more tolerance and positive feelings rather than increased hatred. Although there is no direct data as such in the specific example of Turkey, Zafer Partisi, a far-right political party that promises to expel all refugees from Turkey, obtained a higher percentage of votes than its national average in only one of the top five provinces with the highest concentration of refugees, and in two of the top 10, according to data from the Ministry of Interior’s Migration Management Center.

There is ample evidence that exposure to pro or anti-immigrant narratives in the media affects attitudes towards immigration. The evidence that negative media exposure creates hostility and discrimination against immigrants is strong. The role of social media platforms in this narrative is still being researched. The existing findings suggest that social networks are highly receptive to narratives produced by traditional media, and it would not be a stretch to assume that the opposite is also true. This forces us to tackle anti-refugee radicalism in Turkish social networks as an independent and very dangerous phenomenon in itself. Obviously, the country’s political atmosphere affects the media just as it affects just about everything in Turkey. Social networks themselves are an agent (or, more accurately, a collection of the vast number of agents) in this change, however, not just a passive receiver.

Hate networks

Social media influencers, streamers and similar celebrities are driving hordes of frustrated young men to target refugees. Twitch streamer Ahmet Sonuç, known as “Jahrein”, is one such figure. Using his popularity with young men as a game streamer, he regularly targets and dehumanizes refugees. Sonuç also takes aim at national organizations that do not have a racist view towards Turkish refugees, frequently targeting political parties that promote integration policies and suggesting that feminist organizations that refuse to frame issues of sexual harassment in racist terms deserve to be harassed. Sonuç’s Twitter account was blocked by the pre-Musk Twitter administration in October 2022 for hateful conduct, but it was restored after Musk’s takeover.

Another such example is the anonymous far-right YouTube content creator known as “Erlik”. Known for promoting militaristic alternative histories and conspiracy theories, Erlik similarly uses his Twitter account to argue that refugees are a demographic danger and to praise the anti-refugee policies of right-wing governments like that of the UK, which the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) has called for promoting policies that fuel far-right violence. Erlik is also famous for her YouTube videos calling out feminist women fighting fascist sexual assaults and targeting leftist and pro-Kurdish social media users, claiming they are linked to terrorist organizations.

Now easily acquired in the absence of any checks and controls, these accounts routinely dehumanize refugees and blame Turkey’s immigrant population for all issues, namely the spread of contagious diseases, and in doing so, rekindle the “dirty immigrants” narrative.

Ajans Muhbir (News Agency) is one of the main provocative accounts. He is affiliated with far-right politician Ümit Özdağ, the leader of a newly founded radical right-wing political party, Zafer Partisi. Ajans Muhbir’s previous account, with a long history of sharing fake and outdated content to target immigrants was shut down by Twitter for breaking Twitter rules in the pre-Musk era. But that hasn’t stopped fueling the anti-immigrant narrative, which it continues to do under a new name with impunity. There are also non-anonymous accounts regularly engaged in spreading hate. One such prominent account belongs to Ümit Özdağ, who uses it as a platform to instill fear via videos insinuating that Turks will become a minority in Turkey in the future. Nor has he been shy about sharing racist conspiracy theories that blame the Kurdish minority in Turkey for the waves of mass immigration. Özdağ’s unchecked and hate-fueled narrative has drawn dozens of Turkish-speaking racists and far-right demagogues of all stripes to his social media platforms.

Özdağ also used his account to praise a human trafficker for smuggling refugees out of the country’s borders and targeting immigrant doctors by posting their personal details on Twitter. These stories should be considered crimes under Turkish law.

The politician constantly propagated the idea that Syrian refugees would take over Turkey demographically and make the Turks an oppressed minority, in a way a translated and localized version of the “Great Replacement” theory – a far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that originated in France in the early 20th century and gradually spread to the Western world, peaking in popularity in the 1930s. surface once again in the 21st century by the resurgence of the far right.

With the combination of the “blue tick effect” on Musk’s new Twitter escalating far-right rhetoric around the world and the new legitimization of the Turkish elections by two far-right bloc parties accepted in both the ruling Justice and Development party and opposition alliances; it’s hard to imagine this social media storm slowing down anytime soon.

Turkey is one of the main refugee centers in the world, with a fairly large economy and a large population that is very active on social networks. All these qualities make it almost a laboratory of interactions between the far right, social networks and refugees. The social media atmosphere in the country should be watched closely by anyone trying to understand and discern the new relationships forming between the new far right and new media globally.

This article is originally published on fr.globalvoices.org

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