Anti-refugee rhetoric and the new far-right on Turkish social media

Image courtesy Giovana Fleck

This piece was written as part of  Advox's partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays highlighting challenges in digital rights in countries undergoing the UN's Universal Periodic Review process.

There is a wave of anti-refugee rhetoric running amok on Turkish social media. From openly racist statements made by far-right political party leaders to accounts claiming to be “news agencies” circulating disinformation to incite violence, social media is not making life safer for the over 4 million refugees within Turkish borders. There have been several points of escalation in the rhetoric; Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover provided a safe space for the Turkish far-right just like their international compatriots, and the Turkish elections in May 2023 saw refugees targeted by political campaigns. Yet, regardless of those spikes, this trend of increasing hate speech targeting refugees in Turkish social media has a longer history.

An intuitive explanation would be based on the numbers; as the number of refugees increases, so does anti-refugee sentiment. There is, however, little to support this narrative. There is more empirical support for the exact opposite phenomenon: social contact with immigrants leads to more tolerance and positive sentiments rather than increasing hate. While there is no direct data as such in the specific example of Turkey, Zafer Partisi, a far-right political party that promises to kick all refugees out of Turkey, had a vote percentage higher 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 much documentation proving exposure to pro- or anti-immigrant narratives in the media affects attitudes toward immigration. 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. Existing findings suggest that social media is heavily receptive to narratives produced by traditional media, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the opposite is also true. This forces us to engage with the anti-refugee radicalism in Turkish social media as an independent and very dangerous phenomenon in itself. Obviously, the country’s political atmosphere affects the media just like it affects pretty much everything in Turkey. Social media itself is an agent (or, more accurately, a large collection of agents) in this shift, though, not just a passive receiver.

Networks of hate

Influencers, streamers, and similar social media celebrities lead hordes of frustrated young men in targeting refugees. Twitch streamer Ahmet Sonuç, known as “Jahrein,” is one such figure. Using his popularity with young men as a gaming streamer, he routinely targets and dehumanizes refugees. Sonuç also targets domestic organizations that do not have a racist outlook toward Turkish refugees, frequently targeting political parties that favor policies for integration and implying that feminist organizations that refuse to frame sexual harassment problems in racist terms deserve harassment. Sonuç’s Twitter account was blocked by the pre-Musk Twitter administration in October 2022 for hateful conduct, but it was restored after the Musk takeover.

Another example as such is the anonymous far-right YouTube content creator known as “Erlik.” Known for pushing militarist alternate histories and conspiracy theories, Erlik uses his Twitter account similarly for claiming the refugees are a demographic danger and praising anti-refugee policies by right-wing governments such as the UK’s, which the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) called out for promoting policies that fueled far-right violence. Erlik is also known for YouTube videos calling feminist women fighting sexual assault fascists, and targeting left-wing and pro-Kurdish social media users, claiming they are tied to terrorist organizations.

The most vile sentiments are coming from anonymous Twitter accounts. Emboldened by their blue check marks, which can now be easily acquired in the absence of any vetting and oversight, these accounts routinely dehumanize refugees and level accusations against the immigrant population in Turkey for any issues, including spreading contagious diseases and, by doing so,  recreate the “dirty immigrants” narrative.

Ajans Muhbir (Informant Agency) is one of the prominent provocateur accounts. It is affiliated with the far-right politician Ümit Özdağ, who is the leader of a newly founded radical right-wing political party Zafer Partisi. Ajans Muhbir's previous account, with a long history of sharing false and outdated content to target immigrants, was closed by Twitter for violating Twitter rules in the pre-Musk era. But that did not stop the account from fueling the anti-immigrant narrative, which it continues to do under a new name with impunity. There are also non-anonymous accounts routinely engaged in spreading hate. One of these prominent accounts belongs to Ümit Özdağ, who has been using it as a platform to instill fear via videos insinuating that Turkish people will become a minority in Turkey in the future. He has also not shied away from sharing racist conspiracy theories that blame Turkey's Kurdish minority for the waves of mass immigration. Özdağ’s unchecked hatred-fuelled narrative has attracted scores of Turkish-speaking racists and far-right demagogues of every stripe to his social media platforms.

Özdağ also used his account to praise a human trafficker for taking refugees out of the country's borders and targeted immigrant doctors by publishing their personal information on Twitter. These narratives should be considered crimes under Turkish law.

The politician consistently has been propogating the idea that Syrian refugees will take over Turkey demographically and make ethnic Turks an oppressed minority, in a way, a translated and localized version of the “Great Replacement” theory —  a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory that originated in France in the early 20th century and gradually spread to the Western world, peaking in popularity in the 1930s. It was relatively forgotten until it resurfaced once more in the 21st century by far-right resurgence.

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

Turkey is one of the world’s foremost refugee hubs, with a rather large economy and a significant population that is very active on social media. All these qualities make it almost a laboratory for the interactions between the far right, social media, and refugees. The social media atmosphere in the country should be watched closely by anyone attempting to understand and discern the new relationships that are being formed between the new far right and the new media globally.

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