Journalist Nedim Turfent was reporting on a brutal counterterrorism operation in Turkey’s Kurdish region when he published video of soldiers standing over villagers, who were face down with their hands bound. Soon, odd messages seeking Turfent’s whereabouts began appearing on his Facebook page.
Then, Twitter accounts linked to Turkish counterterrorism units joined in, taunting locals with a single question—“Where is Nedim Turfent?”—as soldiers torched and raided more villages.
The threat was clear: Give him up, or you’re the next target.
That was in the spring of 2016. Within days, Turfent was in the military’s hands, and he was eventually charged with membership in a terrorist organization. An anonymous Twitter account capped off the social media manhunt by tweeting a picture of Turfent in custody, handcuffed and haggard. Then soldiers doused the office of his employer, Dicle News Agency, with gasoline and set it ablaze. Turfent remains behind bars.
Only a few years after Twitter and Facebook were celebrated as the spark for democratic movements worldwide, states and their proxies are hatching new forms of digitally enabled suppression that were unthinkable before the age of the social media giants, according to evidence collected from computer sleuths, researchers and documents across more than a dozen countries.
Combining virtual hate mobs, surveillance, misinformation, anonymous threats, and the invasion of victims’ privacy, states and political parties around the globe have created an increasingly aggressive online playbook that is difficult for the platforms to detect or counter.
Some regimes use techniques like those Russia deployed to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, while others are riffing in homegrown ways. And an informal but burgeoning industry of bot brokers and trolls-for-hire has sprung up to assist. The efforts have succeeded in many cases, sending journalists into exile or effectively silencing online expression.
In Venezuela, prospective trolls sign up for Twitter and Instagram accounts at government-sanctioned kiosks in town squares and are rewarded for their participation with access to scarce food coupons, according to Venezuelan researcher Marianne Diaz of the group @DerechosDigitales. A self-described former troll in India says he was given a half-dozen Facebook accounts and eight cell phones after he joined a 300-person team that worked to intimidate opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And in Ecuador, contracting documents detail government payments to a public relations company that set up and ran a troll farm used to harass political opponents. [Continue reading…]