Over the last decade, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have democratised the production and flow of news, allowing any user to play an active role in the news cycle. But that change has not come without a dark side.

Increasingly, it has left journalists, citizen reporters and bloggers exposed to abusive behaviour, sometimes in the form of organised campaigns aimed at suffocating critical reporting. This problem was especially pronounced in Turkey in recent years, but it worsened after the failed July 15, 2016 coup d’état, as an analysis of data the International Press Institute (IPI) has collected shows.

IPI’s Online project has monitored coordinated online campaigns to silence critical reporting in Turkey since January 2016. Of the 1,000 messages that researchers collected ahead of the coup attempt from Twitter, the main social media platform steering public debate in Turkey, a preliminary content analysis of 250 messages reveals some early trends.

Using open software such as Tweetdeck and NodeXL we created lists of journalists, topics (hashtags), government officials and known trolls to monitor their activity. We began by manually collecting screenshots of threats on Twitter or smear attempts masquerading as news articles on pro-government news websites. Each instance was then classified according to four broad categories: threats of violence, abusive behaviour, technical interference and legal threats.

Our review found that abusive behaviour, or verbal abuse, was one of the main tools used in campaigns on Twitter targeting journalists in Turkey. In 69 of the 250 messages analysed so far, government supporters and Turkish nationalists targeting journalists online engaged in one of three types of verbal abuse apparently intended to incite conduct against journalists, to impeach their credibility or to shame them into silence.

The first type of verbal abuse involved insults using specific words that can be characterised as “threatening” or “intimidating”. Twenty-five messages fall into this category. The second type of abuse, seen in 24 messages, involved the use of “humiliating” insults. The final 20 messages presented insults with a sexual-related component, overwhelmingly directed at women.

All 20 instances of sexual-related verbal abuse involved humiliating insults, as opposed to threatening insults. If combined with non-sexual-related humiliating insults, the total accounts for 44 of the 69 instances of verbal abuse, making these types of insults the most-used strategy overall to chill journalists’ scrutiny of government actions.

Intimidating insults

Intimidating insults have the greatest impact and are commonly used by supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and affiliated trolls. For the purpose of analysis, IPI defined intimidating insults as messages that include labels such as “traitor”, “terrorist” or “terrorist supporter”, as well as “kafir” (infidel). These messages take on a threatening or intimidating nature as a result of the potential ramifications of being branded with such a label.

The accusation “traitor” is particularly strong, as it increases public anger against those targeted, leading, in many instances, directly to threats of violence and death. Most journalists murdered in Turkey in recent decades had been labelled traitors by Turkish nationalists. The murderer of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink notably defended having gunned him down in 2007 by pointing to the influence of media coverage.

“I am not guilty,” Ogun Samast, who was 17 when he shot Dink, said in 2011. “The headlines that portrayed Dink as if he was a traitor were guilty”.

The 25 messages with intimidating insults included statements such as “These lands have been ours for almost 1000 years but it has not seen a traitor like you” and “Congratulations Cumhuriyet Newspaper! It seems like you have added one more traitor among yourselves”. Following a journalist’s call to free a colleague who had been arrested, one Twitter user responded: “You both are traitors, so it makes no difference to me.”

Terrorism-related insults are similarly dangerous. Membership in or support for a terrorist group is a crime, and Turkey’s use of its controversial anti-terrorism law to prosecute and imprison numerous journalists and government critics has drawn censure from many press freedom and human rights NGOs, as well as from important political actors, such as the EU and the U.N.

Terrorism-related labels are easily arrogated for use against journalists – particularly those directly or indirectly supporting Kurds’ rights, or writing in support of the political opposition – who are then perceived as betrayers. Such insults also nourish a broader impression in society that attacks on journalists will be met with impunity.

One journalist who wrote an article for a foreign newspaper received the response: “Retarded terrorist and monstrous murderer”. Another prominent Turkish journalist was asked by @mozzdemirr1, a member of the AKP Malatya City Youth Branch “When will you blow yourself up in the air?” which, in context, can be understood as accusing the journalist of being a terrorist.

The term “kafir” – an infidel or one who rejects Islam – is also commonly used. Turkey’s population is predominantly Muslim and the devout often view unbelievers as enemies or, at least, without respect. When a journalist tweeted to announce a prison sentence she had received, an anonymous user replied: “Long live sharia! All of you will have such an end, infidels!” That user’s account, which clearly belongs to a supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has 26,000 followers.

Humiliating insults

Both male and female journalists are the target of humiliating insults which utilises less threatening language, but which are nevertheless intended to belittle them. Common examples include language such as “bastard”, “asshole”, “son of a bitch” or “ignoble”, as well as exhortations like “fuck you”. They also include “dog” – comparisons with animals such as dogs, donkeys or oxen are broadly used to shame people in Turkey – “bonehead” or “diabolic”. These types of comments usually come in reaction to an “unacceptable” comment a journalist has posted online.

“I can’t decide which swearwords and insults should be used for you. You can’t be that much of a whore, pimp, and an ass giver. Were you born in a toilet?” one anonymous user wrote in response to a prominent journalist’s posting of an article on Twitter. “Our country will be more peaceful when the government resigns and the president leaves politics, right? You are sons of a bitch, parasites, now fuck off!” another wrote when a journalist posted a status update questioning Turkey’s future.

Some journalists are chronically targeted, even when they comment on something outside the scope of politics, such as a football game. One Twitter user responded to a journalist’s comment on a match with: “Hey pimp! Have you seen the game? Why are you talking, fuck you! If you are a man, first watch the game and then comment on it. Stick the referee card up your ass!”

Sexual-related insults

Verbal abuse in Turkey frequently takes on a sexual component, especially when a women journalist is the target. As noted, some 20 messages went beyond levying humiliating insults to make an explicitly sexual-based attack.

The most common sexual-related insults involve language such as “bitch”, “street girl” or “loose woman”. When women journalists publish an article or comment online in support of certain politicians, they are labelled that politician’s “mistress” or an “odalisque”, i.e., a female slave or concubine in a harem. The aim of such a label is not only to humiliate the journalist, but to use sex to undermine her reputation and attack her credibility.

A similar tactic involves suggesting that the journalist has “gone under” the man she publicly supported, implying a sexual relationship. This tactic is often invoked when a journalist comments favourably about someone government supporters consider an “enemy” of Turkey.

Some examples targeting prominent women journalists included “Big sister ran away to Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is in need of an odalisque” and “Instead of being put in prison, she shall get under [opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu]”. Another female journalist, after a foreign newspaper published her article on the Kurdish issue, was told, “Are you a Turk or an English seed? Even a female dog is loyal to his mate, you can’t even be a female dog”, the latter being a term used in Turkish to insult women.

Aftermath of 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt

People demonstrate outside Ataturk international airport during the failed coup d'état in Istanbul, Turkey on July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

People demonstrate outside Ataturk international airport during the failed coup d’état in Istanbul, Turkey on the morning of July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Amid IPI’s ongoing collection of data from Turkey, we have noted that the attempted coup d’état on July 15, 2016 worsened an already-stifled atmosphere for press freedom and free expression. Trends that preceded the coup attempt not only have continued, but have intensified. As the government uses the state of emergency declared in the wake of the putsch to imprison scores of journalists and close media outlets, its supporters have increasingly carried their hatred online, insulting and threatening journalists without hesitation.

Turkey’s General Directorate of Security, the high command of the country’s police, officially asked the public to report any social media account that praised the coup or had a “criminal element”. That announcement, coupled with the state of emergency, strengthened the atmosphere of impunity around government supporters. Accusing journalists has now become very easy.

Much of the behaviour noted above that preceded the coup attempt has been on display again and again in online attacks since July 15. The list of humiliating insults – and perhaps even the list of threatening insults – could be amended to add the terms “coup lover”, “coup supporter” and “coup plotter”. Meanwhile, sexual-related insults have taken on an even-uglier tone.

For example, consider the messages one user issued targeting a woman journalist in the wake of the coup attempt. “Isn’t there any brave fellow who could blow the fire out of this fiery bitch? Does anyone know where she lives or which places she regularly visits?” the individual asked.

The user also told the journalist “My identity is not hidden; I am thinking about fucking you as a warning or deterrent to others. You would surely be satisfied and even regain consciousness” and “I am thinking about fucking you as a warning or deterrent to others. You would go to heaven. Otherwise, I don’t see your end as bright”.

This person seems to be a government supporter and a fan of Erdoğan: his Twitter cover photograph has a picture of the president above the caption “my hero”. One day after posting the latest of the comments above, the user did not hold back from further threatening the woman: “You won’t believe it but I was fucking you in my dream yesterday night, have you too felt anything?”