Turks Wage War on Social Media as Raging Fires Turn Political
ISTANBUL – As Turkey battles its worst forest fires in decades, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan comes under fierce attacks for his handling of the disaster, as well as his broader handling of an already stricken country by an economic crisis and the pandemic.
Fires erupted uncontrollably for the eighth day on Wednesday, made worse by a record-breaking heat wave following a prolonged drought. The nation watched horror footage on television and social media, as thousands were forced to evacuate homes, resorts and entire villages, mostly in the south, and herds of cattle perished in rapid fires.
In a summer of widespread extreme weather – from flooding in Germany and Belgium to record heat waves and wildfires in Russia, Italy, Greece, Canada and the United States – the emergency in Turkey fueled an increasingly strong and united opposition to Mr. Erdogan. Tensions are high across Turkey, where the government has long been accused of corruption and mismanagement, exacerbating the country’s economic woes and the crippling effects of the coronavirus.
At least eight people have died in the fires and dozens have been hospitalized, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation. More than 170 forest fires broke out last week in 39 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, burning hundreds of square kilometers of forest and destroying farmland and dozens of homes.
Among the dead were a couple awaiting the arrival of their son to help them evacuate, two firefighters whose truck overturned in a fire and a young volunteer delivering water to firefighters on a motorcycle.
A farming couple reached by phone on Wednesday sobbed as they described how they were left to fight the flames on their own, without the help of firefighters, when hell hit their village, Cokertme, on the Aegean coast, in southwestern Turkey.
The couple, Nurten Bozkurt, 59, and her husband Cengiz, 55, took their cattle to the sea when military police ordered them to evacuate, but retreated the next morning in an attempt to save their home, their barn. and the houses surrounding the fire. .
“My eyes, my hands are still burning,” Mr. Bozkurt said. “I went to the barn, my wife stayed at home. Every three to five minutes, fire fell on the straw and the pile of manure.
At home, Ms Bozkurt sprayed the roof and balcony whenever puffs of smoke appeared.
“We made it,” she says. “We saved 10 to 15 houses. We didn’t see any firefighters.
But the forest around them has been decimated and their livelihoods with it, they said.
“Around our village, there is not a place that has not burned down,” Mr Bozkurt said, bursting into tears. “Our greatest loss is olive trees and pines. Above all, they are gone.
The disaster mainly affected the southern coastal districts which are owned by the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and local mayors and party officials were quick to ring the bell. ‘alarm. But they quickly complained in interviews and video calls that they were not getting the necessary help from the central government – planes and helicopters to put out the fires.
Critics of Mr Erdogan’s government include its putting planes on hold to fight the forest fires and its decision to only outsource three Russian planes in their place.
Extreme weather conditions
Mr Erdogan faces re-election in two years and although he is still Turkey’s most popular politician, he has slipped in the polls. As a sign of the imminent political battle, opponents and supporters of the government have led concerted campaigns on social networks; critics attacked the government for its inability to tackle the wildfires, and the government responded with accusations it was trying to undermine the state.
A social media campaign, #HelpTurkey, kicked off early Monday morning and reached 2.5 million tweets within hours. Well-known celebrities joined the call, calling for international help to fight the fires.
But there were signs of a possible coordinated campaign of influence behind it, said Marc Owen Jones, associate professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, in a report. analysis published on Twitter. He found that the accounts that generated the most traffic with the hashtag changed their names and deleted their tweets afterwards, and many of them appeared to be fake identities or “sock puppets,” tactics used in some cases. precedents of political manipulation of social media traffic. .
Mr Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, accused the opposition of using a social media campaign orchestrated from abroad to undermine the state. The government – which has been accused of running its own influence campaigns in the past – and its supporters responded with hashtags like #StrongTurkey and # WeDon’tNeedHelp.
“The so-called aid campaign, organized abroad and from a single center, was launched with ideological motives, with the aim of presenting our state as powerless and weakening our nation-state unity. “Mr. Altun said in a statement. “Our country, Turkey, is strong.
The social media fight continued on Wednesday, with new hashtags from opponents calling for Erdogan to briefly catch up with the trend.
CHP chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu joined the critics in a speech on Tuesday, accusing Erdogan of not having a master plan in place to tackle the wildfires and warning that Turkey must prepare immediately for the future climate-related crises.
He also criticized the government for turning on its critics with language suggesting they were anti-state.
“When people whose souls are so wounded cry out for help,” he said, “instead of understanding them, branding people terrorists and collaborators is a tactic that only incompetent governments will do. appeal”.
Mr Erdogan largely stayed above the fray, pledging aid to the victims of the fires and thanking foreign countries for their help with firefighting equipment and planes. He visited one of the worst affected areas over the weekend and pledged to start rebuilding houses and barns within a month.
But government officials and their allies have sought to blame the disaster on their opponents, suggesting the fires were started by saboteurs and describing the call for help from abroad as an insidious plot against the government. .
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party and political ally of Mr. Erdogan, called the opposition “opportunists using forest fires for political ends” and seeking “an environment to exploit the fragile environment and delicate of our country “.
Columnist Hilal Kaplan, known for his strong pro-government stance, wrote in the daily Sabah that the social media campaign against the government reminded her of the 2013 period when popular protests swept through central Taksim Square in Istanbul, and the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. She warned of another coup against Mr. Erdogan’s government.
“There is a strange activity,” she writes. “As I was accused of being paranoid when I wrote about the possibility of a coup four months before July 15, they will try the same trick again.”
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