It looked innocent enough: As Turkey burned, ravaged by its deadliest and most destructive wildfires in living memory, #HelpTurkey began trending on Twitter, supported by sympathetic celebrities and traumatized Turks.
However, in a deeply divided country where even minor events spark culture wars between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters and opponents, the hashtag turned into a scandal, leading to a prosecutors’ probe.
The powerful Turkish leader, unexpectedly facing one of the most serious challenges of his 18-year rule, sounded scandalized by the idea that his country needed help, even as the government revealed it no longer had functioning firefighting planes.
“In response to this, there’s only one thing we can say: Strong Turkey,” Erdogan said after Friday prayers, mentioning a hashtag being circulated by his voters.
“A terror of lies is being spread from America, Europe and certain other places,” he said about the #HelpTurkey campaign.
Acting on Erdogan’s anger, the prosecutors’ office said it would investigate whether the posts were designed to “create anxiety, fear and panic in the public, and to humiliate the Turkish government.”
At about the same time, the media regulator threatened to fine TV channels that continued airing live footage of the fires or running stories that “provoke fear and worries in the public.”
Most stations complied, minimizing their coverage of a disaster that has killed eight people, destroyed forests across vast swathes of the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, and upturned the lives of a generation of farmers.
The uproar stemmed in part from Erdogan’s proud nationalism, and in part from a perception among his opponents that cronyism and corruption were taking root.
Twitter exploded in outrage when he went on tour of the damaged region under heavy police escort, tossing bags of tea to locals out of a moving bus in the middle of the night as a megaphone announced his presence.
“Help us,” Turkish comedian Enis Arikan posted on Twitter hours after Erdogan’s visit in a typical #HelpTurkey post. “We need planes urgently. We only have one world.”
In self-defense, the Turkish government is promoting a narrative that #HelpTurkey is being fanned by “sock puppets” — fake accounts designed to manipulate public opinion.
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