In the epic corruption scandal that has enthralled Turkey, where the private affairs of powerful men are leaked daily on the Internet, one secret has remained stubbornly elusive: Who is Haramzadeler?
The nom de plume, employed by an anonymous user on Twitter Inc. (TWTR)’s messaging service, means Sons of Thieves in Turkish. Its owner or owners have achieved notoriety and outsized influence by posting links on Twitter to a large cache of secret documents and hours of audio described as police wiretaps, part of a 15-month corruption investigation that has swept up Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his family and his friends.
Haramzadeler’s proficiency in harnessing the anonymity of Twitter with the reach of YouTube has unleashed more than 1,000 pages of transcribed tapes and dozens of tape recordings. Postings also comment on current events: Today, as tens of thousands of protesters marched toward central Istanbul to mourn yesterday’s death of a 15-year old boy hit by a tear-gas canister last year, Haramzadeler posted a stylized drawing of the victim wearing angel wings.
The leaks have enlivened the opposition and put Erdogan on the defensive amid the public allegations of graft that stretch from the prime minister’s family to the businessmen who’ve profited during his 11 years in power.
With more than 500,000 followers across two related accounts, the posts have drawn the ire of the prime minister, who said in a television interview last week that he might consider blocking YouTube and other social media.
Twitter itself has become a zone of dissent, rooted in the government’s violent response in 2013 to protests over the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, said Ethan Zuckerman, director for the Center of Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The revelations have made Haramzadeler a major source of anti-Erdogan information, especially in a country where the largest television channels and newspapers are openly supportive of the prime minister.
“Twitter has become a channel both for sharing news and commenting on the failings of Turkish media,” Zuckerman said in an e-mail. “It developed quite specifically in response to what many protesters and their supporters see as a media blackout.”
Erdogan didn’t mention Twitter in last week’s interview on the ATV channel, whose 2013 sale from a company run by his son-in-law to another run by a business ally was itself the subject of a Twitter post by Haramzadeler. Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul are among the five most-followed world leaders on Twitter, with more than 8.4 million combined followers.
The prime minister focused instead on the linked sites, usually on YouTube, where followers can find recordings, photographs and police records. And he mentioned Facebook (FB), which has 34 million active users in Turkey.
“We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook,” he said in the interview, and said he would make a decision on any ban after the March 30 elections.
Turks will choose between mayoral candidates from Erdogan’s AK Party and the opposition CHP, which has used the information leaked by Haramzadeler to attack Erdogan on the floor of parliament and in campaign speeches around the country.
While the authenticity of the recordings or the police records couldn’t be independently verified, Erdogan and his government have addressed the allegations in a lawsuit, in parliament and on the campaign trail. Speaking across Turkey, the prime minister has dismissed some of the recordings as fake, embraced one as “natural” and has said of the entire investigation that it is sparked by “foreign powers.”
Haramzadeler hasn’t said where the recordings and documents come from. The posts call them court-ordered wiretaps, conducted by the police under the direction of a prosecutor. The results of that investigation, which became public on Dec. 17 when dozens of people related to Erdogan’s government were arrested, haven’t been officially released.
Another account, Bascalan, a play on the Turkish word for prime minister that means Prime Thief, sends out additional files. The user doesn’t say whether the wiretaps posted were authorized by law enforcement.
In Istanbul, Turkey’s richest and most populous city, Haramzadeler’s tweets are followed avidly, said about a dozen people interviewed in coffee shops in the city’s center.
“He’s a true hero,” said Asla, a mid-30s advertising executive who asked that her name not be used because she didn’t want to publicly criticize the government. “Everywhere in the news there are nothing but lies, but I trust these things because I can hear them, see them and show them to my parents and my friends.” Her laptop lay on the table in front of her at the outdoor cafe, open to her Twitter account.
Through all of this, Haramzadeler has remained nameless, changing Twitter handles as the previous ones are spammed by government supporters. The user also shuffles the websites used to display material and recently started adding web proxies to the links. Those shield followers from exposing their own identities when they follow the links.
The user didn’t respond to a request for comment sent to a website mentioned in the Twitter bio. A spokesman for Facebook Inc. declined to comment. Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, declined comment, as did Ozlem Oz, the Turkey communications manager for Google Inc. (GOOG), owner of YouTube.
Haramzadeler has remained prolific as the government has stalled the investigation by replacing prosecutors and thousands of police officers. Last weekend alone, he posted about alleged bribes to bank executives, domestic spying and the purchase with loaned money of a cargo ship named “Pretty.”