Articles · September 17, 2021

Disinformation in Turkey: poisoned public opinion

As numerous national and international organizations have documented, Turkey has deteriorated into a country where the freedom of information and speech have become progressively restricted, with communication rights severely hampered under the reign of the AKP. Additional and more stringent regulatory efforts are also pending.  

This article was originally published here.

Citing the current popular discussion on social media and the internet around the globe as a reference point, the government didn’t hold back to incorporate legitimate concerns about the social networks into its heavy-handed and securitised legislative agenda, and frequently decried information disorder- often known as “false or misleading information problem” and disinformation- over the last several years; and thus, signalled a renewed quest for securing a new hegemony over the media.

The background of the most recent internet regulations

In my article “What’s Behind Turkey’s New Internet Law?”, I looked into a new draft law that focuses on content restriction and the control of social media platforms. While commenting on facts behind this draft law, I argued that if this bill is passed by the parliament, the last breathing room for Turkey’s moribund freedom of information and expression, which allows individuals to speak up amid heavy crackdown, would be gone.

While the government has successfully turned the mainstream media into a rose without thorns for its own ends, it, however, hitherto failed to achieve a complete control over alternative media and their accounts on social platforms, despite extensive judicial and legislative strain.

And now, in yet another critical step, the government enacted a new draft legislation, which was cloaked in secret and shielded from public scrutiny for months, in less than 24 hours with no substantive debate. Following the President’s approval, a new era for social media and the internet in Turkey has started.

The landscape of disinformation in Turkey

As is the case with many other societies, even the most trivial social problem, fact or situation in Turkey is regrettably served with a purposeful distortion aimed at manipulating the masses and communication channels are poisoned. False and misleading materials presented as news have often been circulated and received online for a long period of time, most notably through social media. This does not only stymy a constructive debate about matters of public interest, but also, in the long run, hampers democratic processes. The escalation of the vicious circle of violence as well as uncertainties arising from irregular migration flows and pandemics are already causing the people to be more precariously situated. Manipulation and conspiracy theories, on the other hand, only serves to exacerbate this issue by making the public even more susceptible to disinformation. In a recent report authored by the academic Akın Ünver and titled “Fact-Checkers and Fact Checking in Turkey”, Turkey is characterised as “one of the most polarised, information-constrained and censorship prone OECD countries”.

According to a Reuters Institute study from 2018, 49 percent of Turkish citizens reported having been exposed to completely made-up (fake) news stories. This research further indicates that Turkey had the highest figure compared to all the other countries studied.

The so-called “Aktrolls”, named after a reference to the first two initials of the ruling AKP, have been on the forefront of public debate in recent years. These troll accounts are linked to many alleged attacks against dissidents or alternative media outlets, journalists, and politicians. They basically engage in cyberbullying and attempt to intimidate their targets by concerted systematic attacks and had been twisting the substance or meaning of expressions or comments to make them a target for the judiciary and law enforcement. This not only prevent internet users from expressing their thoughts, but also impedes journalists’ job and discourages citizens from expressing themselves through the media and social platforms.

Allow me here to indicate a few additional points. Last month, Twitter announced a takedown of a total of 7,340 accounts attributed to the AKP for breaching the platform’s anti-manipulation policies, and the Stanford Internet Observatory published research on these purged accounts. This incident provoked a blistering statement from the President’s Communication Director, Fahrettin Altun, in which he spouted fury at the platform, denying allegations that those accounts were single-handedly managed by a central governmental authority, and accused Twitter of being a “propaganda machine” (or “a tool for an ideological black propaganda” in an exact quote) over his personal Twitter account.

However, another earlier occurrence should also be recalled. That is, the 2014 Turkish Local Elections were perhaps the most notable period in which the public felt the full weight of disinformation troops that are either known as pro-government or considered to have an undeniable relationship with the government. In a piece for the Yetkin Report, Emre Kızılkaya of International Press Institute’s Turkey National Committee, reported the following:

“On March 17, 2014, I spoke with an executive from Twitter’s headquarters in the United States. After verifying the facts on the following day, it was covered on the main page of Hürriyet newspaper, become a headline in its economy section on March 20th, and was published in English on the Hürriyet Daily News the next day. I’m not sure if Erdoğan, the then-Prime Minister, had already seen it before slamming Twitter on the same day. At a rally in Bursa, Turkey’s western region, Erdoğan said to his followers, “Twitter, schmitter! We’ll wipe out all of them… The world community can say this or that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will witness how powerful the Republic of Turkey’s is.”

In June 2020, I created a case study by examining a few of the disinformation spirals that we see practically every day, often organised over the same networks and clogging all public opinion. In this case study, I decoded the networks and tactics used to silence and misrepresent the opposition’s views on a wide range of public issues in favour of the government.

Similarly, a report from the Oxford University Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Research Project during the same period identified Turkey as one of the countries engaged in disinformation, citing a cyber troop team of 500 people as a vehicle to “attack the opposition, supress social media and amplify government support”.

Statements of politicians riddled with hate speech and attempts at marginalisation, the fact that virtually all owners of the national media outlets that publish these statements are either pro-government or are controlled by group companies with commercial ties to the government, and finally, the broad repercussions of these in public result manipulated masses to further spread false information and misleading content unknowingly. In this toxic and contaminated environment, masses who have been manipulated for a variety of reasons become willing collaborators in amplifying disinformation based on their political or national allegiance.   

In addition, comments on contents published on the new social media sites support this conclusion. It appears that comments containing misleading information or hate speech are even flowing within the media that does not explicitly manufacture hate content.

One of the outcomes of a collaborative study conducted as part of the project “Direnç/Resilience” titled “Hate and Propaganda Media in Turkey: Affiliations, Models and Patterns” came to the following conclusion:

All in all, the highly concentrated media market and the inexplicit and non-transparent financial structures of media ownership are the biggest obstacles to media pluralism in Turkey. The media owners’ political and economic affiliations undermine the task of countering the hate speech and disinformation in the media. This situation stands as a major barrier to social cohesion and democracy in Turkey.

While government actions and the havoc caused by the populist rhetoric in engaging with its electorate have polarized society beyond repair, resistance to disinformation has weakened, if not been fully eradicated. With the swinging of many seemingly unrelated topics such as intra-governmental rivalries, economic crisis, migration flows from Syria and Afghanistan, natural disasters, the pandemics, and the vaccination into a crisis, the government which stuttered, failed to generate health policies establishing to the satisfaction of the public, and thus withers, recognize all these developments as unredeemable and nonretractable. With many seemingly unrelated issues such as internal rivalries with the government, economic crisis, migration flows from Syria and Afghanistan, natural disasters, pandemics, and vaccination escalating into a full-fledged crisis, the government stalled, failed to offer public-satisfying healthy policies, so withered, and hence sees all these developments as irretrievable and irreversible.

Although the government longs for a measure to combat disinformation and information disorder, as it did with the last social media legislation, its concentration is once again on a completely securitised policy congruent with its perceptions and narratives.

A swing into full gear

The far stricter version of the NetzDG, which was fiercely pushed by the government with the assertion that “civilised countries are also regulating the internet” has already thwarted the freedom of information, communication, and speech, presenting a bleak picture for Turkey’s democratic future. Many analysts believe that the People’ Alliance, an electoral coalition formed between the ruling AKP and the opposition MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) which has been losing ground at home, has signalled fresh strategies to sway public opinion in its own favour.   have already heralded new tactics aiming to secure a hold over on the public opinion in its own favour. Indeed, the most recent buzzwords emerging from the ruling party’s lexicon are “terror of lies” and “fake news”.

Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a constructive discussion on social issues debated on radio, television, and social media. That is, with the proliferation of political propaganda in the media, censorship, and courts ordering the removal and/or blocking of the access to online content, we hit a sticky patch in finding diverse viewpoints on common subjects in the traditional media outlets. According to the Freedom of Expression Association’s EngelliWeb report, blocking requests were filed for over 467 thousand domains, 150 thousand URLs, and 50 thousand tweets in just 2020.

Building resilience against information disorder and disinformation, with the active participation of experts and specialist agencies, is now a pressing need. Additionally, new academic and social efforts are emerging, complementing the previously established fact-checking portals Teyit and Doğruluk Payı which conduct multi-layered investigations and have international renown. RDMEDU, for example, is presently organising training programs in partnership with foreign institutions, to strengthen Turkey’s resilience against disinformation. By analysing data collected from the field, InfodemiLab, aims to grasp the propagation of fake news from the perspective of Turkish media consumers and create preventive measures. The reality is that, while many other large and small organisations are engaged in a variety of activities to combat fake news problem, including organising media literacy programs, webinars, training tools and curricula, the government is, regrettably, attempting to abdicate its responsibility amid this crisis by placing the blame on the opposition, instituting new legislative arrangements, and balking at the prospect of collaborating with relevant stakeholders.

The Presidency’s Directorate of Communications stressed the importance of “proper use” of the internet and social media in its “Social Media: A User’s Manual”, published on May 22, 2020, and consistent with its security-focused approach, repeatedly cited a lack of “inspection” over companies that own the social networks and their users among “problems encountered”. One of the most compelling arguments made in this manual, in my opinion, was that “it is conceivable to instigate a civil unrest via fake news capable of provoking a public uproar.” This Manual also heralded a new regulation which shall govern the notions of “fake”, “accurate”, and “truth” in a context to be defined by the government. 

During a press conference on August 18, 2021, Hüseyin Yayman, the head of the TGNA Digital Platforms Commission, stipulated “fake news”, disinformation and hate speech among the factors posing threats to the governments and democracies. Following this declaration, numerous media outlets reported that the government was laying the groundwork for a new draft law that would impose criminal penalties on persons who produce and propagate “fake news” on social media. The draft also proposes for the creation of a new regulatory body dubbed as the “Directorate of Social Media” to “inspect those producing and spreading fake/hoax news”, according to the Türkiye newspaper. According to this report, which also cited an unnamed AKP source, disinformation and misinformation would be made an offence under the Turkish Criminal Code (TCK), and that defamation on social media will be punishable by a prison term ranging from three months to two years.

On September 1, 2021, Ebubekir Şahin, the head of the Turkey’s broadcast regulator RTÜK, took up the gauntlet in the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak and demanded an intervention. In his plea for a battle against “fake news terror”, Şahin referred to the British regulator OFCOM, emphasising that through the “Online Safety Bill”, the UK government entrusted OFCOM with the mandate to tackle harmful online content in an attempt to “protect the public from disinformation.” “Both Germany and France enacted strict regulations in the realm of social media” Şahin concluded.  

What is next?

According to the BBC Turkish article dated September 1, the proposed bill envisions sanctions only being applied to disinformation-spreading posts that are “organized, structured and serving a specific purpose”.

Nonetheless, given RTÜK’s notorious recent performance, media outlets, civil society organizations, and academics all concerned about the criteria that shall be invoked to identify disinformation and fake news.

In the aftermath of new internet and social media regulations went into force in October 2021, it is now almost self-evident that the government shall codify the battle against “terror of fake news” with the support of its majority. The proposed text is likely to be finalized soon and introduced into Parliament in October.

Most recently, like with the Gezi Protests, we also saw how pro-government media played ostrich about woods and communities burned to ashes by wildfires caused by climate crisis between July and August 2021. Furthermore, by juxtaposing some terrorist organizations and opposition parties in the same phrase, various disinformation networks promoted sabotage claims as the root cause of fires. Yet, serious flaws and poor organization in firefighting drew the vitriol of public.

While wildfires were still ravaging several parts of the nation, many media workers, outlets, and academics criticized certain expressions in an order sent by RTÜK to the media on August 3, 2021.

In this note, RTUK stated “despite fires that have been successfully extinguished by rapid response teams in 130 different locations, a failure to report these and insisting on airing only the footages of burning areas is precisely the type of journalism desired by those anticipating an atmosphere of chaos”, adding those failing to abide by applicable broadcasting principles will face penalties. Indeed, it followed up on this warning barely a week later, and levied penalties to a number of media outlets for spreading “chaos and manipulative” news by either covering the blazes on site despite occasional impediments denying them entrance or hosting debate programs critical of government institutions. It is also worth noting that those fined were also constantly chastised by AKP and MHP officials.

While the AKP-MHP coalition looks to be pursuing a greater hegemony over all media outlets knows as independent, alternative, or dissident media, it also appears to be eagerly embracing the rising global tide seeking to restrict freedom of expression and communication through “security-focused” measures. While doing so, the government’s view of freedom of press is primarily moulded by “anti-terrorism” approach, and it does not hesitate to wag its finger at laws in Germany, United Kingdom, Australia, and France as a riposte to dissidents accusing it of drifting towards despotic Asian regimes.