Recep Tayyip Erdogan's monitoring of the digital realm
In order to understand what is going on in Turkey today, it's a good idea to pay close attention to the President's words.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed in early July last year that social media should either be banned or controlled and regulated. This chastisement was triggered by offensive posts after Erdogan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak, then still finance minister in his cabinet, had announced the birth of his fourth child on the messaging service Twitter. Erdogan denounced the resulting tweets as "immoral" and "dark-hearted" and warned that there would be consequences: "We want media of this sort to be eradicated or brought under control."
And he didn't stop at mere words: on 28 July 2020, the Turkish Parliament passed new legislation on social media that came into force at the beginning of October.
The new law has far-reaching consequences going beyond media policy in the narrower sense. In the struggle for political sovereignty of interpretation, Erdogan has already managed to bring the traditional media largely under his control. More than 90 percent of the newspapers and TV channels in Turkey are thought to rely on directives coming from the presidential palace.
But the situation is different with digital media, which are today the central battlefield in the war of information and opinion now that the younger generation in particular has long since turned its back on traditional media channels.
In terms of digitalisation, Turkey is an ultra-modern country by international standards. The number of internet users was 63 million at the beginning of 2020. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkSat), more than 80 percent of men and nearly 70 percent of women log onto the web regularly. And the information service Bianet reports that Turkey is among the top 15 users worldwide in terms of time spent daily on the internet.
In Turkey as elsewhere, recent years have seen sweeping changes in media consumption. And there is no end in sight for the digital transformation in the media sector. Developments there are dynamic – fuelled in part by the political situation. More and more Turks are drawing on digital offerings, not least because the traditional media have largely been co-opted.
This explains the President's urge to extend his oversight to social media as he wrestles to maintain his power. For Erdogan, media policy is a central component of his strategy for staying in office. His foremost strategic goal is to secure a majority in the next elections. Erdogan's Turkey is anything but a liberal democracy, and yet even with the President's increasing autocratic tendencies, he still must have his power legitimised through political elections.
Marking #WorldPressFreedomDay, we sat with @RSF_en representative @ErolOnderoglu who's facing arbitrary "terrorism" charges, simply for supporting independent outlets targetted by #Turkey's media crackdown. Listen to #TheHumanRightsDefender: https://t.co/jFhVmNkhMk pic.twitter.com/GncsnS8zCw
— Civil Rights Defenders (@crdefenders) May 5, 2021
The new law regulating social media is a powerful weapon in this regard. It obliges the major online platforms to set up legal presences in Turkey. If they fail to comply, they will first face high fines and then, in the culmination of a staggered legal process lasting several months, could even be shut down altogether.
The multinational digital corporations have long been reluctant to comply with the law, thinking at first that they would be able to resist Ankara's bidding. But after Facebook backed down after its initial dithering, the last of the big players, the short message service Twitter, which enjoys great popularity in the country, has now folded as well.
The law requires social media networks to delete content within 48 hours if someone complains that their rights have been violated. And data must be stored in Turkey. Twitter has assured that it will protect "the voices and data" of Turkish users. Human rights groups are concerned that this is simply not possible.
In the meantime, Ankara's requests for content removal already account for nearly a third of all global deletion requests reaching Twitter each year. No less than 45,800 such complaints have reached the US company from Turkey, according to a company spokesman quoted by the news agency Associated Press; Twitter responded by removing every third post that was criticised.
The Freedom of Expression Association reported that Turkish authorities had blocked over 450,000 domains, 120,000 Internet links and 42,000 tweets as of October 2020, the month the new law came into effect.
Google favours Erdogan
A recent study by the International Press Institute (IPI) confirms the picture of a highly regulated media landscape in Turkey. The study documents on 68 pages how Google search engines systematically give preference to pro-government media when channelling information flows in Turkey. The Google search engine had accordingly ranked content from pro-government newspapers at the top of the list in more than 90 percent of searches. The beneficiaries of what the IPI study thus found to be a biased selection mechanism are the Erdogan-affiliated newspapers Hurriyet, Milliyet and Sabah.
The popular news search engine Google News also favours pro-Erdogan content, according to the IPI experts. The researchers report that Google algorithms operate in anything but a balanced manner when it comes to Turkish civil society and its leaders. For example, hate comments directed against the imprisoned philanthropist Osman Kavala landed in the top spots in Google online searches, says the IPI report.
"Don't be evil" was Google's claim for a long time. In Turkey, the digital corporation is not living up to this aspiration.
Shades of George Orwell
"Dogru Mu?", which roughly means "Is it true?" is the name of a new app designed to help users check the veracity of news stories. In Turkey, such fact-checking is not new. What is novel and extraordinary, though, is who is behind this project.
"This platform, which we will launch very, very soon, will be one of our robust tools in the fight for truth," says initiator Fahrettin Altun.
Altun is a powerful man in Erdogan's Turkey. He is Director of Presidential Communications and thus has a great deal of authority over what is published in the Turkish media – and what must never appear there. Erdogan has managed to bring the press, radio and television largely in line. Fahrettin Altun is there to make sure that this does not change.
In Altun's worldview, enemies at home and abroad are threatening the country. Controlling information flows is therefore "a matter of national security," the Erdogan confidant says. Altun cites the Kurdish PKK and the Gulen movement, which Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup attempt, as the main sources of menace.
"Our country will be at the forefront of the fight for truth in communications, just as it has become the voice of the voiceless and the oppressed under the leadership of President Erdogan," the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper quoted the communications director as saying.
The information portal Al Monitor reported that Ankara's official fact-checking app will deal primarily with online content. This comes as no surprise, because criticism of Erdogan in Turkish is particularly widespread on the internet.
Independent observers have greeted the "Dogru Mu?" project with a mixture of disapproval and sarcasm. On social media, many have compared it to the "Ministry of Truth", the institute responsible for propaganda, disinformation and the systematic distortion of facts in George Orwell's novel 1984. "Big Brother" and the Party are always right in the totalitarian society Orwell accurately and in part prophetically envisions in his dystopian novel.
"This app can be expected to label everything that official sources describe as correct as truthful and everything else as false," commented Faruk Bildirci, who once worked as ombudsman for the daily paper Hürriyet.
In the face of an increasing number of false reports and targeted disinformation campaigns, a number of Turkish organisations are engaged in checking information published in the media for its veracity and making the results of their fact checks accessible to the public. Exposing and documenting falsehoods is also the mission of today's leading initiative in this field, Teyit.org (meaning "verification"), launched in 2016.
It is still too early to pass judgement on the government app, says Can Semercioglu of Teyit.org. But the organisation has fundamental reasons for rejecting the project out of hand. "In principle, it's a disturbing development when government agencies engage in fact-checking."
There are various models for verifying the truthfulness of journalistic content – both in editorial offices and beyond. One variant would be to appoint an ombudsperson. Another model – adopted in Germany, for example – is to set up a Press Council. The media appointed this fact-checking authority as a method for voluntary self-regulation, and the Press Council furthermore ensures compliance with journalistic standards. What is paramount here, says Can Semercioglu, is that the government is not involved. In the case of the planned Turkish app this is obviously not the case.
"Dogru Mu?" is just another – and possibly the most bizarre – attempt by the Erdogan government to assert sovereignty of opinion in a dynamic media environment. Compared to other tools used by the conservative regime, the app is a comparatively mild one. If they want, users can just look the other way.
Unfortunately, this kind of freedom is not possible for the 60 journalists who, according to IPI data, are currently being held in Erdogan's prisons.
© Qantara.com 2021
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor