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.