Turkey: A Social Media Story

Djene Rhys Bajalan from Missouri State University and Michael Brooks, an award-winning talk show host in the United States, contributes with an article focusing on social media and online communications technology in Turkey.
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President Recip Tayyep Erdogan
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In late August, the pro-government Daily Sabah carried a story pertaining to Finkafe, a Turkish social media platform run by financier Arif Ünver, a former chairman of the Turkey’s Capital Markets Investors Association.[1] At first glance, the article seems like a typical fluff piece which usually seeks to lionize the achievements of a Turkish business to an international audience. If there is one area of modern statecraft in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has excelled, it has been in extolling the virtues of capitalism à la Turca. However, reading between the lines, the write up was more than just page filler designed to separate the laudatory “news” pieces paying tribute to the latest government initiative and the vitriolic editorial attacks launched against the enemies, both foreign and domestic, of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The feature on Finkafe, a company which markets itself under the catchy slogan 100% Yerli Sosyal Medya (“100% Local Social Media”), reveals some of the thinking of AKP elites regarding cyberspace. Two extracts from the piece are particularly illuminating in this regard. The author of the piece, Erhan Kahraman, notes that social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are popular among Turkish citizens, and points out that all of this online activity “creates next to nothing in terms of value for Turkey as a country. The main revenue from social media use goes to foreign companies and, as mentioned before, the private data of Turkish users is stored on foreign servers.” Kahraman then goes on to quote, approvingly, Ünver, who states that: "Our aim is to offer Finkafe to the public and to provide services to our government." The value of Finkafe for Erdoğan’s partisans in the media is that it will provide the government with “services,” namely greater control and influence over cyberspace.

Controlling Communication
The desire of authoritarian regimes to control the means of communications is nothing new. Censorship of the printed word has a venerable tradition stretching back to the very inception of the printing press. More recently, regimes from the Soviet Union to Saudi Arabia have sought to control the flow of information to their citizens through the monopolization of radio and television. Yet, the emergence of new communications technologies has often played an important role in undermining the control of authoritarian states and institutions. Just as the advent of the press allowed the pioneers of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century to challenge the authority of Rome more effectively, so too did West German television serve in weakening the grip of the communist authorities in the East.[2] The impulse of authoritarians to manage public perceptions of reality is nothing new to the Middle East. Dating back to the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909), whose censors strictly monitored the flow of information within the Ottoman Empire (including a blanket censorship of any news related to the murder or assassination of any foreign leader out of fear that it might serve as an example to Ottoman subjects), governments across the region have sought to manage public opinion.[3]

However, the rise of the Internet in the twenty-first century – and more specifically the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – has served to disrupt long established methods of control, as demonstrated by the growing significance of social media platforms in recent protest movements across the Middle East. The first indication of the potentially disruptive influence of social media occurred in 2009, during Iran’s Green Movement. Although the movement, which was directed against what many in Iran felt was a rigging of the presidential election, was ultimately suppressed, but the widespread use of Twitter by the opposition movement led some to speak of it as a “Twitter Revolution.” Of course, some commentators have rightly observed that the role of Twitter in the Green Movement has been somewhat exaggerated.[4] Moreover, as one American political commentator rather succinctly put it, “Twitter cannot stop a bullet…”[5]

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Internet and social media did play an important role in the Arab Spring protests. Indeed, the initial successes of anti-government movements in both Tunisia and Egypt again led many in the media and academia to emphasize the revolutionary potential of online communication technology.[6] Indeed, one of the unlikely heroes to emerge from the tumult of the Arab Spring was a young Egyptian Google executive, Wael Ghonim.[7] A study conducted at Washington State University, which assessed the influence of social media on the protest movements, argued “that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising…”[8] Some studies have, of course, provided a more nuanced picture of the role of social media in the mobilization of opposition forces in the Arab World. Research from Pew Research Center has noted that, while the role of social media in the movement against President Hosni Mubarak was not insignificant (in particular in terms of mobilizing college students and getting news out of the country), the fact that 65 percent of the country was not online means that one should be wary of overstating the importance of social media in Mubarak’s ouster.[9]

Erdoğan’s Online Drang nach Osten (“drive towards the East”)
Considering the growing importance of social media platforms to protest movements across the Middle East, it should not have been surprising that they also played an important role in the anti-government “Gezi Park” protests that broke out in Turkey in May 2013. This is all the more apparent when one considers that, unlike in Egypt where only about a third of the country was online, Internet use in Turkey in 2013 was approximately 46 percent.[10] As one scholar directly involved in the protests noted, social media constituted an important organization tool for the movement’s activists.[11] Yet, it is important to remember, Gezi was ultimately a failure. Again, Facebook and Twitter continue to be woefully inadequate protection against water cannon, pepper-spray, and bullets. Moreover, since 2013, Erdoğan has only gone from strength to strength at a time when Internet use in Turkey has risen 58 percent. Indeed, Erdoğan even managed to face down a coup d’état in July 2016, the story of which also involved the use of social media. Interestingly enough, it was not only the coup plotters who made use of Internet (they used the online messaging service WhatsApp). One reason pro-government forces were able to mobilize so rapidly against the putsch was Erdoğan’s ability to communicate to the broader public through the iPhone application, FaceTime. New communications technology, clearly, can be a two way street.[12]

Nevertheless, Gezi Park seems to have constituted an important turning point in the attitudes of Erdoğan and, more generally pro-AKP, elites towards social media. It would mark the beginning of a new phase in which the government (which is now nearly synonymous with both Erdoğan and the AKP) would adopt a pro-active “online” strategy. Just as Erdoğan has been able to establish a near monopoly on more traditional forms of print and wireless media, so too does he seem intent on laying claim to cyberspace.[13]

Of course, some government efforts to control the flow of online information follow well established models of censorship. Turkey has banned the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia – much to the chagrin of students across the length and breadth of the country – on the grounds that it was running a “smear campaign” against Turkey.[14]  Moreover, the Turkish authorities have also, at times, blocked access to Twitter and Facebook to avoid negative media coverage.[15] However, such methods, which were used by Turkish authorities long before Gezi, are somewhat heavy handed and restrictions on specific websites can often be circumvented by using Virtual Private Networks (VPN). 

Another more traditional form of control extended to the online world is the use of social media posts as evidence in prosecutions of individuals deemed to have violated Turkey’s prohibition on “insulting” the president. One of the more bizarre examples in this regard revolves around an Internet meme highlighting the physical similarities between the Lord of the Rings character Gollum and President Erdoğan. In the spring of 2016, a man was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence and stripped of his parental custodial rights by a court in the seaside province of Antalya for sharing the image. In a peculiar addendum to this story, a year later another man, this time in the western Anatolian province of Aydın, was successfully able to beat the charge.[16] Significantly, he was only able to do so by arguing that Gollum was a sympathetic character and thus comparing him to Turkey’s president did not violate the law. Evidently, keeping an eye on individuals’ social media posts has become a new and highly efficient way of policing the thoughts and opinions of the population.

However, perhaps the most novel and the most insidious form of the Turkish government’s online strategy has been its cultivation of a “troll army,” one which can both actively promote Erdoğan’s political agenda online as well as intimidate those who dare to challenge his authority. The origins of the AKP’s troll army are murky, but seem to date back to September 2013. At the time, journalists in the US, Europe, and Turkey reported on government plans to recruit a 6,000 strong social media army from among the AKP faithful who would be tasked with promoting the government narrative.[17] Certainly, there is nothing particularly sinister about a political party attempting to use new forms of communication to spread a message. This is certainly the way that the head of the New Turkey Digital Office, Gökhan Yücel, sought to present the effort in an interview with the Independent in 2015, likening the efforts of his office to those of Obama’s 2008 election campaign. However, despite Yücel’s attempts at intellectual obfuscation, any comparison with Obama’s campaign is disingenuous at best.[18] 

While some of the AKPs online activists may well be involved in “legitimate” public relations activities, there is a dark underbelly to the Turkish government’s online presence. Pro-government trolls have been active in the dissemination of what has come to be known in the West as “fake news.” For instance, in the summer of 2017, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – led a march protesting the imprisonment of a member of his parliamentary caucus, and shortly after the event a doctored photo of Kılıçdaroğlu sitting next to Fetullah Gülen appeared online. This was a clear attempt to delegitimize Kılıçdaroğlu by linking him to Gülen, the exiled cleric whom Turkish authorities accused of being the mastermind behind the failed July 2016 coup d’état.

Emblazoned above the picture are the words: “So you have never actually met?” and underneath it the caption claims that the picture depicts the two together at a meeting of the “Atatürkist Thought Association.” To believe that Gülen, a leading Turkish Islamist who, until recently, enjoyed excellent relations with Erdoğan and the AKP, would attend the meetings of what only can be described as an ultra-secularist cult dedicated to the veneration of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, takes a certain degree of credulity. However, what is most perverse about this particular example of disinformation is that the original undoctored image shows Gülen seated alongside none other than Erdoğan himself.[19]  

Perhaps the most chilling characteristic of the AKP’s online army is their willingness to attack those deemed to be enemies of the “New Turkey” (a common slogan for Erdoğan’s supporters). One of the more innocuous examples of this seems to have been the mobilization of an online army to against the Hollywood epic, The Promise, a film which depicts the Armenian genocide, a sensitive subject for Turkish nationalists.[20] However, the online army does not just delegitimize what it deems to be unacceptable content, it also includes assaults on individuals in the media. Numerous Turkish journalists critical of the government have been subject to sustained campaigns of intimidation from anonymous social media accounts, as well as from pro-government public figures. A 2016 report from the International Press Institute catalogued the role of pro-government trolls in stifling reporting by threatening journalists with physical and sexual violence.[21] Indeed, it is not only Turkish journalists who have been targeted by the AKP’s online legions. Foreign journalists too have been subject to vicious online campaigns.[22] 

Of course, given the opaque nature of the Turkish government, it is difficult to discern how many of these anonymous online accounts are run by professional apparatchiks in the pay of the state or the AKP, how many are bots, and how many are just “patriotic” Turkish citizens acting autonomously. However, there seems to be little doubt that the AKP is actively attempting to re-engineer Turkey’s cyberspace. Should Finkafe succeed in displacing Facebook and/or Twitter, this would no doubt be a major step in that direction and welcomed by Turkey’s rulers. It is far easier for them to pressure a company based in Istanbul and Ankara rather than one based in Silicon Valley. However, the more likely scenario will be that Finkafe will fail. Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s Online Drang nach Osten will no doubt continue.

Conclusions
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Turkey’s social media story and, more broadly, the story of social media in the recent transformations that have shaken the Middle East is that the internet communications revolution is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, social media and online communications technology have had an enormous impact on those organizing against the dominant political orders in the Middle East. There is no doubt that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter became important tools for activists seeking to rapidly organize and mobilize their supporters, as well as for ensuring that their political message can reach the broader public, without the filtering of government controlled media. Yet, on the other hand, there is nothing inherently revolutionary (in a political sense) about social media. As the importance of the Internet and social media have grown, so too have authoritarian regimes’ interest in it. And as the Turkish case shows, authoritarian regimes are developing strategies not only to mitigate some of the disruptive effects of social media but also to actively seize the initiative online.

 

Michael Brooks is the host of the Michael Brooks Show, an independent global affairs and entertainment program. He is also the co-host of the award winning political talk show the Majority Report. He has studied in both the United States and Turkey and holds BA in International Politics from Bates College.

 

Djene Rhys Bajalan is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Missouri State University. He has previously both taught and studied in the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan. He holds a Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford.


 

 



[1] Erhan Kahraman, “Turkish social media users now explore alternatives to global networks”, Daily Sabah August 21, 2017, https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2017/08/22/turkish-social-media-users-now-explore-local-alternatives-to-global-networks Finkafe’s official webpage can be accessed at www.finkafe.com

[2] James M. Markham, “TV Brings Western Culture to East Germany”, New York Times, February 13, 1984, http://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/13/arts/tv-brings-western-culture-to-east-germany.html?mcubz=3

[3] “Newspaper Censorship” in Gabor Agoston and Bruce Alan Masters (eds.), Encyclopaedia of the Ottoman Empire (New York: Infobase, 2009), 131-132.

[4] Golnaz Esfandiari, “The Twitter Devolution”, Foreign Affairs, June 8, 2010 http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/06/08/the-twitter-devolution/

[5] Jared Keller, “Evaluating Iran’s Twitter Revolution”, The Atlantic, June 18, 2010 https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/06/evaluating-irans-twitter-revolution/58337/

[6] John Wihbey, “The Arab Spring and the Internet: Research roundup”, Journalist’s Resource, September 25, 2013 https://journalistsresource.org/studies/international/global-tech/research-arab-spring-internet-key-studies

[7] Josh Halliday, “Arab spring: Google’s Wael Ghonim on the fall of Mubarak”, Guardian, 18 May, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/media/pda/2011/may/18/google-wael-ghonim-mubarak

[8] Catherine O’Donnell, “New study quantifies use of social media in Arab Spring”, UWNEWS, September 12, 2011 http://www.washington.edu/news/2011/09/12/new-study-quantifies-use-of-social-media-in-arab-spring/

[9] Heather Brown, Emily Guskin and Amy Mitchell, “The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings” Journalism, November 28, 2012, http://www.journalism.org/2012/11/28/role-social-media-arab-uprisings/

[11] “Gezi Park protests and the role of Social Media: an interview with Zeynep Alemdar, Turkey” (August 1, 2013). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jzg3nPJ9ZsE

[12] Metin Gurcan, “What went wrong with Turkey’s WhatsApp coup”, Al-Monitor, July 19, 2016 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/contents/articles/originals/2016/07/turkey-coup-attempt-basic-cause-was-premature-birth.html. Also see Erdoğan addresses Turkey via FaceTime amid attempted cup –video”, Guardian, July 16, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2016/jul/15/erdogan-facetime-turkey-coup-attempt

[13] “Media Ownership Monitor: Government control over Turkish media almost complete”, RSF, October 27, 2016, https://rsf.org/en/news/media-ownership-monitor-government-control-over-turkish-media-almost-complete

[14] Can Sezer and David Dolan, “Turkey blocks access to Wikipedia”, Reuters, April 29, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-internet-wikipedia/turkey-blocks-access-to-wikipedia-idUSKBN17V06Q

[15] Will Worley, “Turkish government ‘blocks Twitter and Facebook’ as part of alleged media ban following Ankara blast”, Independent, March 13, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ankara-explosion-turkey-twitter-facebook-ban-a6929136.html

[16] “Turkey guilty verdict for depicting Erdogan as Gollum” BBC, June 23, 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36610000. Also see “Turkish doctor acquitted of insulting Erdogan with Gollum comparison”, Middle East Eye, April 18, 2017 http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/doctor-who-shared-erdogangollum-meme-acquitted-turkey-1976719610

[17] Ayla Albayrak and Joe Parkinson, “Turkey’s Government Forms 6,000-Member Social Media Team”, The Wall Street Journal, (September 16, 2013 https://www.wsj.com/articles/turkeys-government-forms-6000member-social-media-team-1379351399 ; “Erdogan to use Twitter as propaganda tool”, Deutsche Welle, September 19, 2013, http://www.dw.com/en/erdogan-to-use-twitter-as-propaganda-tool/a-17101031; Emre Kizilkaya,”AKP’s social media wars”, Al-Monitor, November 15, 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/11/akp-social-media-twitter-facebook.html

[18] Isabel Hunter, “Turkish ruling party’s social media campaigners deny being a troll army”, Independent, June 6, 2015,  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/turkish-president-s-social-media-campaigners-deny-being-a-troll-army-10301599.html

[19] Ali Osman Arabacı, “Does the photo show that Gülen and Kılıçdaroğlu came together in 1994?” Teyit, July 31, 2017. https://teyit.org/en/does-the-photo-show-that-gulen-and-kilicdaroglu-came-together-in-1994/

[20] Raf Sanchez, “Christian Bale historic romance The Promise is targeted by Turkish online trolls who deny the Armenian genocide”, Telegraph, April 21, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/21/christian-bale-historic-romance-promise-targeted-turkish-online/

[21] Çağla Zimmermann, “Feature: Turkey trolls’ use of insults stifling reporting”, Free Turkey Journalists, September 13, 2016, https://freeturkeyjournalists.ipi.media/feature-turkey-trolls-use-of-insults-stifling-reporting/

[22] “Foreign journalists become targets after Istanbul attacks”, Turkish Journal, December 2016, http://www.turkishjournal.com.au/2016/12/foreign-journalists-become-targets-after-istanbul-attacks/