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Twitter, the Turkish State’s New Political Tool

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be fighting the March local elections in ‘eco-friendly’ cyberspace, following the opposition’s pioneering use of social media for politics.

by Sahra Atila 6 February 2019

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, for the last few months, we have been making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

 

 

It was always Turkey’s opposition groups – who are routinely denied access to state-controlled television, radio, and newspapers – who had used social media as their primary tool for communications. But now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has announced that its campaign for the upcoming local elections will be fought largely on social media.

 

Speaking on 6 December, while announcing mayoral candidates for 14 cities across Turkey, Erdogan hailed the start of an “eco-friendly campaign,” declaring: “Starting from the [March] 2019 election campaign, we will abandon all methods that cause visual and audio pollution.

 

“We can hang posters and flags only in our party offices and election coordination centers. Other than that, we will not allow any visual pollution,” he said, and called on opposition parties to do the same.

 

Erdogan has announced that his party’s campaign for the March 2019 local elections will be fought largely on social media.

 

In a statement published later that day, Erdogan noted that about 51 million people in Turkey have access to the internet, and added, “In such an environment we cannot limit ourselves to conventional propaganda methods because that would not be in line with the revolutionary, innovative soul of the AK Party.”

 

An About-Face

 

The move is particularly significant as Erdogan had previously been staunchly opposed to social media in general and Twitter in particular.

 

The networking app proved its political usefulness during the May 2013 Gezi Park protests, in which hundreds of thousands of Istanbul citizens took to the streets to oppose government plans to build over the small green area near the landmark Taksim Square.

 

These protests soon turned into mass rebellion against then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and ended in a police crackdown in which at least five people were killed and more than 8,000 injured.

 

At the time, the state-controlled mainstream media offered very limited coverage of the protests, with the only exceptions being small opposition channels such as Halk TV, Ulusal Kanal, and Cem TV.

 

Twitter soon proved to be the principal means of communication among Gezi Park protesters. According to a study carried out by Somemto, a popular Turkish social media news agency, more than 91 million tweets were sent during the first week of the protests.

 

The IYI party’s leader Meral Aksener increased the number of her Twitter followers from 138,000 in February 2014 to 2.68 million in October 2018. She won 7.3 per cent of the votes in June 2018 elections.

 

Another study by Turkey-based research and consultancy firm Konda revealed that 69 percent of the Gezi Park protesters first learned about the demonstrations through social media.

 

The demonstrations spurred Erdogan to denounce “an evil called Twitter, [which is] full of lies.

 

“Social media is, in fact, a headache for many societies at the moment,” he told Haber TURK TV in June 2013.

 

The following March, after audio recordings – spread via social media – allegedly linked Erdogan to a corruption scandal, Twitter was briefly outlawed in Turkey, although, following an outcry, the ban was overturned on 3 April 2014.

 

Dogan Gurpinar, an associate professor at Istanbul Technical University (ITU), noted that opposition parties in Turkey had always sought alternative channels to reach their supporters.

 

“In the 1970s and 1980s, the opposition’s views could be heard at conferences and in student clubs, but Twitter has replaced these venues today as a virtual space for the opposition’s voice,” he said.

 

Erdogan’s change of heart over Twitter can be seen in his soaring number of followers. He first opened a Twitter account in 2009, although by January 2010 he had only 95 followers. He now has at least 13.4 million followers.

 

This appears to have been a canny political move. According to statista.com, a statistics portal, 63 percent of Turks are active social media users, and 53 percent use Facebook regularly, while 36 percent use Twitter.

 

Going for the Youth Vote

 

Still, Erman Bakirci, of Konda, noted that social media has yet to become “a principal source of news for any segment of Turkish society,” although users tended to be better educated than those receiving news from mainstream media.

 

However, he said that politicians were becoming increasingly aware of using social media to target particular demographics.

 

Selahattin Demirtas, the People’s Democratic Party’s candidate, ran a highly successful Twitter campaign from prison last year and managed to get 8.4 percent of the vote.

 

“At the moment, about 20 percent of the Turkish population over 18 uses Twitter regularly. Half of them use Facebook, and about 40 percent of them use Instagram,” Bakirci said.

 

The AKP seem to now appreciate Twitter’s unique role. While Facebook appeals to middle-aged and older people, who can be easily reached by mainstream media, Twitter is crucial for reaching a younger audience.

 

Ahead of the June 2018 presidential elections, some opposition candidates made particularly creative use of Twitter.

 

Foremost of these was Selahattin Demirtas, a candidate from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who managed to win 8.4 percent of the vote despite having been in prison since November 2016. He ran a highly successful Twitter campaign, focusing on the Kurdish vote, and now has 1.66 million followers.

 

Another opposition candidate, the Iyi (Good) Party’s leader Meral Aksener, grew her Twitter followers from 138,000 in February 2014 to 2.68 million in October 2018. She won 7.3 percent of the vote.

 

Aksener’s advisor for technology and communication, Taylan Yildiz, said the Iyi Party used Twitter mainly to target young people and women.

 

“Even though Twitter and television have a specific intersection, they don’t address the same segment of the audience,” he said. “There is a segment that we could never access even if we aired our ads on TV from dusk till dawn, or participated in talk shows.”

 

The problem opposition politicians faced was essentially a media embargo during the June elections, said Irfan Bozan, deputy executive editor of Medyascope.tv, an online platform known for broadcasting live on Periscope, Twitter’s video streaming app.

 

“Meral Aksener has struggled with media access since the day she founded the Iyi Party,” he said. “Even so, the Iyi Party put together a strong digital media team whose members had had significant experience in the digital media sector. With their help, Aksener emerged as a leader proficient in using Twitter to her advantage.”

 

Gurpinar, the ITU professor, argued that HDP candidate Demirtas had shown how Twitter could be used not only to reach a wider audience, but also to gain support through good political messaging.

 

“Demirtas made it possible for people to identify with those tweets that he posted from prison,” he said. “For opposition candidates in June’s elections, the only space where freedom of expression was possible was social media, especially Twitter. But lately, even the ruling AK Party have started using Twitter more, because they realized how powerful it can be.”

Sahra Atila studied New Media at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. She has been working for Turkish digital news platform Medyascope TV as a presenter and reporter. All images by Sahra Atila. 

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