Landscape with the rise of fake news: Turkey’s election panorama

Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections will take place on June 24, 2018. As the election day nears, false images take hold of the popular venues of discussion. Even though the spread of false news during pre-election periods is nothing new and certainly not peculiar to Turkey, the problem of disinformation stands bigger of a problem in the perspective of this election cycle due to the timing of the election and the sources of said disinformation.

On April 16, 2017, Turkish citizens voted on a series of amendments to the constitution that, among other regulations, proposes the annulment of the post of PM and grants extensive authority to the president. Although the amendments were passed and will come into effect following this election, there is still strong opposition against the implementation of the changes on the grounds that it assigns the functions and liberties of many administrative bodies to one individual and hinders pluralist thought processes which are key to a democracy. It’s no doubt that the intended beneficiary of these amendments is the current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and this election will be a fierce struggle over either the acquisition of a set of unchallengeable powers or the political regime in Turkey. Unlike the U.S., election meddling in Turkey is performed largely by domestic actors.This implies mainly two things: there is a sense of insecurity sweeping the social atmosphere and people from different factions feel the need to interfere with the political environment to ensure the triumph of the side they trust and support and Turkish society is polarized significantly. According to Reuters Institute’s 2017 Report, Turkish citizens are divided into two main camps as the supporters and opponents of the ruling AKP, and the same division applies to the media. People only follow the outlets that side with the ideological faction they support and quick to dismiss any information that comes from ‘an outsider’.

In times of uncertainty and instability, the reflexes of zoon politicon sharpen naturally, or, in other terms, the intensification of political behavior – both in its legitimate forms such as high voter turnout and illegitimate forms such as pushing fake content – is expectable, but the results of these reactions are not. This is why, it is important to pinpoint the motives behind the contamination of a crucial discussion to invent new ways to combat with disinformation which play a determining role in matters of vital importance especially in times of social and political turmoil.

The most straightforward and easiest to guess motive behind producing and disseminating false content is to reinforce an already existing judgement about a political figure or organization using the means of hyperbole. This strategy of reduction ad absurdum, or trolling with a more contemporary expression, both serve to further discredit the subject in the eyes of the public and accentuate the lines of a fabricated portrait of the figure in question. Fake content is also produced for it allows the user to conceal her/his real identity while allowing her/him to express his own views without becoming the target of censor, or cyberbullying. According to the 2017 report of the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, Turkey accounts for the 65% of all content restrictions on the internet whereas a poll recently ran by BBC World Service, 72% of the participants from Turkey have doubts about the internet’s being a safe place to express their opinions while half of the remaining 22% feel uncomfortable with expressing their opinions on the Internet. In other words, the fabricated content in all its argumentative extravagance most commonly serves as a tool to strengthen the negative or positive views about a political organization or figure and as a tool of mediation which allows its producer to express her/his opinions while enduring anonymity.

Although it is hard to cluster all these reactions into categories, I tried to frame the false content on a basis of message. The main theme appears to be the delegitimization of a political leader or a party, but the fabricated reasons behind delegitimization disperse on a large spectrum from claims of legal incompatibility to the disrespect for the values and beliefs of the majority.

1) Questions of compliance with the law

Nearly two months ago, the photographs of a document that seemed to be issued by YSK (Supreme Electoral Council) of Turkey declaring that the newly established İYİ Parti (Good Party) was unable to participate in the elections started to circulate on the internet.

The Council’s criteria to allow a political party to participate in the elections include the existence of organizational establishments in at least half of all provinces and a grand convention to be held at least six months prior to the first day of the election year, and by April 18, 2018, the date which appears on the unauthentic document, it was still uncertain whether İYİ Parti was to be allowed to contest in the 2018 elections. On April 19, 2018, upon teyit.org’s request for clarification, YSK declared that the document was unauthentic and on April 22, announced that the party was eligible to take part in the elections. The dissemination of such a document, although its span of influence was expectably short, may be explained with an effort to generate doubt about İYİ Parti on the grounds of compliance with the law. İYİ Parti is a centre-right establishment that was born out of a dissidence within MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) concerning the party’s growing support for the current administration and the quick move towards the farther right on the spectrum and is expected to divide MHP’s votes and gain the support of the dissatisfied MHP and AKP (Justice and Development Party) electorate, took part in the Nation Alliance with CHP (Republican People’s Party) and Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party) for 2018 elections, against the People’s Alliance formed by AKP, MHP, and BBP (Great Unity Party).

2) Affiliations with the state-verified antagonists

As the big day approaches, images that show leaders of different parties side by side with Fethullah Gülen, the alleged orchestrator of 2016’s failed coup attempt, started to flood the social media.

A photo that shows İYİ Parti chairperson Ms. Meral Akşener shaking hands with Türk Boyları Konfederasyonu (Turkish Clans Confederation) chairperson Cüneyt Demir was manipulated to imply an acquaintance between Akşener and Gülen. Another photograph that shows Meral Akşener with her husband Tuncer Akşener was doctored to show Akşener and Gülen side by side.

In another example, a photograph that shows current President Erdoğan kissing the hand, a gesture that denotes respect in Turkey, of the founding rector of Marmara University, his alma mater, was manipulated to give the impression that the man whose hand Mr. Erdoğan was kissing was actually Gülen.

Similar manipulations were also done during the rallies preceding the constitutional referendum of last year. One of the significant examples was an authentic photograph of Erdoğan and Gülen manipulated to give the impression that the man standing beside Gülen was actually Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition leader. These photographs aim to manufacture a connection between political leaders and figures who are deemed unlawful by the government and bring the legitimacy of the leader or the party in question under scrutiny. Similar manipulations of visuals or false news stories have long been appearing in the Turkish media with Gülen’s figure being replaced by Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of PKK.

3) Appeal to the authority

Taught as a logical fallacy in introductory non-fiction writing and philosophy classes, this method turns into a powerful tool when it comes to convince the people of the vices of a certain political candidate or organization, just like a video of Mr. Necmettin Erbakan that spreaded on the internet in May. Erbakan, the late former leader of Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party), appears to warn “the man with the cap” against the political tricks of CHP. Erdogan, who saw the dawn of his political career in Erbakan’s Felicity Party, is the last line in a chain of political figures who champion conservative values and whose discourses carry some resonance with each other.

Hence, as a father figure, Erbakan’s criticism of CHP has the power to solidify the views of AK Party supporters. However, in the original footage which was taken during “Conspirators and AKP’s Economic Destruction” conference, an event that focuses on AKP’s ineptitude in economic policymaking, Erbakan advises “the man with the cap”, a metaphor for the people, not to be tricked by CHP and not to follow AKP’s trail. The conference took place after the political comradery between Erdoğan’s newborn AKP and Saadet got severed after Erdoğan said “We took off the National Vision (an expression used for Erbakan’s ideology) shirt off.” meaning that he and his administration will follow a different political path than that of Saadet.

According to Saadet’s current chairperson Temel Karamollaoğlu, the differences between the political agendas of AKP and Saadet evolve around three main themes and these are; AKP’s endeavors to join the EU which Saadet deems a declaration of dependence and willingness for subordination, AKP’s political and economic alliance with the U.S. and Israel which Saadet considers as the acceptance of an imperialist domination, and the interest rate hike which has been a hot topic of debate in Turkish political sphere for the last five years as a countermeasure against the downslope of the value of Turkish Lira; in accordance with its conservative principles, Saadet regards such functionalization of interest within the macroeconomy immoral. In short, this rhetorical departure prompted Erdogan’s rise and created a tense atmosphere between two parties.

4) A lack of empathy for the public

If we were to believe every image we see on the internet, we would think that one of the opposition’s presidential candidates, Muharrem İnce, is a sportive, energetic man who chooses bizarre places for his exercises. Since May, photographs showing İnce riding a bicycle and dancing the traditional halay in a mosque hit the social media. Granted that riding a bike or dancing in a mosque would conceptually be seen as vagary, and if performed, as disrespectful, no sensible political leader, regardless of his/her own beliefs and geography, would commit an act that insults the values of her/his electorate if she/he really intends to garner support from the public.

İnce often dismisses and mocks these manipulated images in his rally speeches. His showing the manipulated and authentic images side by side both establishes a practice of ‘firsthand’ fact-checking that comes directly from the subject of the claim and encourages political transparency while operationalizing the internet culture within the campaign tradition. The global rise of traditional values considered, this juxtaposition gains further significance as it portrays İnce as a man who is disrespectful towards the values endeared by the public. These images intend to give the message that Mr. İnce does not share the same values with the people and therefore would fail to empathize with them if he took the office. İnce’s being a Sunni, a reputable identity for the majority of voters in Turkey, makes him a fresh alternative and these images intend to dissociate İnce from religious symbols or to reconstruct this association in a negative way.

5) Loss of agency

One major factor that attracts voters to a certain political party is their willingness to take initiative and the extent of their dare to act in the name and benefit of the public. As we hear the patter of the elections on our doorstep, false images that suggest some parties in the race are losing their freedom and power to act independently are flooding the social media.

In last April, a photograph that suggested Erdogan’s image was fixated on MHP’s campaign buses started to circulate on the social media. Using the newly-forming alliance between AKP and MHP as a factual basis, this image intended to portray MHP as an organization that lost its agency and became dependent on AKP, as an umbrella organization, even in its symbolism.

However, the suggestions of loss of agency are not limited to the political parties. Another false image alleging that a banner used by AKP’s youth branches read “We are ready to act on your “gee up!” and stop on your “whoa!” Mr. Erdogan.” started to circulate on the social media a couple weeks ago.

The fabricated slogan not only implies that the people who support AKP submitted themselves wholly to the party’s ideology and now are devoid of free will and self esteem, but, with its contemptuous tone, also suggests that AKP electorate lacks the intellectual capability to reason about political matters. Although the original banner include a slogan that denotes the supporters’ devotion to their party, it does not carry any remarks that would reduce the voters to the level of pets.