Young backers of Turkey’s ruling party the most effective on social media

As Turkey counts down to March 31st local elections, research into the use of social media by young people shows supporters of the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are more effective than those of other parties in disseminating political messaging.

AKP activists worked in a more extensive and systematic way, coordinating with the party’s media wing on social media strategy, the study found. They also had financial support and access to expert advice during election periods.

The study, conducted with cooperation from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation and the Turkish Social Economic Political Research Foundation (TÜSES), by Gülüm Şener, Hakan Yücel and Umur Yedikardeş, is based on interviews with young members of political parties across the country and monitoring of political youth groups’ social media accounts from June to November 2018.

The findings reveal that young supporters of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), known as Grey Wolves, use party social media accounts most frequently, freely and creatively, while young AKP activists mostly use social media to echo the statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and do not appear to have a great deal of freedom or individual thought in their posts.

The youth wing of the leftist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had expertise and experience in the use of social media, but its online teams were small and entirely made up of volunteers.

AKP activists said the 2013 Gezi Park protests had made the ruling party realise the potential of social media, which had helped mobilise the biggest anti-government demonstrations since Erdoğan came to power in 2003, and said the ruling party had changed its social media strategy as a result.

“I think it’s logical to accept Gezi as a starting point. There was a mass organisation across various cities,” said Fidan, an AKP supporter.

“As a party, we began to approach social media very differently after Gezi,” said Uğur, another supporter of the ruling party.

Opposition party supporters said fear of prosecution meant they were wary of what they said on Twitter and other social media.

Turkish authorities have detained and prosecuted scores of people over social media posts on charges of insulting the president or for supporting terrorism if they criticise Turkey’s military operations in Syria or the crackdown on the Gülen movement that the government blames for the 2016 failed coup.

“Even a single word can get misconstrued, and before you know it, you’re slapped with a legal case,’’ said one supporter of the main pro-Kurdish party. “Many of our friends have been locked up because of this.”

“You have to think your thoughts a few times over before posting anything,” said another supporter of the same party.

Even AKP supporters said intra-party criticism had to be veiled, which the report said may be a factor in the lack of creativity and freedom in their posts.

AKP and CHP activists said they were disturbed by the frequent expressions of aggression towards rival groups online. All activists, across the political spectrum, said internet trolls were a problem.

The pressures of education and earning a living keep many young people from becoming active in politics, the study found.

“We don’t see young people because they very rarely or never have the financial power to go into politics,” said a young CHP member. “Politics gets put onto the back burner because they would have to push their career and education to one side.”

CHP supporters said the relative success of the party’s 2018 presidential candidate Muharrem İnce, was down to social media. After polling at 10 percent in mid-May, the little-known Ince received 30 percent of the vote on June 24, losing to Erdoğan’s 53 percent.

“İnce’s successful candidacy was entirely to do with his becoming a phenomenon on social media,” the study quoted one CHP supporter as saying. “He was told to post his campaign speeches online, which increased his fame and support.”