The rebirth of journalism in the age of polarisation

One of the common findings of political research on Turkey is the degree of polarisation within society. Everyone acknowledges that large parts of the population ignore, or even hate other parts.

Why do Turkish people not listen to others who have different ideas to theirs? Is this specific to Turkey?

The answer is that it is not, and that polarisation is everywhere.

A study has shown that the expression of moral emotion increases the spread of political messages in online social networks by 20 percent. Called ‘moral contagion,’ this works more within networks; less so between them.

The graph below shows moral contagion by political ideology, among conservatives and liberals in the United States. Each dot represents a user who has sent a message on Twitter, and lines represent a user who retweeted them. Messages that contain moral-emotional language on moralised political topics (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change) were shared within networks.

Brady et al. "Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks" PNAS July 11, 2017 vol. 114 no. 28 pp.7313-7318
Brady et al. "Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks" PNAS July 11, 2017 vol. 114 no. 28 pp.7313-7318

Polarisation is also a tool that populist politicians, the masters of mass communication, utilise.

Trump regularly harasses established communication channels, respected media outlets (which he calls ‘fake news’) by addressing the same tensions that led to his victory.

There is a website that archives all of Trump’s tweets since he was elected as U.S. president. The keywords in his tweets explain his politics of scapegoating and self-adoration in the age of polarisation.

Screen shot of on Dec. 13, 2017.
Screen shot of on Dec. 13, 2017.

Just like Trump branding himself as the single source of information, or the sole protector of “national security;” in Turkey, “national interest” became the buzz phrase that the government’s broadcasting strategy is based on. Media sympathetic to the opposition, on the other hand, sell counter-slogans instead of news.

One regularly observed, but rarely narrated, issue is that people who used to sit together, eat together, and celebrate together in the small towns in Anatolia no longer speak to each other because of political disagreements.

So, is it inevitable that political tensions divide countries into two distinct communities, and make them stop listening to each other?

A recent article by Gonca Tokyol looked at young Turks who had lost confidence in mainstream media and politics. They were from various political and demographic backgrounds, she said many had stopped following newspapers altogether. Instead, many young Turks are trying to find reporters and pundits with different perspectives on social media, and balance their views.

This is a surprising, but promising development, as it shows that young people, when they are interested in knowing what is really going on in the country, can go out of their safe zone and reach beyond their networks.

However, this does not seem to be possible for the vast majority of people in the short term. After observing Turkish journalists for years and having written for several mainstream and alternative media outlets, I would say the existing media establishment in Turkey is not going to survive this polarised political sphere.

Yet, new alternatives are becoming the antidote to polarisation by increasing the quality of journalism. They are also receiving serious support from their audiences.

140 Journos, a creative alternative new media outlet, through crowd-funding managed to swiftly collect the money it lost through a recent robbery at its office. Ünsal Ünlü, one of the most creative programmers in Turkey’s new media, continues to produce his own podcasts thanks to regular crowdfunding via Patreon. Medyascope, a video-based alternative to mainstream media, has successfully secured funding from many institutions.

This new wave of media is like that seen after the 2013 Gezi Park protests, when many young people perceived a failure of the mainstream media to report accurately on the biggest demonstrations against the government and began to look for the alternatives. Yet it is a little more difficult under the current legal and political conditions in Turkey.

It is essential to note that, this hope is only valid as long as these outlets and individual journalists keep on doing good quality journalism, and ask the right questions; a duty that the people of Turkey seem to have forgotten that journalists have.

These projects remind them that journalism matters, just as democracy matters and liberty matters.