Hale Akay
Dec 23 2018

The fate of teyit.org tells tale of Turkish polarisation

For the last two decades there have been talks about Turkey’s increasingly polarised society, divided by several fault lines, including Islamists and secularists and  Turks and Kurds.

Turkey nowadays is so polarised that, according two a recent study published by two Turkish academics, even the Turkish elites representing the pro-government and opposition camps are  divided over the issue of polarisation.

The paper, written by Evren Balta and Senem Aydın Düzgit, says that the currently reported high rates of polarisation in Turkey can be expected to persist in the near future, barring a radical change in political constellations.

Yet, while polarisation is a fact, explaining what it feels like to live in a polarised society and the consequences of polarisation in people’s daily lives is usually much more difficult.

What happened this month to teyit.org, an independent Turkish fact-checking organisation, is a perfect example in understanding the destruction that polarisation causes in a society, the fact that no good intentions are left unpunished when people of a country start living in an irrational cycle.

Teyit.org started in 2016, first as a small initiative mostly led by young activists, at a time when trust in the media was at an all time low. The organisation basically fact checks information circulating in the Turkish media in a neutral way, while helping people learn skills to detect fake news.

In a very short time, the web-site became a credible source used by people daily. To understand the importance of the job teyit.org is doing, pointing out that according to a recent study, Russia’s attempts to influence Turkish politics have failed because the country’s media sphere is already saturated with fake news should suffice.

On Dec. 3, the organisation announced that, thanks to a deal they made with a company in charge of Istanbul’s municipality’s screens in ferries and subways, its one-minute videos would start running on 7600 screens across Istanbul, reaching around 4 million people daily.

The videos aimed to increase people’s awareness of fake news, the organisation said.

Usually the same screens animation videos or news coming from the pro-government media. Each video of the organisation, on the other hand, would analyse a suspicious content spreading online in the country and one verification tip.

On a normal day, teyit.org would be praised for such a brilliant idea. They had found a way to infiltrate the screens of Istanbul’s municipalities and could attack fake news at its source.

It was also obvious from the very start that this experience would be a short one. In time, say a week or a month, the municipality would eventually notice what was going on and cut the deal.

But, it even took shorter. The deal was cancelled within two days.

In fact, the first blow to teyit.org came from the opposition. Leftist newspapers and journalists attacked the organisation for raising income by setting a deal with Istanbul Municipality run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Some newspapers, like left-wing daily Birgün, chose the headline ‘Teyit.org made a deal with Istanbul municipality’, though the deal was made with a sub-contractor working with the municipality.

Fatih Yaşlı, a popular columnist with Birgün, took to Twitter on the matter: “Did they allow you to do this with nothing in exchange?” Yaşlı later said that he would unfollow the organisation’s twitter account and that he thought many would do the same.

“Teyit.org is chasing money,” left wing Red journal said, accusing Mehmet Atakan Foça, the founder of the organisation becoming pro-government.

Many on social media accused the organisation for the deal and said that it would ‘probably’ receive huge sums of money.

Some even went as far as to say that the organisation’s posts correcting fake news on Syrian refugees indicated that it had become pro-government.

In fact, some had a legitimate reasoning and asked the organisation how it planned to maintain its neutrality while running content on AKP municipalities’ screens. But such a discussion could not be had as on the other side, the government supporters were sending hundreds of complaints to the municipality’s help desk, accusing teyit.org of being anti-AKP and its staff for participating Gezi Park protests in 2013.

Two days later, the municipality asked the sub-contractor Modyo TV to cancel the partnership.

Responding to those criticising the deal, the organisation announced that it had not received any payments from neither the municipality nor Modyo TV.

“On the contrary, along with putting a lot of effort in developing the project and creating content for it, teyit.org accepted to pay Modyo to get these verification videos on to its screens,” it said.

The organisation also said that it had stated very clearly in the agreement that it would not accept any kind of interference in its editorial decisions, but also said that it was not planning to use political content in videos to be circulated in municipality’s screens.

Journalist Mehveş Evin discussed what happened to teyit.org last week in her column in Artı Gerçek.

“It is the people who lost when an effort to struggle with hearsay, fake information was axed. Teyit did not have to cover political news (coming from pro-government or opposition sources) in public transportation vehicles, this can only happen in democracies. But this was an important opportunity to reach larger masses, to become a credible source on other issues,” she said.

Prolonged polarisation in Turkey turned the country into a psychological battleground, with two sides sitting in their trenches and looking each other angrily, refusing to communicate.

Any rational person, looking at that picture, would suggest that such a society needs dialogue, a way to reach each other. But even suggesting that can be deemed as a betrayal by a camp in today’s Turkey.

So we are forced to sit and rant, as voices of reason are muted and wait for a miracle.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.