The power of labelling on Turkish social media

Polarisation, social tension and pressure are at an all-time high in Turkey. This pressure is more obvious and direct on social media because of the lack of psychological forces which hold us back from talking offensively in everyday face-to-face interactions.

Unlike face-to-face interactions, people can use the labels they put on others on social media without thinking twice. This aspect of social media makes it a good observatory for examining social pressure.

The social media pressure on Turkish social media functions in three ways: silencing through labelling and name-calling, a compulsion to use labels, and self-censorship/distancing.

Labelling/name-calling is the major way people use to respond to unpopular opinions on Turkish social media. If you express your ideas on a platform where your ideas do not correspond with the ideology of the platform, then congratulations, you have a new label!

You are either a traitor, terrorist, a supporter of the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a member of FETÖ (the term used to describe followers of exile preacher Fethullah Gülen), a Gezici (supporter of the 2013 Gezi Park protests), or a bigot, fascist, religionist, pro-AKP çomar (the Turkish version of redneck).

After a few words, people decide which “side” you are from, put a label on you, and do not bother to consider what you say/write. Instead, they use that label to attack.

One example is the case of academic Nuriye Gülmen and teacher Semih Özakça who were dismissed from their jobs by a government decree. They have been on a partial hunger strike for more than 300 days to protest the loss of their jobs.

When they got some public attention, they were immediately labelled DHKP-C members. Here is the link searching for “nuriye semih dhkpc” on Twitter and the translation of a selection:

- “They (Gülmen and Özakça) are arrested not only because they are hunger strikers, but because they are DHKP-C members”

- “For the first time, I want two terrorists to succeed in their protest. I hope both of you will succeed (and die) as soon as possible.”

- “Nuriye and Semih are clearly DHKP-C sympathisers. Kemalists who are supporting them are idiots.”

After the public is convinced that they are terrorists, then any kind of maltreatment by the government is justified and there is no reason to support them in the public’s mind, which we have seen in their unlawful arrest..

After the labels become widespread and common enough, those who do not use those labels are labelled with the same label. Therefore, one has to refer them with that label if one does not want to be branded with the same label. Let us see the link searching Twitter for “you must call them FETÖ, not cemaat (the congregation)” in Turkish and some examples:

- “Anyone who calls them cemaat is despicable. You must call them terrorists.”

- “What do you mean by cemaat? They are a terrorist organisation, delete this tweet immediately!”

- “What is cemaat? Do you mean FETÖ traitor terrorists? I would hang those who wouldn’t call them FETÖ terrorists”

As Roland Barthes famously noted, fascism compels speech. Compared to the prevention of speech, what Turkey is going through today is a further stage of fascism.
The third form of social pressure, self-distancing, is a little bit different to the first two.

While the first and second ways are directly imposed by people against others, the second is self-driven and indirect in nature. Self-distancing can be considered as a side effect of the first and second types of social pressure. What I refer to by self-distancing is people’s tendency to distance themselves from a demonised group or person by declaring that they do not like (or do hate) that group or person right before saying they agree with them.

Now if we will look into the Facebook search for “I hate … like poison but…” in Turkish we find examples of people saying they hate a certain opposition politician, but “he tells the truth” or “I am behind everything he said.”

The main psychological reason behind this pattern is concern not to be associated with the unwanted group/person. Another reason may be one’s struggle to give more credibility to one’s argument by demonstrating the objectivity of comment.

Turkish people have developed the aforementioned psychological defence mechanisms throughout the years they have been experiencing the political environment promoting the polarisation in society.

The inability to communicate between ideologies pulled people into echo chambers on social media, where people hear only the voices of those who think like them. Through excluding anyone questioning or criticising the ideology or leader of the group, existing ideas get reinforced and the distance between groups increases. It is a vicious cycle and it makes it impossible for people with different ideologies to find common ground or communicate properly.