Feb 07 2019

Erdoğan follows Turkey's opposition to Twitter

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is spearheading his party’s campaign for March local elections in ‘eco-friendly’ cyberspace, following the opposition’s pioneering use of social media, reported Prague-based news outlet Transitions Online.

Opposition groups, which are often denied access to state-controlled media, have been using social media as their primary tool for communications in Turkey, where more than 50 million people have internet access. But last month, Erdoğan announced his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP)  ‘eco-friendly’ campaign for March 31 local elections, abandoning “all methods that cause visual and audio pollution”.

“The move is particularly significant as Erdoğan had previously been staunchly opposed to social media in general and Twitter in particular,” Sahra Atila, a reporter with Turkish digital news site Medyascope TV, said on TOL.

“The networking app proved its political usefulness during the May 2013 Gezi Park protests, in which hundreds of thousands of Istanbul citizens took to the streets to oppose government plans to build over the small green area near the landmark Taksim Square,” she said.

The protests turned into a rebellion against Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and ended in a police crackdown in which at least five people were killed and more than 8,000 injured. At the time, the state-controlled mainstream media offered very limited coverage of the protests, with only a few exceptions.

“Twitter soon proved to be the principal means of communication among Gezi Park protesters. According to a study carried out by Somemto, a popular Turkish social media news agency, more than 91 million tweets were sent during the first week of the protests,” said Atila.

The demonstrations spurred Erdoğan to denounce Twitter as “evil” and “full of lies”. The next year, after audio recordings spread via social media allegedly linked Erdoğan to a corruption scandal, Twitter was briefly outlawed in Turkey.

Doğan Gürpınar, an associate professor at Istanbul Technical University (ITU), said opposition parties in Turkey had always sought alternative channels to reach their supporters. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the opposition’s views could be heard at conferences and in student clubs, but Twitter has replaced these venues today as a virtual space for the opposition’s voice,” he said.

Erdoğan may have changed his stance on Twitter because of a spike in followers. He first opened a Twitter account in 2009. In January 2010 he had 95 followers. Today he has more than 13.4 million.

Erdogan Twitter
Erdogan Twitter

According to statista.com, a statistics website, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Turks are active social media users, and 53 percent use Facebook regularly, while 36 percent use Twitter.

Still, Erman Bakırcı, of Konda, said social media had yet to become “a principal source of news for any segment of Turkish society,” although users tend to be better educated than those receiving news from traditional media.

Still, he said Turkish politicians are increasingly able to use social media to target certain demographics, particularly younger voters.

The AKP now seems to appreciate Twitter’s unique potential, said Atila. While Facebook appeals to middle-aged and older people, who can be easily reached by mainstream media, Twitter is crucial for reaching a younger audience.

Ahead of the June 2018 presidential elections, some opposition candidates made particularly creative use of Twitter.

Selahattin Demirtaş, a candidate for the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), managed to win 8.4 percent of the vote despite having been in prison since November 2016. He ran a highly successful Twitter campaign, focusing on the Kurdish vote, and now has 1.66 million followers.

Another opposition candidate, the Good Party’s leader Meral Akşener, grew her Twitter followers from 138,000 in February 2014 to 2.68 million in October 2018, and won 7.3 percent of the vote last June.

Akşener’s advisor for technology and communication, Taylan Yıldız, said the Good Party used Twitter mainly to target young people and women.

“Even though Twitter and television have a specific intersection, they don’t address the same segment of the audience,” he said. “There is a segment that we could never access even if we aired our ads on TV from dusk till dawn, or participated in talk shows.”

Opposition politicians faced something like a media embargo during last June’s elections, said Irfan Bozan, deputy executive editor of Medyascope.tv, an online platform known for broadcasting live on Periscope, Twitter’s video streaming app.

“Meral Akşener has struggled with media access since the day she founded the Good Party,” he said. “Even so, the Good Party put together a strong digital media team whose members had significant experience in the digital media sector. With their help, Akşener emerged as a leader proficient in using Twitter to her advantage.”

Gürpınar, the ITU professor, argued that HDP candidate Demirtaş had shown how Twitter could be used not only to reach a wider audience, but also to gain support through good political messaging.

“Demirtaş made it possible for people to identify with those tweets that he posted from prison,” he said. “For opposition candidates in June’s elections, the only space where freedom of expression was possible was social media, especially Twitter. But lately, even the ruling AK Party have started using Twitter more, because they realised how powerful it can be.”