Istanbul rerun puts Turkey’s changing media scene in the spotlight

When Ekrem İmamoğlu was announced as the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul mayoral candidate in December, his recognition rate was at 14 percent in Turkey. Just before March 31 local polls in Istanbul, this rate reached 94 percent.

İmamoğlu’s success in reaching out to voters in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey relied on a comprehensive communication strategy, which focused on face-to-face contacts, an inclusionary rhetoric, and extensive use of social media.

That strategy made the opposition candidate the first politician that challenged the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by surprisingly winning the Istanbul mayoral race on March 31 in the country’s main financial and cultural hub. Turkey’s ruling party appealed the results in Istanbul and the election council annulled the vote, scheduling a rerun on June 23.

For Erdoğan, who has in the last two decades repeatedly said that whoever wins Istanbul, wins elections in Turkey, losing control of the city of 16 million people that produces almost a third of Turkey’s GDP was also a symbolic defeat. Istanbul, where Erdoğan launched his political career by becoming Istanbul’s mayor in 1994, played a central role in his neo-Ottoman inspirations.  

İmamoğlu is now one of the most famous names in Turkey, with 2.7 million followers on Twitter, and, according to pollster Konda, is leading the race by 9 percentage points ahead of the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım.

The success of İmamoğlu revived discussions on the role of social media and Turkey’s changing media scene, as the opposition candidate used social media tools extensively and effectively. His social media strategy was not limited to regular updates and sharing campaign materials online. For example, during his 18 days as mayor, Turks rushed to social media to watch the plenary sessions of the Istanbul Municipality’s assembly, which he streamed from his Twitter account.

His slogan for Istanbul rerun was spontaneously decided on social media: Ahead of March 31 polls, a young boy on the street shouted İmamoğlu on a campaign bus saying “her şey çok güzel olacak” (everything will be fine). The footage of the conversation between the mayoral candidate and his young supporter went viral on social media and many people started adding the message in their posts about İmamoğlu. On the night of May 6, after the election council announced decision to nullify Istanbul vote, İmamoğlu spoke to a large crowd in Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü district. “Everything will be fine,” he said several times.

According to Ateş İlyas Başsoy, the man behind İmamoğlu’s communications strategy, it is impossible to measure the extent to which social media affected the politician’s success. A more plausible argument is to say that the success of the politician’s communication strategy also led to better results in social media.

In fact, with traditional media becoming more and more controlled by the government, Turkey’s opposition parties have resorted for years to social media to reach out to voters. Last year, ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, the Islamist Felicity (Saadet) Party stunned Turkish voters with its innovative election advertisements streamed on social media. The nationalist Good Party used Google ads for campaign, while one of its elections songs became a hit on Spotify.

Güventürk Görgülü, an academic at the Communications Faculty of Istanbul Bilgi University, said that following Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the CHP began using social media extensively in 2011. Obama’s campaign was successful as it was based on a correct needs analysis, gave a clear message, instilled a sense of togetherness, mobilised a volunteer movement mostly made up of young people and used communication technologies efficiently, according to the academic.

“Ekrem İmamoğlu and his team improved the areas that CHP has been weak since 2011 and used all factors in Obama campaign in the right way,” Görgülü said.

According to Başsoy, social media campaigns in fact create damage if they are used as a tool for building echo chambers. “For social media to influence politics, it should be used as a tool to reach out other neighbourhoods. Arrogance, high politics, cynicism, and fuss are things social media does not like,” he said.

Görgülü said there are two important principles of social media campaigns. The first thing is to respond to people, discuss with them what they want to discuss, rather that using the medium to convey what you want to say. The second one is consistency. “Your messages on the internet, social networks, on the streets, everywhere you reach out to people should be consistent, coordinated and regular. Even if you seem like you are repeating the same thing over and over again, this is important to establish confidence and I think that is the real success of İmamoğlu’s campaign,” he said.

According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders, following the Doğan Media Group purchase by an AKP-affiliated conglomerate, the Turkish government controls almost 90 percent of the traditional media. However, identical headlines, repeating comments, lack of diversity in government-affiliated newspapers and channels appeared to be a disadvantage for the AKP’s mayoral candidate in this election.

Social media is important in political races between two rivals, where one of the candidates does not have or has limited access to mainstream media, said academic Hanifi Kurt. But, what the AKP does not see is the fact that the mainstream media has lost its credibility in Turkey like everywhere around the world and those who are unhappy with the government flock to the new media platforms to reach information, he added.

Compared to İmamoğlu,Yıldırım was almost absent in social media ahead of March 31 polls. This changed after the Istanbul vote was annulled. The AKP candidate tried to emulate his rival’s campaign tactics, by being more active on social media and trying to engage with young people. Yıldırım even switched his Twitter to the more popular account he  maintained when he served as parliamentary speaker, which has 1.8 million followers compared to his account as Istanbul mayoral candidate which hovered at a mere 249,000.

Yet, according to Başsoy, Yıldırım’s last minute attack on social media did not work as 49-year old İmamoğlu had a clear advantage in understanding young voters’ preferences and demands compared to his 64-year old rival.

“Having direct contact with social media users, noticing that formal news reporting techniques do not work in social media, and understanding that particularly young generation’s news reading habits have transformed significantly is important. As Yıldırım is a candidate supported by the mainstream, he noticed that relatively late compared to İmamoğlu,” Kurt said.

According to Kurt, social media is the key to understand how the Z generation, those born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, have been shaping politics in Turkey.

“What is important is the way you do politics. An important factor is the fact that İmamoğlu is a politician who at times cracks jokes and  remains calm in contrast to the AKP’s harsh and polarising rhetoric, and also the fact that we have been missing such politicians,” Kurt said.

Görgülü said that mainstream media had already been in tatters and in time the Z generation would also end the dominance of television, adding that the AKP’s grip on mainstream media had accelerated this change.

“As there is something good in everything evil, this development expedited the collapse of mainstream media and early on encouraged Turkey to experiment new types of journalism and economic models needed,” he said.

© Ahval English

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

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