The Specter of Information Disorder Haunts Turkey
Recurring local, national, and presidential elections, and referenda have not led to political stability. Large-scale public protests, a failed coup attempt, and resulting repressive rule limiting political and civic liberties have all led to a toxic political environment. The economic prosperity of the earlier decades has been devastated by exchange-rate fluctuations, rising inflation, and unemployment, particularly in younger cohorts and urban areas. According to one recent survey, 43 percent of young people want to move abroad. The coronavirus pandemic has overburdened the health system and eroded confidence in state institutions because of unreliable figures published by the government and the delay in providing access to the vaccines.
According to one recent survey, 43 percent of young people want to move abroad.
As if this was not enough, a series of natural disasters occurred in mid-2021. First, devastating wildfires broke out, mainly on the touristic Mediterranean coast and, before these were fully under control, major floods in the northern parts of the country resulted in the destruction of infrastructure and loss of lives. Then pent-up opposition to the “open borders” policy of the government led to an extreme anti-immigrant climate against Syrian and Afghan refugees. On August 11, triggered by the murder of a Turkish teenager in Ankara by a Syrian refugee, an angry mob attacked the homes of Syrian refugees in the boy’s neighborhood. In each of these crises, the government failed to create a consensus when addressing the problems—on the contrary, the affective polarization in society was exacerbated.
The Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey 2020 survey highlights that all three pillars of affective political polarization—social distance, moral superiority, and political intolerance—are widely spread across the political spectrum. Moreover, citizens increasingly live in “echo chambers” where they are only exposed to information confirming their prior beliefs and do not have access to challenging information or opinions. Citizens also become affected by a spiral of silence as they refrain from discussing sensitive issues in environments where there are people with opposing views.
A Vulnerable Information Ecosystem
To make matters worse, the information ecosystem in Turkey acts as a multiplier of polarization and exposes society to information disorder. There are three types of information disorder: distributing false information without knowing it is not true (misinformation), purposefully distributing false information (disinformation), and purposefully distributing factual information in a way that which will cause harm to society (malinformation). All are observed in Turkey, creating a vulnerable information ecosystem, and three factors play a role in this situation.
First, citizens lack the skill set to cope with disinformation. Turkey’s education system is highly dogmatic and lacks training in critical thinking. The average number of years in education is short (eight years for the overall population and 7.3 years for women) and the quality of education is questionable. As one survey shows, Turkish adults have the third-lowest scores in reading and numeracy skills among those of 34 countries. Turkey’s political culture is poisoned with xenophobia, anti-Western discourse, and social instability stemming from a breakdown of standards and values, which create a fertile environment for information disorder such as conspiracy theories. Hence, fake news and other false information spread more rapidly in Turkey than in other societies.
As one survey shows, Turkish adults have the third-lowest scores in reading and numeracy skills among those of 34 countries.
Second, Turkey’s media landscape contributes to the severity of the problem. The media system is politically polarized and dominated by the government. The government directly controls the state broadcasting institution and has indirect control over private media outlets through the power of channeling public funds to selected players through advertisements and other commercial activities. This does not mean that there is no opposition media. There are some small but very effective newspapers and television channels addressing the supporters of the opposition parties. However, mainstream media outlets providing unbiased information to citizens across the political spectrum no longer exist. Turkey also ranks 153rd among 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, and it has been heavily criticized by international watchdogs because of its restrictive policies.
Contrary to early expectations, social media has become part of the problem rather than providing a solution. The average Turkish citizen spends seven hours a day on social media. Social media and digital news outlets are very popular as information sources, and the majority of Turks see these as their primary source of information. However, due to the algorithms of social media platforms, they also operate as echo chambers, with alternative views filtered out. False information spreads rapidly on social media and polarization multiplies it. While Turkey has some highly qualified fact-checking institutions, few people use them.
A Polarizing Pattern
The recent crises have demonstrated how Turkey’s vulnerable information ecosystem can contribute to the spread of false information, prevent consensus, and exacerbate polarization. The same pattern was observed during the wildfires across the Mediterranean region, attacks on Syrian refugees, and the floods in the Black Sea region.
The pattern started with a dramatic development that caused panic and anxiety. Uncontrolled, unfiltered, and often nonfactual information spread through social media (particularly closed messaging groups) creating negative sentiments such as fear, panic, or anger. Opposition politicians used this “information” to support their political arguments and criticize the government—very convincingly so far as their supporters were concerned. After a couple of hours, the government made a statement refuting the claims and providing examples of false information used by the opposition, thus attacking the reliability of all opposition arguments—very convincingly so far as their supporters were concerned. Then supporters of the government started spreading their own uncontrolled, unfiltered, and often nonfactual information, leading the opposition to flag nonfactual claims in the government’s rhetoric, thus attacking the reliability of all government arguments—again very convincingly so far as their own supporters were concerned. This cycle continued until there was another dramatic development leading to parallel interpretations of what had happened.
This polarizing pattern was observed in Turkey during the pandemic, the forest fires, the refugee influx, and the floods—and it will probably be observed during future crises as well.
This polarizing pattern was observed in Turkey during the pandemic, the forest fires, the refugee influx, and the floods—and it will probably be observed during future crises as well. This is a multilayered problem that has no short-term solution. The education system, media landscape, cognitive weaknesses of individuals, and the general political environment all play their role.
This situation makes Turkey and its citizens highly vulnerable to information disorder. First, this ecosystem provides a very fertile environment for populist politicians who have mastered manipulating voters’ emotions by providing false information and creating a world of alternative facts. They can convince a critical mass of voters by exploiting their non-exposure to the facts of the “other.” That is why these politicians are against pluralism and diversity in the media as it can challenge their monopoly over reality. Second, such an ecosystem creates avenues for malign foreign influences. There are studies showing how Russia is intervening in the Turkish information ecosystem, including sometimes by providing correct information. During the pandemic, the European Union has fought against disinformation from other countries. The Turkish government has launched a campaign against disinformation and is preparing to impose a five-year jail sentence on individuals spreading it, which has raised concerns about further infringements of freedom of expression. Third, this environment exacerbates the existing polarization.
Information disorder can also be seen as a security threat. NATO and the EU already accept them as such. While no country is immune, the risk is bigger and the need for mitigation more urgent in Turkey due to the factors explained above. All forms of information disorder—disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation—pose a significant challenge for Turkish democracy and there is no shortcut to solving this problem. Medium-term measures include mitigating polarization, increasing the resilience of individuals against information disorder by developing critical thinking and media literacy skills through the school curricula (as with the Infodemi Training Project implemented by Istanbul Bilgi University with support from the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation), promoting freedom of the media, diversifying the media landscape with “middle field” players that can build bridges between societal groups, and regulating social media platforms in a way that is not repressive. As these platforms operate at a global level, regulation at the international rather than national level could be more appropriate.