As perhaps one of the best known and examined cases of democratic backsliding, it comes as no surprise that Turkey under Erdoğan is home to a media landscape possessing a number of criteria indicative of encroaching authoritarianism. From increasingly centralized control over broadcasts, to significant restrictions on internet content, Erdoğan seems to be taking directly from the playbook of the would-be dictator, and often mirrors Putin’s consolidation of media control as laid out by Gehlbach . One particular facet of this is particularly interesting: the extent to which Turkey’s government has played an active role in disseminating fake news to bolster Erdoğan and discredit his opposition. While politicians routinely make incorrect statements (and, in the case of Trump, frequently do so), Erdoğan’s government seems to have recognized the power and persuasiveness of fake news and is systematically using it for political gain.
For context, it’s important to reiterate why, exactly, fake news is a powerful tool in the authoritarian’s toolbox. Robert Dahl famously explicates a set of criteria commonly referred to as the “thick” definition of democracy. While only one of these criteria explicitly deals with sources of accurate information, it is implicit in the rest that voters have the ability to rationally evaluate the performance of their leaders and legislators, and then choose accordingly. Thus, problematically, the prevalence of fake news hampers the ability of Dahl’s other criteria to function, even in a best case scenario. (Realistically, it seems that any country with state-sponsored fake news is probably not doing so well on the other seven criteria, but that’s beside the point).
To drive home the extent to which fake news endemically alters the ability of voters to rationally assess their leaders or political candidates; Barrera, Guriev, Henry, and Zhuravskaya authored a study examining fake news in France in favor of extremist candidate Marine Le Pen. The study found that the impact of being exposed to fake news is persistent: voters who were exposed to fake news in favor of Le Pen, and were then told the true story, rationally believed the fake news to have been a fabrication–their knowledge was updated. Despite this, their voting preferences remained unchanged by the true information . The fake news altered preferences in a more permanent way. Thus, a would-be dictator like Erdoğan has quite the incentive to spread fake news: even if it is fact-checked, which it may not be, its persuasiveness outlasts its perceived truthfulness.
So, given the incentive, are Erdoğan and his government actively pushing false stories? A report by Oxford and Reuters reveals that, at the very least, fake news is a uniquely bad problem in Turkey. Indeed, nearly half of citizens surveyed (49%) say they read at least one fake news story in the week preceding the survey. Perhaps consequently, the study finds that only 38% of Turkish citizens believe media outlets at all. A 2018 BBC report further reveals the extent of the problem, as not only media outlets, but a number of “fact-checking” websites are also owned by the Turkish government, and, shockingly, do not discredit the fake news being published in Erdoğan’s favor–including a boldly fabricated story in which, “Veteran political activist Noam Chomsky champion[s] President Erdogan in a newspaper interview.”
Further, a 2019 Politico article assesses the plethora of fake news in Turkey. As an overview, Turkish communications professor Erkan Saka states that the process of online fake news dissemination is, “More top-down than in the United States. Most of the fake news comes from the government.” Further, as noted earlier, Erdoğan has centralized control over a number of media outlets, in particular, broadcast television. Saka furthers, “Sometimes I think all social media combined is still less dangerous than what TV channels are spreading. It reaches more people.” Regardless of whether the source is social media or cable TV, the article notes that 57% of Turks have actively avoided the news to some extent.
Dahl’s criteria for democracy may be seen as lofty, though many democracies meet at least a handful of the benchmarks. However, when one of the most foundational elements–access to alternate sources of accurate information–has been routinely undermined, the functioning of the other elements is in question. It seems quite clear that the Erdoğan regime has played an active role in spreading fake news to the Turkish public. While the study by Barrera et al. indicates that this fake news likely does impact voter preferences, it is certainly true that endemic fake news has played a role in driving Turks away from media generally. At that point, the willingness to access any accurate information is severely impeded, and Erdoğan erodes yet another check on what seems to be his ultimate goal of near-unfettered control.
- Scott Gehlbach (2010) Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77
- Barrera Rodriguez, Oscar and Guriev, Sergei M. and Henry, Emeric and Zhuravskaya, Ekaterina, Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics (December 14, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3004631 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3004631
Photo by Murat Cetinmuhurdar, “Turkish Presidency”, Creative Commons Zero License