Turkey to launch official fact-checking platform

The Turkish government is preparing to launch an official next generation fact-checking platform to help the government in its “struggle for the truth,’’ Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said in a tweet on Saturday.

Altun’s announcement came as a response to a Twitter user, who called for such a platform amid efforts by the opposition to “poison people with lies based on victimhood and emotional exploitation.”

In the tweet, the user included screenshots of opposition deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu calling the incarceration of a blind and disabled man “unjust,” and a news article detailing the evidence against said man.

“I believe the Communications Directorate should better inform the people of the true versions of fake news spread on social media,” the user said.

The platform, named “Doğru mu? (Is it true?)”, is currently in its testing phase and was “designed to fulfil just this need and become a strong tool for our fight for the truth,” Altun said.

A 2019 study by Turkey’s statistics institute TÜİK showed that 75.3 percent of the population uses the Internet, and the country is among the top 10 users of Twitter and Facebook while YouTube is the second most visited address after Google.

According to a June 2020 report by Center for American Progress, 70 percent of Turks don’t trust the media, more than 90 percent of which is under direct or indirect control of the government. Turks are suspicious, but still believe in government control in much lower numbers - 56 percent said they believed government to be controlling the media.

A Turkish Twitter user discovered in early February that Altun himself had fake accounts increasing engagement for a video he posted on Twitter.

“Reading comments under Fahrettin Altun’s funny propaganda video, I saw many support messages from secular-looking women,” the user said. “I suspected this was some cheap public opinion building, and I looked into it. Of course my suspicion was confirmed.”

The accounts the user discovered used profile photos taken from stock image websites, and posted tweets like, “Provocateurs are at it again, taking advantage of the situation to create chaos.”

With a special decree in April 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transferred control of the state-run Anadolu Agency to Altun’s Communications Directorate, making Altun one of the most influential men in the country’s information sphere. The directorate also controls national broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television (TRT).

Turkey was among the top three countries that demanded content removals from Twitter in 2020, while a new law on social media has bestowed courts with authority to order actual removal of content, exceeding their previous authority to ban access from Turkey.

Between July and October, at least 347 online articles had been censored in the country based on the new law.

The directorate’s budget for 2020 to 2024 just for social media was 270 million liras ($39 million), according to an opposition deputy. Its total budget stood at 1.90 billion liras ($275 million).

In September, the directorate launched a Strategic Communications and Crisis Management department to “combat perception operations”.

One of Turkey’s biggest media groups, Turkuvaz Media, is owned by the Kalyoncus, a famously wealthy and conservative Muslim family who also own 40 percent of Istanbul’s new airport project. Between March and June 2020, the Kalyon Group won public tenders worth more than 1 billion lira ($145 million), according to independent left-wing newspaper Evrensel.

Another media giant, Demirören Holding, owns the biggest sports betting company and has large-scale investments in construction and energy sectors. Yıldırım Demirören’s daughter is also married to Hasan Kalyoncu’s son, creating family bonds between the two largest media empires in the country.

Turkey continues to be the biggest jailer of journalists, with at least 146 journalists and reporters behind bars, and ranks 154th in Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) 2020 press freedom report.

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