Istanbul, Turkey – Every day, Emre İlkan Saklica scrolls through endless social media feeds, delving into the latest trends and browsing through news reports, with just one goal: debunk false claims.
Saklica is head of editorial at Teyit, Turkey’s largest independent fact-checking organisation. For more than five years, Teyit has been using a variety of channels to fight false information in the country’s public discourse – not just what is perpetuated publicly on social or traditional media but also in closed networks such as chat groups in apps like WhatsApp.
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“Our biggest helpers are our followers,” said Saklica. “They are sometimes not sure about the accuracy of the information they encounter on the internet and they send us some links.”
Saklica and his colleagues go through those tips from the public, along with what is being discussed in the news. What needs to be fact checked is then prioritised, based on how widespread and important the claim is, as well as its urgency and whether it can actually be verified.
“Sometimes you can get results in just a few seconds,” said Saklica, calling Turkey’s disinformation and misinformation problem “very big”.
Turkish authorities already use a variety of methods to tackle disinformation on social media, including existing laws criminalising defamation of officials. Dozens of Twitter users were investigated last month, for instance, after police said they were behind false trending reports on social media saying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had died.
Earlier this month, Erdogan told attendees of an international conference meant to develop a strategy for countering disinformation that his country was working on new measures to curb what he said was an alarming spread of disinformation through social media, calling it “a threat to democracy”.
“We are trying to protect our people, especially the vulnerable sectors of our society, against lies and disinformation, without compromising our citizens’ right to receive accurate and impartial information,” he said.
His comments at the Istanbul summit came as Turkish lawmakers are considering new legislation that would criminalise spreading disinformation.
Some critics, however, have expressed concern over the potential scope of the new measures.
“Disinformation, first of all, is a major problem not just in Turkey but globally,” said Yaman Akdeniz, an academic and co-founder of the Turkish cyber rights group Freedom of Expression Association. “But what the [Turkish] government refers to as disinformation is not necessarily regarded as disinformation elsewhere,” he added.
Akdeniz said Ankara’s “main concern” with disinformation is what is said on social media, noting that citizens are increasingly turning to such platforms to debate a host of issues, such as this year’s response the summer forest fires and price increases. “All of that turned into major criticism towards the government machinery in Turkey, and that criticism was expressed primarily through the social media platforms.”
Turkish law allows a host of government departments to ask for the blocking or removal of online content, for reasons including obscenity, the protection of public order, national security, defamation of government officials and prevention of “terrorism”.
According to a report by the Freedom of Expression Association, which tracks how those laws are used, at the end of 2020, more than 467,000 websites were blocked in the country, including nearly 60,000 that were added to the organisation’s list of blocked sites that year. Also in 2020, a new law required the main social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok and Facebook to set up offices inside the country, and held them potentially liable if they fail to comply with local court judgements.
Changing information ecosystem
Teyit’s Saklica said the issue of disinformation is not connected just with opposition parties, but the entire political spectrum. “All of the political parties have problems with this situation,” he noted. Instead of criminalising disinformation, Saklica said there needed to be an improvement in the public’s ability to parse information themselves – what he calls changing the “information ecosystem”.
Teyit has some 25 staff and is funded by grants from local and international non-profits, as well as social companies such as Facebook and TikTok, which employ the group as third party fact checkers in the country.
Much of its work deals with bizarre, easily debunked claims that somehow make it to the top of Turkey’s social media platforms: Angela Merkel is Adolf Hitler’s daughter (false); NASA has announced a giant asteroid is going to crash into the Earth (also false).
But there are also other attempts at manipulating narratives that require long-term attention. Instead of tackling individual bits of disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, or refugees, or the economy, for instance, Teyit has found it better to wait and prepare longer reports on those kinds of topics to properly explain the context and motivations behind larger disinformation campaigns.
Claims that involve satire, when corrected, often prompt apologies from their perpetrators, Saklica said. But when it comes to claims that have a political agenda behind them, such admissions rarely emerge. “Sometimes people publish [claims] with political motivations, and even if they know it is not correct, they won’t change their idea. You know this is wrong, and you know he or she understands this is wrong.”
Still other efforts at debunking just churn up more conspiracy theories. Teyit reports debunking conspiracy theories around COVID-19 vaccines, for instance, have prompted those perpetuating the theories to circulate claims the organisation is working for billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates (false).
Building digital literacy
Daily debunking may be Teyit’s bread and butter, but actually solving the disinformation problem in Turkey needs grassroots education, said Kansu Ekin Tanca, who heads the organisation’s educational programmes.
Handbooks for teachers and parents, translated into Turkish or produced in-house by Teyit, explain how to spot misinformation, and the psychology of conspiracy theories. Video guides explain how to use tools like reverse image search to check claims. Teyit has even partnered with local authorities, for instance, using television screens on Istanbul’s metro system to show commuters quick videos debunking claims about COVID-19 vaccines.
Lockdowns and school closures in Turkey during the pandemic also prompted the group to start setting up workshops for teachers and parents, after they were approached by them with specific concerns.
“One of the problems, for example, was when a teacher said something about the [COVID-19] disease, or the kind of prevention methods for coronavirus, students usually said this might be true, but my parents said this and this,” Tanca said. “So teachers felt the need to empower students with the necessary tools so they can reach reliable sources themselves, and not depend on their parents or teachers.”
The most difficult claim to dispel for Teyit, though, has been the idea that only certain people are susceptible to falling for misinformation. Each demographic has different vulnerabilities, Tanca said.
The elderly tend to have a more difficult time understanding memes or parodies on social media, but younger people, Teyit has found, are more likely to fall for clickbait, or articles that have seemingly astounding headlines but no evidence to back up those claims.
“Everyone can fall for misinformation,” she said. “If we as individuals are aware of what kind of content, or what kind of emotions we are more susceptible to, then we can reflect on that and work on that.”