If last summer’s Gezi Park protests in Turkey proved anything, it was the power of social media, especially Twitter. While mainstream media outlets generally kept quiet after the mass protests broke out on May 31, Twitter users reported live from the demonstrations with texts, pictures and videos. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose harsh rhetoric added fuel to the Gezi fire, called Twitter “a scourge.”
Part of the reason the prime minister lashed out against the social-media network was because his party could not respond effectively to Twitter users. According to one commentator, the number of Twitter users in Turkey jumped from 1.8 million to 10 million in the first 10 days of the protests. All but two of the top 10 hashtags during the protests were anti-AKP. One hashtag (#tayipistifa) even called for Erdogan’s resignation.
It looks like Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has learned from its shortcomings. A few days ago, the AKP announced that it will train 6,000 of its youth members as social-media activists. Under the plan, these social-media campaigners will disseminate information and canvass Internet users to bring them over to the party. In a sense, the 6,000-strong social-media army will defend the Justice and Development Party in the virtual world.
Given the AKP’s significant influence over the mainstream media in Turkey, why did the party hire so many social-media consultants so quickly? The question begets the answer: Traditional media outlets, especially TV stations and newspapers, have become so discredited in the eyes of Turkish people for their kowtowing to the AKP that Twitter and other social-media networks threaten to replace them as the main sources of news. In an infamous incident during the Gezi protests, Turkish viewers had to turn to CNN International because the local CNN affiliate was airing a documentary on penguins.
Another reason the AKP is deploying a social-media army at this time is because Turkey will hold two (or possibly three) elections next year. The first critical test is the local elections of March 2014. As previously reported in Al-Monitor, the AKP wants to hold on to its strongholds in Istanbul and Ankara and snatch Izmir away from the main opposition Republican People’s Party. That one-third of the AKP’s 6,000 Twitter workers have been assigned to work in Turkey’s three largest cities means they will be the main political battlegrounds on social media.
The local elections are also important because of their potential impact on the fall 2014 presidential elections. The latter will mark the first time the people of Turkey directly elect their "first citizen." (In the past, the National Assembly elected the president.) Losing either Istanbul or Ankara in March 2014 would hurt Erdogan, whose desire to become the first Turkish president elected by popular vote is an open secret.
Long-term demographics is yet another reason the AKP has hopped on the Twitter bandwagon. Turkey has a young population, and much like their peers in other countries, they go to Twitter and Facebook, not the papers or television, to get their news. With millions of Turkish teenagers slated to join the ranks of the country’s 50 million voters in the near future, the AKP’s likely motive is to make a long-term investment in young citizens.
The AKP already has a competitive advantage in that respect: The bulk of its votes come from working- and middle-class Turks, many of whom hail from conservative neighborhoods and rural areas. Most important, the average age of these voters is the mid-to-late twenties. A robust presence on Twitter and other social-media networks could help the AKP secure their support.
Judging by the large number of people on the AKP’s social-media team and the likelihood of a commensurate response from the opposition, the “Twitter opening” means that political battles in Turkey will now be fought on social media as fiercely as in the real world.
Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Virginia. He was recently a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. Follow him at www.barinkayaoglu.com. On Twitter: @barinkayaoglu and Facebook: BarınKayaoğlu.com