« As President Erdogan and the AKP face an electoral challenge in 2023, a new law tightens government control of social media and news websites. Much will depend on how this law is interpreted and enforced » says Alper Coşkun in Carnegie Endowment.
Turkey is heading toward two watershed moments in 2023: presidential and parliamentary elections in June and the centennial of the founding of the Turkish Republic on October 29. Beleaguered by rising economic challenges that are taking a toll on his ratings, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is desperately trying to leverage this confluence of events to increase his chances of success in the upcoming elections.
In an election manifesto–like speech that he delivered on October 28 under the slogan “century for Turkey,” he tried to appeal to his base and disenchanted voters by making promises of a better and brighter future. While nothing was new in the projects and ideas he laid out, enhancing rights and freedoms through a new constitution was a central theme in his message. The next day, in conjunction with celebrations on the ninety-ninth anniversary of the republic’s founding, he participated in the rolling-out ceremony of Turkey’s first electric vehicle, TOGG, declaring it to be “the fulfillment of a sixty-year-old dream” and a testament to Turkey’s success under his rule.
These two carefully choreographed events cast an inspiring outlook on Turkey’s future. However, they came on the heels of something very different and less inspirational. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdoğan chairs, and its junior partner, the National Movement Party (MHP), pushed through a new bill in parliament in early October, purportedly designed to fight against disinformation. It was quickly signed into law by Erdoğan on October 18, amid rising concerns over its potential implications for freedom of expression in the country.
Media rights activists and the opposition dub it the censorship law, while some Turkey-watchers have described it as an evolution of the government’s censorship strategy from “micro-managing and throttling social media to micro-managing and throttling people.” The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has already submitted a request for its repeal by the Constitutional Court. However, the court’s composition makes it hard to assume it would entertain the idea of taking a critical look at any legislation sponsored by the AKP and MHP.
The law tightens control over social media platforms and online news sites. It looms heavily over freedom of expression in Turkey, making it a new indicator of the country’s already receding democratic credentials. There is also a potential economic fallout for Turkey, given the degree to which small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have come to rely on uninterrupted access to social media platforms for their activities, which could all be affected by this legislation. The same holds for Turkish society at large, which has firmly embraced the digital domain as part of its daily routine.
The need to regulate the internet and social media content is an understandable concern but is, at the same time, a double-edged sword. Turkey needs to strike the right balance and safeguard essential freedoms that benefit society in more ways than one. While maintaining information superiority will be a key consideration for the government in the run-up to next year’s elections, it remains to be seen whether prudence will guide the new law’s implementation. The haste in which the legislation was adopted in a partisan fashion against the opposition’s uproar, and the lack of consultations with stakeholders, suggest otherwise.
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY
Officials, including Erdoğan, dismiss worries around the new law and highlight concerns over the disruptive impact of disinformation on society and the need for regulation. They point to examples of legislation put forward in other countries to fight this challenge.
At first glance, the premise of this argument is valid. Disinformation is a universally recognized problem. But as always, the devil is in the details.
For starters, the new Turkish legislation is draconian in several respects. It introduces prison terms for disseminating misleading news. A byproduct of such a threat of incarceration is that it will automatically incentivize self-regulation through intimidation, which will diminish the space for public debate.
In conjunction with this drawback, there is also the reality that the law contains ambiguous tripwires like spreading misleading news, public order, internal and external security, and intent to cause public concern, fear, or panic. These offenses will serve as the basis for criminal charges, subject to the interpretation of an increasingly politicized judicial system. The problem there is evident.
The first test of the law was set in motion through a complaint filed with the prosecutor’s office against the main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, for spreading fake news. The submission came from Turkey’s security apparatus in reaction to Kılıçdaroğlu’s allegations that government officials were complicit in the drug trade and money laundering activities. This was followed by the first arrest in a separate case related to the alleged crime of spreading disinformation.
Finally, the law also imposes far-reaching demands on social media platforms in their role as gatekeepers, ranging from removing content to sharing detailed information about user accounts, with heavy fines hanging over their heads for noncompliance.
The context in which this law has been adopted deepens concerns. Turkey will hold twin elections—presidential and parliamentary—in 2023. Current polls suggest that this could be the most significant electoral challenge Erdoğan has faced in his rule, which has lasted over twenty years. And the recent sentencing of the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a potential opposition contender in the upcoming presidential elections, to more than two years in prison for insulting public figures already points to the uneven playing field ahead.
With most leading traditional media outlets transformed into government mouthpieces, the role of social media platforms in the free flow of information and ideas has increased in Turkey. They have become the medium by which alternative views to the ruling party’s narrative can freely be expressed and disseminated. This makes them vital, especially during critical political junctures like the upcoming elections, casting further doubt over the law’s true intent and timing.
TURKEY’S CONCERNS ARE LEGITIMATE, BUT ITS MEASURES GO TOO FAR
As the digital space grows and its role in our lives evolves, the tug-of-war between concerns over public harm through disinformation, misinformation, and toxic discourse and the need to preserve fundamental freedoms will inevitably become more severe. These concerns have to do with the resilience of nations. They have become prominent agenda items in institutions like the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and NATO—to name a few—all of which are searching for solutions within their respective competencies.
As essential as it may be, the free functioning of the marketplace of ideas alone may not be deemed sufficient by all governments to tackle these problems—especially because social media platforms have their own, arguably arbitrary content moderation policies and can change them at will. In an era of rising nationalism and heightened cultural sensitivities, coupled with general national security considerations, the argument for governmental regulation over the internet and social media platforms will continue to hold water. Turkey’s official narrative is no exception.
The universality of challenges associated with digital societies and the responsibility of the state to provide a regulatory framework to offset them are the basis of Turkey’s official justification for the legislation. That is the explanation sponsors of the law provided to the Turkish parliament. They also asserted that social media platforms fail to heed legitimate calls for preventive and protective measures that would be in the interests of individuals and society.
In a letter dated September 30, Turkey made the same points to the Venice Commission, a specialized legal body under the Council of Europe. In turn, the commission delivered its opinion on October 21. While acknowledging the challenge posed by information disorder and the need to tackle disinformation, the commission first and foremost expressed concern over the law’s interference with freedom of expression. It opined that the regulation was not proportionate to the declared legitimate aim of countering disinformation and highlighted its chilling effect, which it argued could lead to self-censorship. In other words, the commission conceded the validity of Turkey’s argument but believed the measures in the law went too far.
TURKEY NEEDS TO WEIGH THE BENEFITS OF ITS ESTABLISHED AND GROWING PRESENCE IN THE DIGITAL DOMAIN
A well-kept secret about Turkey is how thoroughly the country has embraced the digital space. According to a 2022 study by Kepios, a firm that studies digital trends through open-source data, 82 percent of the Turkish population is connected to the internet. Turks spend an average of eight hours per day online,1 exceeding the global average of seven hours. As the number of worldwide social media users increased by 10.1 percent in 2022, surpassing 4.62 billion people, Turkey ranked twenty-seventh in the world, after the United States, with an adoption rate exceeding 80 percent.2 Turkish social media users were found to spend nearly three hours daily on these platforms.
Alongside the picture that emerges from these figures, pointing to the degree to which Turkish society has integrated into the digital space, there is also a related economic dimension that merits attention. In a recent study by Deloitte, the added value of Google’s product ecosystem alone to the Turkish economy was estimated to stand at 3.9 percent of the Turkish gross national product in 2018 and was forecast to reach 7.4 percent in 2025.3An earlier study on Facebook (now Meta) highlighted the catalyzing role of its various social media platforms, particularly for SMEs. The study underlined the added value of social media platforms to the Turkish economy by introducing transformed marketing and sales capabilities, ease of cross-border trade, and efficiency gains through digitalization.
The transformative nature of the digitized economy has gained further impetus with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by new and emerging technologies. These developments are not only changing business practices but are also enabling remarkably fast-paced business growth around niche ideas. Turkey has emerged as a good example in this respect, as its national innovation ecosystem has been able to power new economic success stories through its startup industry, which has grown rapidly in recent years. Turkey did not have any startups valued at over $1 billion, called unicorns, until 2020, but the country can now boast a vibrant startup ecosystem that has produced two “decacorns” (valued at over $10 billion)4 and four unicorns. The latest example is the country’s leading mobile gaming company, Dream Games, which was started in 2019 and achieved unicorn status within a matter of two years. Meanwhile, Istanbul was recently identified as the second-largest gaming hub in the world (after London), with high prospects for additional growth. This level of success has led some to term Turkey “the Silicon Valley of mobile gaming.”
These examples corroborate the widely held belief that SMEs and startups can be drivers of growth and innovation. And while many ingredients are needed for their success—including trained human capital, which Turkey has—an essential component is unobstructed and continuous access to the digital space. Therefore, having the necessary infrastructure to ensure this, including from a regulatory standpoint, is nothing less than a precondition.
A 2021 study examining Turkey’s digital transformation performance recognized that advances have been made but identified considerable room for improvement, particularly in relation to the enabling environment, which was among the four subindexes that were analyzed.5 It looked at two indicators while assessing the digital environment in Turkey: the political and regulatory environment and the business and innovation environment. The study concluded that Turkey’s lowest scores were in the political and regulatory environment category, which in turn decreased its overall performance level. The study was prepared by TÜBİSAD, a group of leading companies operating in information and communication technologies and new media sectors in the country that collectively govern an economic volume exceeding $27 billion. The results of this study highlight the importance of an enabling regulatory environment for success in digital transformation and thereby put the large-scale pitfalls around Turkey’s disinformation law into perspective.
Much in the way that economic mismanagement has led to capital flight from Turkey, bringing the percentage of foreign investors in Turkish bonds and stocks to an all-time low, overregulation of the digital space can cause unintentional harm to Turkey in several ways.
A disruption in access to the internet or social media platforms would undermine reliant economic activities in the digital domain. This would come at a financial cost to Turkey and further burden its already struggling economy. The picture could get bleaker should such disruptions become constant and if they are politically motivated. The latter would deepen speculation over the investment climate in Turkey and inevitably stem interest in Turkish assets and startups among global technology investors. The fallout, therefore, would be not only political but also financial.
There is a lot at stake around Turkey’s disinformation law. Its implementation will shape the country’s trajectory in more ways than one. Now that the law has been enacted, much depends on how prosecutors and the judiciary interpret and practice this legislation. Equally important, however, will be the cues Turkey’s political leadership gives them.
As Erdoğan and the ruling AKP try to unite the masses around the theme “century of Turkey” with promises of enhanced freedoms for Turkish society, they should not succumb to short-term political interests and be tempted to utilize this legislation to suppress dissenting views. To the extent that Turkey strengthens the rule of law, upholds freedom of expression, and braves the challenges associated with the plurality of ideas, it will be able to navigate the complexities of an increasingly competitive global landscape. Championing such a strategy would strengthen, not weaken, any political actor in Turkey.
Alper Coşkun is a senior fellow within the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to the United States and Europe.
1 Calculated among the Turkish population aged 16–64.
2 “Adoption rate” means active social media users as a percentage of the total population.
3 Google’s product ecosystem here includes Google Maps, Google Cloud, Google Play, and Google Ad products.
5 The other indexes were “readiness,” “usage,” and “impact.”
Carnegie Endowment, December 19, 2022, Alper Coşkun