Since the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the nationwide movement they sparked, there has been an increasingly vocal demand for accountable, transparent institutions spanning the length and breadth of Turkish society. Those institutions include the media, the judiciary, and – of course – the government itself. One result of this demand has been the emergence of civil society organisations such as Oy ve Ötesi, and Doğruluk Payı, part of the Dialogue for Common Future Association (Ortak Gelecek Dialog İçin Derneği).
Chances are you’ve heard about Oy ve Ötesi, the ballot-box monitoring volunteer network that was so active in both the June and November elections last year. You may not have heard of Doğruluk Payı however. Founded in 2014, it is Turkey’s first fact-checking organisation: Doğruluk Payı monitors politicians’ statements and assesses them against publicly available statistics, distributing the findings via an interactive website, traditional media outlets, and a wide social media network.
Doğruluk Payı was originally the brainchild of Baybars Örsek and Ferdi Özsoy, who encountered US fact-checking sites like PolitiFact while interning in Washington, DC in 2011. Back in Turkey, the impetus for Doğruluk Payı came from the gulf of information left out by both mainstream and alternative media. “Our main responsibility is to inform the constituencies. The issues that we have in Turkish media and politics are causing voters to avoid well-informed content, when it comes to politics. What we are trying to do is reach out to people before the elections, so they will have more tools,” co-founder and chairman Örsek told Independent Turkey. Politicians themselves constitute the organisation’s second target group. “We want to put pressure on them to have their statements more fact-based, more fact-checkable,” says Örsek.
Launched just before the 2014 presidential elections on National Endowment for Democracy funding, Doğruluk Payı began to do daily fact-checks of the statements of the three candidates’ (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Selahattin Demirtaş, and Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu). Post-election, they branched out to daily checks on members of parliament. These are published online and sent to major media outlets in Turkey, as well as to local newspapers when a statement pertains to a specific area. The fact-checks are also sent to the politicians themselves, and some 45% of MPs with Twitter accounts now follow Doğruluk Payı. The question is, do they engage with them at all? Ferdi Özsoy, vice-chairman, is positive about the discussion that arises on social media. “[Sending the fact-checks to the MPs] gives them a chance to refute it, or to say they have another source. Politicians do engage with them, especially if the fact-check has a positive outcome. We have received harsh feedback and criticisms, even threats, from politicians. There’s a conversation happening which is the most important thing. Good or bad, people are actually replying to each other.”
In a climate of polarisation and political vitriol, that kind of criticism – from all directions – suggests that Doğruluk Payı has hit not one but many nerves. “You can be labelled anything in Turkey. I think we’ve been labelled almost everything,” said Özsoy. Örsek agrees: “Pro-AKP, anti-AKP, pro-HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party], anti-HDP.” “I think it means we’re doing a good thing. Being labelled multiple labels, you know, we’re on the right track,” Özsoy said. This is also part of Doğruluk Payı’s modus operandi: to be strictly non-partisan, and allocate the same degree of precision regardless of a politicians’ party allegiance. A scroll through the organisation’s website will show you both good and bad scores scattered across the Turkish parliament, from President Erdoğan to opposition leaders such a Demirtaş and CHP (Republican People’s Party) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Holier than thou
Most people in Turkey get a large proportion of their news and information from television. Since the traditional media is heavily divided along party lines, argues Örsek, this means that people do not generally read anything that is critical of the positions they already hold. “If you are an AKP supporter, the TV channels and so on that you follow are either ATV or Sabah. Or if you consider yourself a CHP person you’ll have Cumhuriyet or Sözcu, Hurriyet, Kanal D. So I think it depends on which party you associate yourself with. When it comes to properly informing the constituents I think they have problems in terms of maintaining their non-partisanship and in some cases their independence,” he told Independent Turkey.
This is not a new problem: the Turkish media is controlled by large holding groups which in turn have political allegiances, and the effects on the news they produce (or don’t) is not difficult to imagine. However, particularly since the flaws of mainstream media were laid bare during Gezi, a growing proportion of the population is critical of large media outlets and on the lookout for alternative news sources; a gap that social media like Twitter go some way toward filling. The problem is that it can be difficult or impossible to verify information which is so rapidly transmitted that it is produced and accepted as fact almost simultaneously.
Daily fact-checks provide a counter-point to this kind of rapid-fire fact production. Researchers at Doğruluk Payı first identify the “facts” a statement is based on, and then use publicly available statistics from ministry websites and the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK). “After the official websites or the official channels, we try to cover some data from reliable NGOs. They can provide some really good data from all around Turkey,” says project coordinator Batuhan Ersun. Problems arise with issues not regularly tabled by politicians or tracked by official agencies. “I think this is the biggest problem that we have. In some important matters, the official data is not enough, or it’s out-dated,” says Ersun. The problem is most acute with issues such as climate change and violence against women, on which public statistics have little to say.
To make up for this, Doğruluk Payı consults a panel of experts ranging from academics to practitioners. They also conduct peer reviews of each fact-check, particularly when someone – a politician or one of the organisation’s followers – points out a problem or a mistake in one of their reports. The statement is then re-checked and the report peer reviewed again before release.
Preaching to the choir?
With one million page views in 2015, 13,000 unique visitors per week as of February 2016 and a social media reach of around 50,000, Doğruluk Payı is doing well for a relative newcomer – especially one that is breaking new ground. The problem is that many of those followers are already critical of mainstream media, and tend to fall on one side of the political line in the sand. “Our followers are mostly from the opposition side, but they know that at least we are trying to do an objective job here,” says Örsek. “And of course there are some negative followers, but they are all welcome for us. The negative comments are also welcome for us because… [w]e are trying to find some honest answers to their comments.”
Reaching beyond this core group of mostly opposition, already-critical, media consumers remains a challenge. “Even though we’re doing a non-partisan job, in essence what we’re producing seems like an opposition position,” says Özsoy. “The fine point is, if it was any ruling party we were going to fact-check them as well, and we’re going to track their promises. If it was another party, we would have done the same. We’re in a position that we are de facto pushed into that corner where they could label us as opposition. But we are trying to approach them as equally as we can.” Media consumers are stubborn in their political views, however. Site users can vote on each statement, stating whether or not they agree with it. Even in cases where the report indicates the information presented by an MP was factually incorrect, people still vote for it – a trend that suggests political choices are often informed less by available information than by pre-existing loyalties.
So far, Doğruluk Payı has found that of 575 statements it had checked (up to the date of this article), only around 25% of those have been completely correct. Some 75% of statements have some or all the facts wrong, and roughly 25% are absolutely incorrect – or yanlış (wrong), on the Doğruluk Payı grading scale. Are politicians unaware of the facts, or are they misusing them? “They play with numbers,” says Özsoy, and Örsek agrees. “Both of them. We believe that they have the official data. But sometimes they use them for exaggeration, or something.” Scores of yanlış seem fairly evenly spread across parties. See, for instance, Selahattin Demirtaş’s recent statement that the AKP claims of having spent ten million dollars on Syrian refugees was a lie. The HDP co-chair claimed the government had not even spent a million, which is thoroughly refuted by Doğruluk Payı’s research. Or, CHP Bursa MP Lale Karabayık’s claim that despite being a single-party government, the AKP’s rule before last year’s elections caused 17 million dollars of foreign capital to leave the country which was also reviewed as false.
In 2015, a few months before the June elections, Doğruluk Payı launched the website’s first promise-tracking section. Called Hükümetre, a play on hükümet – meaning government – the project monitors the AKP government’s delivery on its promises. For the 2011-2015 period, Doğruluk Payı found that only around 30% of promises had been completed, and the rest were either incomplete or had not been started. “And what we wanted to do was re-check our work. We went back to the AKP official site and opened the 2011 election manifesto and downloaded it again. What we realised is that they changed the targets. And it wasn’t stated at all. It was [presented as] the original 2011 election manifesto,” says Örsek. “We had the offline copy and we had the screenshots. So what we did in our promise tracking section we had a footnote – what we tracked was the original 2011 election manifesto, and when you go to the [AKP] website now you will see something different.”
Free access to information is under threat worldwide, from South Africa to the US. Whether limited by state censorship or by media conglomerates’ control of editorial content, the process has obvious repercussions – from the privatisation of previously non-profit publications to the arrest and harassment of whistleblowers and journalists. In such a climate, easy access to peer reviewed data on what exactly your politicians are saying is valuable. It remains to be seen whether Doğruluk Payı’s work has a tangible effect on Turkish civil society, and on politicians themselves. For the moment, it is producing something readily available, which can be used to expand the range of voters’ knowledge and hold politicians to fairly public account. In the space created by the Gezi uprising, and with Turkey’s long tradition of dissident media in the face of misinformation and repression, access to this kind of data may prove critical in developing a more open, tolerant society.