Poor media literacy ‘making Turks vulnerable to fake news’
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“One in two internet users say they are subjected to fake news. They are not resilient to fake news. In other words, they have difficulties in understanding fake news when they see one. That’s because media literacy is low in Turkey,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.
It has been revealed recently that Turkey ranks first in a list of countries where people complain about completely made up stories. Tell us why this does not come as a surprise.
One in two internet users says they are subjected to fake news. They are not resilient to fake news. In other words, they have difficulties in understanding fake news when they see one. That’s because media literacy is low in Turkey.
Each day we receive around 30 fake news warnings from social media users. Sometimes we just look at it and realize immediately that it is fake news, but then, in seconds, the fake news go viral. In other words, people trusted it and shared it. This is not limited to social media, even mainstream news organizations fall into the trap and facilitate the spread of fake news.
I have witnessed it myself several times. A news agency shared a photo from an explosion in Russia; it turned out to be from Ukraine. We are at a point where you have to even fact-check a news shared by a news agency which you pay for subscription. Editors in the newsroom work under time pressure and they have to rely on certain news agencies. And viewers, for instance, don’t question a famous news channel when it shares a video game as military operations in Syria. Our job is really difficult as fake news in Turkey has become mainstream.
Let’s flashback to the foundation of teyit.org.
It was founded by a young journalist, Mehmet Atakan Foça, in 2016. We just celebrated our second year in October. Atakan used to individually fact-check news from his personal social media account. He ended up having a crowd following him on social media. Thanks to the support of the Social Incubator Center at TED University in Ankara, this individual endeavor turned into teamwork and then into a brand. This came at a time when there were bombings and a coup attempt, and cross border operations were taking place. People had difficulty understanding what was going on in the country.
teyit.org is now part of the International Fact-Checking Network and the third-party fact checking partner of Facebook. Apart from verifying news, we are also offering tips, showing how people can use the tools to verify the truth of a news.
How is the pace of interest toward the portal?
It fills a vacuum. People are bombarded with information on social media and in times of crises or turning points, like elections, the speed of fake news going viral becomes even faster. And people no longer want to check news with mainstream newspapers, they come to teyit.org, because all of the content had been filtered to see whether the information is true or not. There are, of course, those which we cannot verify whether they are true or not; so we say so.
How do you measure it?
Through the number of followers and commentators. We have nearly 330,000 followers on Twitter. This is huge if you think we are a small team of 11.
And we also judge it from the reactions we receive from people who have a lot of followers, like (Ankara’s former mayor) Melih Gökçek’s apology after we have debunked a picture and information that he shared. That was also the case with Al Jazeera. Once we debunk a news, we look at whether they’ve made a correction.
So you follow up?
Of course, and that’s how we also measure our impact.
What are the topics that you come across most with fake news?
Who do you think produces fake news?
I can only share my personal view. One of the primary reasons behind the vulnerability is the polarization in the country. Researches show that we are prone to trust and sharing without questioning news that reflect our world view. We have a view that we defend and when we defend this view in the street or on social media we invest in this view, and when we see information that can support that investment, we share it carelessly even if it might look suspicious.
But who are the ones producing these news?
These are bad actors with malign intentions. They could be politicians trying to make political gains. There could be economic reasons behind fake news to make economic gains. States, governments, regimes, even the European countries we think are advanced democracies can be included in the list. There is a thin line between propaganda and fake news and this thin line has disappeared.
How is the situation in Turkey? Internal and external actors?
We do not have such research at teyit.org, but my personal view is that internal actors are more influential than external actors.
What else is teyit.org doing?
Polarization has reached a serious level in Turkey. People have prejudices against others. This creates vulnerability and the producers of fake news are aware of it and want to exploit it. Media literacy and digital literacy are weak, which increases this fragility. We try to fill the gaps, we go to universities, speak to journalists. We issue reports and try to increase awareness among journalists, children at school age and parents.
We are preparing three contents per week to be broadcast in all of Istanbul’s metros, trams, and ferries that have screens. We tell them the truth about urban legends like the lifespan of a butterfly is 24 hours. We want to debunk information which people have thought to be true for years, and as a result, we want to make them think what else could be wrong: To think that not everything they see is true. We want to make their suspicion muscle work. Of course, one other reason for the vulnerability is the issue of media freedom. We are at the lower end of indexes on freedom of expression and media freedom, and researches show such countries are more open to disinformation.
Does age factor weigh in?
I think older people have more difficulty in media literacy. If I was not working for teyit.org my father would not have known about it. We are working on a project against sharing fake news in closed online groups like WhatsApp. Sometimes we have difficulty questioning our friends and relatives on the authenticity of what they share; we think they will resent us. This is a complaint we hear often. We are looking for technical ways on how to say these.
Şükrü Oktay Kılıç is a digital content strategist who started working in journalism at Radikal newspaper in 2011 as a reporter focusing on human rights and student movements in Turkey. He joined Al Jazeera’s Turkish-language service in 2014 as a producer. He was later promoted to lead the new media team and developed platform strategies, storytelling techniques, and community management methods for teams across the channel. In 2017 he was transferred to Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar as a senior producer, where he co-led the platforms and social video teams.
He is now working with teyit.org as a digital content strategist to help diversify its content offerings, develop audience and business development strategies. He holds a master’s degree in new media.