Truth underrated in Turkish politics, says ‘Share of Truth’ head
Barçın Yinanç - firstname.lastname@example.orgTruth is underrated in Turkey and is not the first thing that voters expect from politicians, according to the co-founder of online fact-checking website “Doğruluk Payı” (Share of Truth).
“We are trying to establish a counter narrative based on truth ... We want to promote a society that demands truth from politics. We are trying to establish dialogue between politicians and their constituency and make politicians accountable,” Ferdi Ferhat Özsoy told the Hürriyet Daily News in an exclusive interview.
Give us a brief overview of your group’s work.
Share of Truth is a project of the Dialogue for Common Future Association. It is a fact-checking website. We fact-check the statements of Turkish politicians, mostly members of parliament.
We have certain criteria when choosing the statements. First it has to be high on the agenda and it has to be a verifiable statement. Also we need to be able to check it on open sources. We can’t go to sources that are paid for or not accessible to us.
So does that mean you fact-check statements based on figures or statistics?
Mostly. But there are also other cases, such as when someone claims that “nearly all G-8 counties have presidential systems.” We need measurable statements that are quantifiable, but sometimes we also verify statements on historical facts.
But in general 75 percent of the statements we have checked are related to the economy. The rest are usually on security issues, health issues, and also we have been checking refugee issues a lot lately. We are not fact-checking politicians; we are fact-checking statements.
We get the raw data make it accessible and transparent. Anybody could go to a Turkish statistics website. But it is about how you read the data and how you bring it out in simpler terms to people. Generally people don’t take the time to look at these data. That is why we won the “Best Initiative” award from International Transparency Turkey last December, and we were also chosen as a “changemaker” by Sabancı University.
You recently published a report on your activities. Tell us about it.
Since we started this project in June 2014 we have fact-checked around 600 statements from more than 180 political actors. We are unbiased and check all parties, but most of the fact-checks are from statements by Justice and Development Party [AKP] members, probably because they are in the media more often. In the sixth month of our project we realized that the breakdown of the statements actually reflected the ratio of the parties’ seats in parliament.
Turkey is not always very transparent as far as numbers are concerned. Does that pose a challenge?
In cases like murders of women or child marriage, sometimes it is not easy to find the numbers. So we turn to associations that deal with these issues or we refer to academic papers on the subject. In some instances when the official numbers look suspicious, we resort to data from institutions like the OECD or the World Bank and we put them together to see whether there is a big difference or not.
We have a feature where readers can say whether or not they initially believed a particular statement and for the recent report we gathered data to find out which were the most read and most commented fact-checks. It turns out that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş were the most popular political figures among our readers both in terms of approval and disapproval ratings.
Tell us about your visitors’ profile.
In June 2015 we passed the one million page view threshold. We have now had 1.2 million page views. On average we have 5,000 unique visitors daily and 15,000 page views. Visitors spend an average of three to four minutes on the pages and this is without any advertisements. On Twitter we have 20,000 followers and we are also growing on Facebook.
We send our fact-checks to related politicians. We immediately send our findings so they can respond and provide any additional data or sources to justify their statements. We share our findings with the media and our subscribers, of whom there are more than 25,000. Subscribers are able to monitor specific politicians so they can be immediately informed by us; if you’re following Erdoğan or Demirtaş you get a notification, free of change.
Unfortunately, our audience is mostly male, around 75 percent. They are typically between the ages of 20 and 45, interested in politics, business, the economy and social issues. Also they are in places with high Internet penetration and are likely smart phone users.
By the nature of our work, we mostly seem to appeal to people in the opposition. This is reflected in our follower base. But we have also been trying to expand our outreach to people who support the AKP.
Why do you think Erdoğan and Demirtaş are the most popular figures on your website?
The presidential system has been an important issue and both leaders have given several statements about the presidency. Also the elections in June and November particularly boosted curiosity about Demirtaş. Elections are always good for us because people are particularly interested in fact-checking during election campaigns.
Tell us about your findings so far.
Of the 600 statements, we found 26 percent to be “completely true.” Some 24 percent were “completely false” and the rest were distributed among categories in the middle.
On the statistics page users can choose a party and a time frame and get a pdf report showing the percentage truth rate of political parties. We are always debating whether should publish overall rates for parties, thus stating which party has the best record for truth and which has the worst. But we don’t think it is right to do so when the numbers for each party are so different. In order to do that we would need to have 24/7 monitoring of each and every statement.
So we don’t publish a monthly or periodic comparative track records, but anyone can do that on their own. We believe fact-checking is personal so we fact-check political actors, not political parties. But during the elections we covered the electoral campaign process and focused on parties.
Another thing to consider is that if we took political parties, we would also have to consider the president.
Should we combine them? At the moment users can go to the website and see the president’s track record.
You found out that overall 24 percent of statements are “completely false.” What does this tell us?
This percentage is about the same around the world. Politicians are able to do this as they know their constituents will not dig more deeply. But people need to check their politicians and this is what we are trying to do. This is not a personal thing, it is a structural issue. There is no institutional culture in Turkey; a minister can talk about anything that is not within their ministerial responsibility. There is no expertise, and when everybody starts talking about everything they get it wrong because they don’t know enough about the subject.
On economic issues the share of truth is generally low in Turkey. Both the government and the opposition manipulate data. Presenting data according to one’s own view is a chronic illness.
The truth is underrated in Turkey and we want to promote it. People’s first expectation from politicians here is not for them to tell the truth; there is already an acceptance that politicians lie. Actually this is the case all over the world. People often vote out of ideology, so there is a risk of a backfire effect in what we do. If you constantly tell people that the leader they support is a liar, it backfires and has no transformative effect.
That’s why we are trying to establish a counter narrative based on truth. Politics might not care about truth, but what we want to promote is a society that demands truth from politics. We are trying to establish a dialogue between politicians and their constituency and make politicians accountable. We take particular pride in being the first social media account that can be retweeted by both AKP and opposition party members on the same day.
Who is Ferdi Ferhat Özsoy?
Ferdi Ferhat Özsoy was born in New York in 1985. He received his undergraduate diploma from City University of New York at Brooklyn College, where he triple majored in History, Political Science and Education.
After finishing his undergraduate degree he became a high school history teacher in New York, but in 2009 he decided to move to Turkey to complete a Master’s in International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. While completing his MA he became a researcher and translator for foreign journalists living in Turkey.
In 2011 Özsoy received an offer from the Istanbul University Language Center as a project manager, developing various projects to enhance language learning and teaching. He is currently working at Istanbul Bilgi University as a coordinator organizing seminars, conferences, and panels on foreign affairs. He is also one of the founding members of the Dialogue for Common Future Association.