Turkey’s ruling party, facing the threat of fresh anti-government demonstrations, is boosting its presence in a sphere long dominated by the opposition: social media. The Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is recruiting a 6,000-member social-media team to woo citizens and fight critics, party officials said.
The AKP is gradually bringing young, tech-savvy party members to Ankara to train them in classrooms to act as volunteer “social-media representatives.”
The youth will be charged with sharing news and images, mainly on Twitter and Facebook, but also on Instagram and YouTube, that promote the party perspective and monitor online discussions, a party official said.
“We aim at developing a positive political language which we are teaching to our volunteers,” said a senior party official responsible for organizing the campaign. “And when the opposing camp spreads disinformation about the party, we correct them with valid information, always using positive language.”
The government declined to provide the names of any participants, suggesting it didn’t want to compromise their privacy.
The initiative comes after the party, which has governed Turkey since 2002, faced the biggest popular challenge to its rule in June when hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets and social media to protest against what they called Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic governing style.
During the June protests, six people died and thousands were detained, in some cases because of tweets and other activities on social media, say Turkish lawyers and human-rights activists.
The demonstrations quieted down toward the end of summer, but smaller-scale protests have begun to re-emerge, and some people believe will grow as elections approach.
Analysts said the campaign amounted to a recognition that the government needed to use social media more effectively in the lead-up to local and presidential elections due next year, even though polls show the governing party is favored to win.
“The AK Party was caught unprepared in the face of the social-media explosion during Gezi protests,” said Eylem Yanardagoglu, a Kadir Has University. professor in Istanbul. “Now it wants to fix this ahead of elections.”
Mr. Erdogan, who himself has 3.4 million Twitter followers, has repeatedly attacked the microblogging site, calling it “a menace” and a source of lies and exaggerations. In the midst of the protests, ministers said they would seek to regulate Twitter, but last week Mr. Erdogan hinted that he would try to use the site to his advantage, saying that it could be a platform for youth to “speak truth.”
The new initiative is concentrated on cities where the antigovernment protests and social-media use was greatest. The party will base 1,000 representatives in Istanbul, 600 in Ankara, and 400 in Izmir, with the remainder spread across Turkey.
“The campaign is not about the Gezi park protests but about preparing for the local elections and the following general elections,” the party official said.
Ayla Albayrak and Joe Parkinson
16 September 2013