“Now that we cannot march on the streets, we’ll march on Twitter and Facebook.”
A Turkish political party used Google ads to outwit a media blackout put in place by the country’s ruling party. The small ad campaign went viral on social media and got the newly founded Good Party coverage from Euronews, Sputnik and AFP, besides various Turkish outlets.
Led by country’s former interior minister Meral Akşener, the party was largely ignored by the Turkey’s mainstream media because, some commentators argue, it poses a challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule.
The party used AdWords, Google’s advertising spots above search results, with playful social commentary on human rights issues just a few weeks before the Turkish general elections.
When people in Turkey Googled “VPN”, the virtual private network services that many Turks have to pay in order to circumvent online censorship, the Good Party’s ad said “Don’t waste your money. For internet freedoms, wait until we come to power.”
“Vacant rooms” was another search term that the new centre-right party picked half-jokingly. On the ad text, the party pledged that President Erdoğan’s lavish 1150-room palace will instead serve to the public.
Using a Turkish proxy, we confirmed that all the ad clicks were redirected to Good Party’s website, which featured its election manifesto on the homepage. There the party pledged to lift online censorship, including Turkey’s year-long ban on Wikipedia, and defined internet access as a human right.
“We primarily targeted the 18-30 age group by this campaign,” Ümit Karaca, a young official from Good Party’s social media team confirmed to me over chat. “But we also aim for all the voters who keep up with the times.”
Akşener on Tuesday took Twitter to credit the youth branch of the party for the viral campaign.
Ben gençlere hep güvendim. En zor şartlarda bile bir yolunu buluyorlar. Bugün medya karartmasını delip geçen bu genç akılları, yarın Türkiye'nin başında düşünün.
— Meral Akşener (@meral_aksener) June 5, 2018
“I’ve always trusted young people. They find a way even in the most difficult conditions. Think of the young minds that pierce the media blackout today as the leaders of tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be good?”
59 million Turkish citizens, including 1.6 million first-time voters, will cast their votes on June 24 for both the new Turkish parliament and a new president. Approaching the youth is a priority for all parties, but because Turkey has been under the emergency rule by Erdoğan since July 2016 coup attempt, the opposition faces many hurdles, online and offline.
On Sunday, Akşener’s convoy was blocked by garbage trucks right before Good Party’s rally in Gaziantep, a city in southeast Turkey. The city’s mayor, who is from Erdoğan’s ruling party, defended the roadblock as a standard security measure.
“Now that we cannot march in the streets, we’ll march on Twitter and Facebook,” Taylan Yıldız, a former specialist in consumer profiling at Google, who is now an adviser for Akşener, said of their online campaigning strategy back in November.
But the ruling party officials repeatedly alleged links between the Good Party and terrorist organizations, —a go-to charge for Erdoğan to silence his political rivals. One of the party’s social media advisors, Kerim Çoraklık, was detained last week by the Turkish police for “making propaganda of a terrorist organization.”
According to Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, the country’s mainstream media is now completely owned by groups affiliated with Erdoğan’s government. This explains why, Good Party officials say, that their party is not featured in news stories.
“There is a huge media blackout over us,” Yiğit Karakış, another member of the Good Party’s social media team told Turkish daily Hürriyet. “Therefore we needed to go beyond the conventional methods of political campaigning and explore new avenues.”
A report by Transparency International’s Turkey branch found that even the country’s public broadcaster spared only 14 minutes on Akşener during the month of May, while it covered the current president Erdoğan, who also runs for a second term, eight times more than her.
2018 Cumhurbaşkanlığı ve Milletvekili Seçim kampanyası süresince TRT Haber bültenlerine yönelik bir izleme çalışması yürütüyoruz. Mayıs ayı sonuçlarını infografiğimizden inceleyebilirsiniz. https://t.co/AWhcVkjaC1
Erdoğan 105 dk.
İnce 37 dk.
Akşener 14 dk.
Demirtaş 3 saniye pic.twitter.com/WYtzpLZgXL
— Transparency Int'lTR (@TransparencyTR) June 1, 2018
“We are conducting a monitoring study on TRT newsletters during the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election campaigning. You can review the results of May in our infographic. Erdogan 105 min. Ince 37 min. Akşener 14 min. Demirtaş 3 seconds.”
“But no one can stop an idea whose time has come,” Karaca said in defiance of the media blackout and arrests. “The Good Party is not one person’s movement, but an idea. So anyone can take over the duties and it will go on.”