Fact-checkers are always busier during elections. So spare a thought for Doğruluk Payi, a Turkish fact-checking site launched in June 2014: the parliamentary elections scheduled for this Sunday are the third nationwide vote held in just eighteen months.
Yet Ferdi Özsoy, co-founder of Doğruluk Payi, puts a positive spin on this additional burden: “elections allowed us to grow rapidly in terms of followers and recognition.” Moreover, the high-level stakes helped the editorial team get to grips with the limits and potential of fact-checking as a journalistic instrument.
As Turkey’s media and politics is increasingly polarized, Doğruluk Payi’s impact should be interesting not just for other fact-checkers but journalists and Turkey-watchers in general.
Fact-checking initiatives have been attempted before, but none has been as systematic and persistent as Doğruluk Payi, says Erkan Saka, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Communication at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. It is “the first of its kind” concurs Bilge Yesil, Associate Professor on Media Culture at CUNY. Yesil says Doğruluk Payi and other organizations such as Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond, a poll-watching outfit) “are the product of a broader hunger for more fact-based information.”
According to Doğruluk Payi’s Özsoy, the initiative’s following has increased rapidly. Trafficestimate figures indicate that the website received approximately 80,000 visitors last month and its profile on Twitter has 16,600 followers.
Doğruluk Payi strives to innovate its product. The team does a weekly Periscope where it discusses recent fact checks. The mobile version of their site allows for sharing content easily over Whatsapp “a truly important feature in the Turkish context,” says Özsoy. The website also gives readers the opportunity to sign in through their Facebook or Twitter profiles. This enables a few useful functionalities, such as the option to receive a notification when there is a new fact check on a politician or topic you have flagged. As is the case with other fact-checking websites, readers can also upload a statement they want Doğruluk Payi to fact-check. These efforts have paid off, according to Özsoy: readers are staying on the site for an average of 3 minutes.
Some politicians, as is often the case, have reacted to fact checks angrily on Twitter. On a more positive note, the Minister of Health’s office contacted Doğruluk Payi to inform the team that following a negative fact-check the advisor who had written the Minister’s speech was invited to be more careful in the future.
Mainstream media has also taken an interest in the website, according to Saka, “especially their fact-checking of the party platforms.” Doğruluk Payi’s co-founder Baybars Örsek has appeared on CNN Türk and Bugün TV (the latter of which was stormed by police this week).
In this polarized context, does fact-checking itself risk being consumed only by one side of the divide? “At the moment their main audience is likely to be more urban and more educated than the average,” says Saka. Fact-checking alone “cannot overcome the polarization in Turkish politics, especially in the context of a very powerful state and a very powerful ruling party,” he adds.
I asked Yesil whether there is a risk that sites like Doğruluk Payi remain the preserve of younger, more educated readers. She responds that “this has to do with who is using the internet”, pointing me to a recent study by Koç University, Ohio State University and the University of Pennsylvania. The breakdown of internet users is indeed skewed towards this demographic. For the moment being, Doğruluk Payi is “opening a space” for fact-based information, whether and to what extent this will have broader repercussions remains to be seen.
By maintaining its impartiality, Doğruluk Payi could nonetheless increasingly become a reference point for all sides of the political divide. That is definitely the fact-checkers’ goal. Özsoy says, “Our dream is to become the homepage for Turkish politics.”