April 26, 2019

Şükrü Oktay Kılıç is a digital content strategist at Teyit, a Turkish fact-checking website.

On March 31, voters in Turkey went to the polls for the local elections.

False and misleading stories were not in short supply during the election campaigns, and my team at Teyit, an independent fact-checking organization, was hard at work investigating suspicious claims made by news organizations and social media users.

Among them was the claim that women attending the International Women’s Day march in Istanbul’s Taksim Square whistled and booed the call to prayer. It all started when BurakmDogan, a social media editor at pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, tweeted on March 9 a video taken during the march, showing women chanting slogans as the call to prayer was being recited at a nearby mosque. He claimed that the crowd was “protesting” the call to prayer.

Pro-government news organizations — Sabah, Aksam, Takvim and Yeni Akit, just to name a few — published the video on their websites and repeated Dogan’s claim. The following day, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, in an election rally in Adana, also accused women of disrespecting the call to prayer.

In response, women’s rights groups issued a statement on social media saying the chanting was aimed at the police cordon blocking their path, not at the call to prayer.

Why and how we investigated the claim

We received 67 emails and messages from our readers, including representatives of some women’s rights groups who were present at the march, asking for an investigation into the claim. This alone was enough of a reason for us to look into the claim that was dominating the news cycle for days leading up to the elections.

On March 10, our colleague Ali Osman Arabaci began to collect and analyze videos uploaded to social networks.

Politicians and news outlets that accused women of disrespecting Islam provided only videos taken during the call to prayer, showing women chanting and whistling. We had to analyze videos recorded before 8:20 p.m., the exact time when the mosque began reciting the call to prayer on that day. It was the only way to find out whether the chanting and whistling aimed at police or the call to prayer.

We decided to turn to crowdsourcing, as we were unable to find any video taken at around 8:20. Thousands of women attended the march and we thought some of them might have what we were looking for on their smartphones.

How we became a target of misinformation

Wired writer Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, the same year Twitter was launched.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s guide to crowdsourcing describes the term as “the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task—such as newsgathering, data collection, or analysis—through a targeted, open call for input; personal experiences; documents; or other contributions.”

We did precisely that, tweeting a callout on March 13 asking our followers to help us find evidence to complete our analysis. We also informed them about the progress of our investigation and explained why we needed to analyze videos taken at an exact time.

Our request for help sparked a debate on Twitter, with some criticizing us for not taking the women’s statement as evidence — and others going so far as to accuse us of helping the government identify protestors. Particularly disturbing was that even some journalists questioned our efforts.

It wasn’t the first time Teyit became the target of misinformation while trying to tackle it.

Although attacks aimed at undermining our work were demoralizing, we managed to complete the investigation. With the help of women who were present at the march, we received videos taken at a variety of different times that enabled us to see the movement of women before, during and after the call to prayer.

We published a detailed analysis with tangible evidence, labeling the claim that “women attending International Women’s Day march protested the call to prayer” as false on March 14. Our investigation revealed that the whistling and booing began before the call to prayer and were aimed at the police cordon.

Lessons learned

We at Teyit believe that our audience can, and should, participate in the work we do. We are working on models that will enable audience members to become active members of a digital community, playing a vital role in the preparation of analyses.

We learned several things from our first experiment with crowdsourcing:

  • The political climate is difficult in Turkey. During election campaigns, politicians often make polarizing claims without evidence in the hope to gain votes. Experimenting with a reporting technique like crowdsourcing for the first time while covering a controversial claim in such a period wasn’t a good idea.
  • We are living in a country where trust in journalistic institutions is increasingly low. We should have foreseen that such a call to action might raise privacy concerns among some users. Going forward, we will address the privacy issue in a clearer way.
  • Twitter, where we have more than 370,000 followers, wasn’t the right place to experiment with crowdsourcing for the first time. Many users, including journalists, want to see us on their side, debunking the claims that they don’t like and verifying the ones they do.
  • Teyit is an editorially and financially transparent organization. Therefore, we tend to think that all of our readers trust us and value the work we do. We learned the hard way that that is not true, especially on social networks. As opposed to tweeting a call-out to hundreds of thousands of peoples on social media, we will try and bring together specific groups of people who would be interested in participating in the creation of analyses. In so doing, we believe we can develop much more meaningful relationships with them.
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