How Turkey Uses Social Media

Our Supplementary Digital News Report 2015 demonstrates the popularity of social media within Urban Turkey. In this essay digital strategist and Turkey specialist Esra Doğramacı and the report’s contributing author and researcher Damian Radcliffe examine some of the key issues in this space.

Setting the scene

Turkey is a country of contrasts, in both the online – and offline – world. It’s a nation where nearly 80 per cent of its population lives in modern urban environments 1 like Istanbul and the capital Ankara; yet at the same time agriculture employs nearly a quarter of its 75 million inhabitants,2 and almost half of the country’s land is given over for this purpose.3

Similarly, although home to Europe’s biggest youth population (16.6 per cent of the country is aged 15-24, compared to an EU average of 11.5 per cent),4 Turkey is nonetheless projected to have an ageing population within the next decade.5

These diametrically opposed realities are also evident within the digital arena. On the one hand, only a little over half of the population is online; but those who are connected – many of whom are young tech-savvy urbanites – tend to be enthusiastic and proficient adopters of digital technology.

Their enthusiasm is manifest in the results of the Digital News Report 2015 survey. Within Urban Turkey, 88 per cent used online news in the last week. The 18 country average is 80 per cent, while just over two-thirds (67 per cent) stated that they used social media as a news source.

This last figure was the highest of the six countries studied in this supplementary report, and use of social media for news is considerably higher in Turkey than the eighteen country average (44 per cent) identified through the wider digital news study.

Much of the usage of social media for news may be driven by a relatively low level of trust in traditional media. In urban Turkey 45 per cent of respondents stated that they do not think that they can ‘trust most news most of the time.’ This is 11 percentage points higher than the next least trusting nation, the United States. Though these figures do not necessarily represent the views of the entire country, they do offer an insight into the political polarisation present across both the Turkish media and Turkish media consumers.

Proportion That Agree/disagree That They ‘trust Most News Most Of The Time’ by Country (ordered By Agree)

Q6A. Thinking about news in general, do you agree or disagree with the following statement? ‘I think you can trust most news most of the time’
Base: Total sample in each country.
Note: Figures for agree/disagree were calculated by combining the proportion that selected ‘strongly’ or ‘tend to’ agree/disagree.

What social networks do people in Turkey use?

As in many other markets, Facebook dominates social media usage for both news and other purposes. Although exact numbers vary, the analytics firm SocialBakers noted as far back as 20116 that Turkey was already home to nearly 30 million Facebook accounts, making it the fourth largest country in the world in terms of country-specific user numbers.

By late 2014 and the market research firm GlobalWebIndex reported that 26 per cent of the entire county has used the social network in the past month alone.7 This was followed by Twitter at 17 per cent or 6.5 million of Turkey’s population, with the majority of Turkey’s Twitter population (87 per cent) being from Turkey’s three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.8

Although Turkey is home to over 70 million mobile subscriptions,9 industry data captured by the GSM Association states that only 34 per cent have access to mobile broadband,10 while Google’s Mobile Planet study in 2013 found that just under 30 per cent of the total population had access to a smartphone (and that 28 per cent of mobile phone users had more than one phone).11 This inevitably impacts on the take-up of some mobile-driven social media services.

Nonetheless, despite the limited take-up of mobile broadband, messaging apps – one of the breakout success stories in the social space in recent years – already enjoy considerable popularity among smartphone owners in Turkey. Of Turkish mobile internet users, 51 per cent of this study’s total sample in urban Turkey used WhatsApp in a typical week. Along with Facebook Messenger, further data suggests that these two chat apps are used by more than one in five of the total population each month.12

Given the closed nature of these platforms, and repeated Government attempts to control more mainstream social media channels, it’s perhaps not surprising to see that WhatsApp is already a popular source for news, discussion and information sharing among some audiences in Turkey. It will be interesting to see if these numbers grow as smartphone penetration in the country continues to rise.

Proportion that use Whatsapp as a source of news by country

Q12B. Which, if any, of the following have you used for finding, reading, watching, sharing or discussing news in the last week? Please select all that apply.
Base: Total sample in each country.

What people in Turkey use social media for

As the supplementary Digital News Report 2015 highlights, social media is popular as a news destination for online users in urban Turkey; with the leading platform being Facebook (used for news purposes by 69 per cent) and Twitter by a third (33 per cent) of the sample.

Alongside this, other popular uses for social media include entertainment, sports, and lifestyle as well as following personalities; such as Turkish singers, television and film celebrities, sports persons, journalists and politicians. The top 10 most followed accounts on Twitter in Turkey13 include the comedian Cem Yılmaz (with 9.94 million followers), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (7.1 million) and the football team Galatasaray Spor Kulübü (5.8 million).

It’s a similar story on Facebook14 where this cohort is joined by the football team Fenerbahçe, actress Beren Saat, the footballer Arda Turan and the TV show Arkadaşım Hoşgeldin. Interestingly, the only non-Turkish entry in the top 10 pages for both Facebook and Twitter is the Facebook page for Dr Mehmet Öz, the surgeon and TV personality. His popularity stemming from the little known fact (outside of Turkey,) that he is Turkish-American (although his social media pages appear to be solely in English).

Early efforts at control

In 2015’s Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index,15 Turkey ranked 149th out of 180 countries, representing a 9 per cent drop in place from 200216 when the AK (Justice and Development) (Adalet ve Kalkinma) Party came to power. At that time, it was ranked 99 of 134.

In addition to tighter media ownership, a controversial internet law in 2014 allowed the blocking of entire sites, not just pages, by court order.17 It is under this law that social networks have, on occasion, had their access revoked. However, Turkish social media users do not seem to be particularly changing their behaviours as a result of these efforts, the origins of their resilience perhaps reflecting the fact that efforts to curb discussion and press freedom in Turkey are not a new phenomenon.

Since 2007, the blocking of social platforms in Turkey has occurred on seven separate occasions, all under the current ruling AK party. The reasons for blocking access to platforms have all centered around circulation of incendiary or offensive content to Turkey or to Turks.

The first of these incidents occurred in 2007, using Turkey’s Article 301, which makes it illegal to insult Turkey or its institutions, including the country’s founder, Ataturk.18 Videos insulting Ataturk on YouTube led to the platform being blocked until the videos were removed.19 Full access was not restored until late 201020 despite high profile criticism of the ban by Turkey’s then president, Abdullah Gul.21

Later in 2010, in an unrelated incident, a compromising video 22 of Deniz Baykal, leader of the largest opposition party the CHP, also led to the temporary blocking of YouTube.23 , The most recent ban of social platforms – which included YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – took place in April 2015 after pictures of a prosecutor being held at gunpoint were circulated online.24

As the BBC notes: “The images were taken … in a siege at an Istanbul courthouse when two gunmen took the prosecutor hostage. All three died during a rescue attempt.”25 Court orders blocking access to social media sites were lifted only upon the removal of pictures related to this incident.

 2013: a turning point?

Meanwhile, the Gezi protests of 2013, have been identified by some as a watershed moment for social media in the country, as the protests acutely highlighted the differences between the mainstream media in Turkey and the potential afforded by social channels to by-pass traditional forms of control.26 As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains:

Multiday clashes between protesters and police became so intense that CNN International was broadcasting live from Istanbul. Meanwhile, CNN Turk was instead broadcasting a documentary about penguins…. One angry viewer moved his two televisions together: one was tuned to CNN Turk and its penguins, while the other was tuned to CNN International broadcasting amidst tear gas and clashes in Taksim. The viewer tweeted the picture out. The photo went viral, and from then on, many protesters dubbed their compliant, muted media the “penguin media.”27

More widely, the New York University Politics Ph.D. candidates Pablo Barberá and Megan Metzger reported “the role of social media in the protests has been phenomenal.”

Writing in a post entitled “A Breakout Role for Twitter? Extensive Use of Social Media in the Absence of Traditional Media by Turks in Turkish in Taksim Square Protests” they noted:28

Since 4pm local time yesterday, at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest, such as #direngeziparkı (950,000 tweets), #occupygezi (170,000 tweets) or #geziparki (50,000 tweets) have been sent. As we show in the plot below, the activity on Twitter was constant throughout the day (Friday, May 31). Even after midnight local time last night more than 3,000 tweets about the protest were published every minute.


2015: troubled times

Whether, in reality, Gezi will become a defining moment in social media’s role within the country remains to be seen. As it currently stands, the ability to use social networks in Turkey – for whatever purpose – remains volatile.

Following a terror attack on 10 October 2015 where nearly 100 people were killed in a bombing in central Ankara, social media users in Turkey found access to Twitter and Facebook hampered. Subsequently, talk online quickly turned to discussion about how to use VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) and other methods of circumvention. These discussions mirrored those in the early days of the 2013 Gezi park protests, where similar efforts to close social networks by the Government simply led to users by-passing these controls and finding other methods to get online.

In the days following the Ankara attack, hashtags on Instagram tagging the cities Ankara, Istanbul and Diyarbakir were returned with the message that tagged posts were hidden, citing violations of community guidelines.


Such is the nature of social media in Turkey on contentious occasions.

The future: “it’s complicated”

With high internet, mobile and social platform penetration, social media satisfies Turkey’s hyper-connected largely young population, yet at various times their usage antagonises ruling elites. This has resulted in (often temporary) efforts to close these platforms, even though they are not just used as news sources, but also forums to discuss and follow sport, entertainment and other normal everyday pastimes.

Platforms have been blocked by court order and accounts shut down by both the Government and the networks themselves29, sometimes resulting in angry protests (online and offline) against the ruling AKP government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It is against this backdrop that Facebook, Twitter and Google have all faced repeated calls to remove online content in Turkey. In the second half of 2014, Twitter received more requests from Turkey – through Government channels of by court order – to remove content, than from any other country; and complied with nearly half of those requests.30

Ironically, while President Erdogan’s comment31 of ‘Twitter schmitter, we’ll close them all (social platforms)’ is widely referenced to suggest an anti-social media stance, perhaps less well known is that on February 10th this year President Erdogan sent his first tweet. He now has over 7 million followers.32 This example clearly embodies the continued tensions in Turkey between efforts to control social media and a need to embrace – and recognise – their popularity.

One thing is for certain, social media in Turkey is not going away, but neither are the attempts to manage and control it. If a Facebook relationship status could describe the dynamic between Turkey and social media, it would simply be: ‘its complicated.’

  5. – this trend has been long predicted. See: (in Turkish and from 1999.)
  8. Burak Polat and Cemile Tokgöz “Twitter User Behaviors In Turkey: A Content Analysis On Turkish Twitter Users,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, Vol.5 No.22 September 2014 via:
  9. Turk Telekom Investor Relations last accessed 15 October 2015
  10. (Sign-up required)
  17. and
  24. Twitter and Facebook were also affected by this incident:
  27. Zeynep Tufekci: Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: evaluating a complex landscape:
  29. Such as the Twitter account of Fuat Avni, a self-professed whisteblower who no one knows the identity of: