Since its establishment, the presidential system of government has brought new characteristics to the nature of politics in Turkey. One of those novelties has been the establishment of the Directorate of Communications. The Directorate, or as some Orwellian cynics call it “the Turkish version of the Ministry of Truth,” now has a new branch whose mission is to “direct information operations.” Creatively dubbed “The Office of Strategic Communication and Crisis Management,” the new body seems to be in charge of countering the policy failures of the new system with the increase of strategic propaganda.
The Directorate of Communications was established through a Presidential Decree in July 2018. Its mission was not understood at first, considering the Presidency at that time still had a spokesperson.
More than two years later, over a thousand people are now working at the Directorate. Some of the more prominent employees have think tank backgrounds from working at SETA, a pro-government foundation. SETA became infamous in the world of press freedom and freedom of expression after it publically blacklisted Turkish journalists working for foreign outlets. SETA has been a critical policy-making and propaganda tool for the AKP government. The organization was very active in Egypt, for example, during Mohammad Morsi’s short tenure.
The Directorate is officially run by a director, Fahrettin Altun, a former academic from SETA, but unofficially by Altun’s wife, Fatma, who is a very active and outspoken figure and holds an ambiguous position in the Presidency. The couple promotes a very personalized form of communication from the Directorate, mostly praising the personality of President Erdoğan and not so much engaging in non-partisan promotion of the institution.
Recently, a literal skyscraper in the business heart of Ankara was allocated as the headquarters for the Altuns’ project. However, the Directorate has multiple branches, including international ones. Some employees have been sent to capitals around the world. There, they will be working as communication officers on behalf of the Turkish state. In the times of parliamentary democracy, this job was usually covered by Turkey’s embassies and diplomatic missions. It seems as though the new decision-making system in the country did not envision the communication aspect of diplomatic work anymore.
The mentioned new branch of the Directorate, the Office of Strategic Communication and Crisis Management, has been defined as being in charge of “the fight against the perception operations and manipulations against the Republic of Turkey.” Practically, this means that during different crises, the new branch will be implementing its crisis communication and management strategy. In the language of social media culture and the aforementioned Orwellian cynics, this could translate into authority by the Directorate to saturate traditional and online media with massive troll efforts in order to spin people’s attention and frame the discourse. Additionally, the formation of a branch with this authority could also indicate the government’s strategy to move through the coming months and years by rallying the base through various, well-controlled crises, either real or constructed.
From the importance the Directorate and all of its parts have quickly assumed following the establishment of the presidential system, it has become clear that it was at the core of the Presidency’s vision for Turkey to expand the potential for propaganda and prepare for more information wars. When it comes to the upcoming real challenges like rising inflation and the downfall of the Turkish lira, the government apparently prioritizes its propaganda over its reformist capacities. In all fairness, at this point, there may not be much more left for the government politically besides pushing all the buttons for full-throttle propaganda.
However, taking into account the deterioration of some of the basic democratic principles in Turkey, such as the institution of free and fair elections, the democracy-loving part of society probably has a lot to worry about. Only last year, the government rejected the opposition’s victory in the initial electoral race for the mayor of Istanbul. A dangerous precedent has been set. In the repeat election, the opposition won 50 times more votes than two and a half months before that, so the government finally conceded. The question that can be legitimately raised now is whether the government would see any future close electoral race as a cause to “declare a crisis” and ultimately employ its newly polished propaganda machinery to “fix it.” At that point, the final remnants of Turkey’s democracy could be labelled “a perception operation and manipulation” and fall prey to the post-truth strategic vision of the New Turkey.