Media outlets and journalists who express criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are facing a noticeable decrease in their visibility on YouTube and Google. Additionally, there has been a substantial decrease in the viewership of content produced by critical media outlets. At first, this trend was ascribed to waning political engagement among supporters of opposition parties following Erdogan’s re-election on May 28. Nevertheless, suspicions have since arisen that algorithmic methods are being employed to enforce a kind of censorship.
Particularly on YouTube, the most influential factor affecting the viewership count of a program is the recommendation to users. This is determined by an algorithm based on viewers’ previous habits, subscriptions and search history, which then presents videos on the home page. If a video is not recommended on the YouTube homepage, the likelihood of that video receiving a large number of views is significantly low.
Investigative journalist Adem Yavuz Arslan, who moved to the United States due to pressure from the Erdogan regime, has stated that readers have informed him that his YouTube channel is not being recommended. Arslan’s channel has been banned by the government in Turkey, but the video can be watched if the link is clicked. Arslan shared on X, formerly known as Twitter, that a viewer recounted being unable to access the video despite receiving a notification about the upload of a new video.
Bülent Korucu, a prominent Turkish journalist who currently resides in exile in Sweden, co-hosts a morning program every day on the TR724 YouTube channel. While he considers the decline in interest following the elections to be a natural occurrence, he remains unconvinced that the plunge in viewership can be exclusively attributed to this factor. Speaking to Nordic Monitor, Korucu voiced his concerns, stating, “It appears that we’ve lost the engagement of three out of every four viewers, a trend that strongly hints at some form of external interference. The Erdogan regime has imposed a spectrum of censorship measures, but arguably, this situation ranks among the most severe. Our broadcasts unfold in real time, fostering an interactive rapport with our audience. Even the most loyal viewers complain about the difficulty of accessing the broadcast. Ironically, algorithms are designed to tailor recommendations according to viewer preferences and habits.”
Not only exiled journalists but also outlets critical of the government in Turkey have complaints about YouTube and Google. Secular television channel Halk TV claimed in a broadcast this week that it has been subjected to censorship by Google. According to the channel, restrictions on Halk TV within Google’s “News” and “Discover” applications have intensified even further since the elections. The visibility of Halk TV news on Google experienced a significant decline, reaching a nearly 50 percent drop. Additionally, Halk TV alleged that Google favors pro-government channels. For instance, despite searches for Halk TV being approximately 300 percent more than those for pro-government CNN Türk, Google prominently features CNN Türk by 52 percent more than Halk TV in news-related searches.
Another media outlet lodging complaints against Google is the Sözcü newspaper. According to the paper, they are subject to a concealed form of censorship by Google. In a statement, Sözcü claims that “Google’s ‘News’ and ‘Discover’ applications have been giving more prominence to media organizations with known government affiliations while reducing visibility for independent media for some time. Following the elections in May, this situation became even more perplexing.”
“The decline in visibility of Sözcü on Google that began before the elections gained momentum after the elections. The visibility of Sozcu.com.tr’s news dropped from levels of around 20-25 million to below 10 million,” the statement says.
It is no secret that the Erdogan government, which controls almost all media outlets in Turkey, is unhappy with critical content, especially that published abroad, on social media and plans to build a legal mechanism that censors critical posts and videos.
Since 2019 the Erdogan government has successfully introduced several bills in parliament that posed significant sanctions threats to social media platforms. The government aimed to regulate these platforms through penalties and access bans. Moreover, the government employed a sort of carrot-and-stick strategy by advertising heavily on these platforms, in addition to using the threat of punitive measures, to exert its influence.
Google was the first global company to announce that it would cooperate with the government. Nordic Monitor previously reported that Gönenç Gürkaynak, who represents Google and its YouTube service as well as X in Turkey, said in a statement in parliament that he managed to break the hesitation felt by global social media companies to comply with the new Turkish law, which was adopted to further clamp down on criticism of the Erdogan government.
“I can proudly say that [Google] was one of the first companies to [comply with the new law],” Gürkaynak told lawmakers on December 2, 2021, bragging about how his client rushed to meet the demands of the Turkish authorities.
“As you can imagine, when such legislation is passed at a time when there was hesitation from the viewpoint of international firms such as ‘Who will do what, should we be the first to do it or not, what will the effects be?’ we think Google’s stance by taking such a step [to appoint a representative] on January 12, 2021 set an example in terms of efforts to comply with the legislation,” he added in his statement to the newly established parliamentary Committee on Digital Outlets.