Hot time: summer in the city

5 years, 7 months ago

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Last summer’s Gezi Park protests in Istanbul raised some profound issues relating to the future of media. Trust in Turkey’s traditional media outlets plummeted as citizens relied instead on social media for a picture of events. By Peter Walker.



After the Arab spring, how did Turkey spend last summer? Not looking out to sea or exploring monuments that’s for sure.  Six months on my guess is more people can recall the strains of the Luvin’ Spoonful’s version of John Sebastian’s ode to youth in summer than can recall the protests of Gezi Park in Istanbul.
 
For anyone contemplating the future of the media as we know it, the way we think about the role social media or the way the world will be shaped by communication tomorrow the summer in Turkey’s largest city provides a real time window on the future of our world of communication.
 
If anyone thought that the Arab Spring and wittering of western journalists and media stories based on twittering was the way social media will forecast and shape the future think again. Come with me to Gezi Park, Taksim, Istanbul. It’s green, it’s pleasant. It is a community open space. Everyone enjoys its amenity. 
 
Everyone that is, except the property developers and their friend the Prime Minister and his Government who can see only a potential construction site and another underground car park and shopping complex and the millions of dollars to be pocketed.
 
So it is the story of another community battling against planning decisions that have gone against them and development proposals to which they object using social media to rally support. Classic stuff, not the norm for one of those next generation economic powers. But surely no big deal; we’ve all been there. Well that’s how the Turkish Government and the owners of Turkey’s traditional media would probably like to think about it. 
 
Profound issues
 
But when you do the research, look at the data, the issues that they raise for the future of the media are profound. It takes a professional communicator of the standing of Perran Ersu Ozcaldiran who heads Persona PR in Istanbul to convey the way that the threat to the future of Gezi became the rallying point nationwide for anyone who believes in Turkey as a modern, multicultural secular democracy. 
 
It is also her research that points out how when traditional media lose the trust and confidence of the majority then social media can, will and does take over, becoming the alternative, authoritative but not orchestrated  or mediated source of information on which people can rely.
 
In a matter of days at the end of May 2013, a sit-in to demonstrate objections to the proposed  destruction of  the park had escalated into a brutal attack by a police force and Government unable to cope with subtle, silent defiance of edicts by hundreds of thousands of those who represent the future of any nation. The strong arm tactics of the authorities were matched by the ruthless pressure applied to the media. 
 
Silence of the media poodles
 
Government supporting print media as well as the state broadcaster were silent on the manifestation of protest and then cast the protestors as criminals, hooligans and worse.  Objective reporting it was not, and even those publications not in the Government camp fell in with the official line as the Prime Minister and his Ministers cranked up his attack on the protestors.
 
Circulation and readership declined dramatically, commercial advertising fell away replaced by Government, Government agency and public education ads. Research conducted just a month after the protest among both those who supported the park protest and those who didn’t showed the way that faith in many institutions had weakened significantly. 
 
Most worrying for the media, they were now at the bottom of the ‘trust’ in institutions league. Only 12 per cent of those supporting the protest trusted the media and only 22 per cent of those against the protest retained any faith in them. With trust at those levels, small wonder alternatives were needed. 
 
Enter social media, unprecedented levels of tweets, all sorts of tactics employed to frustrate Government tracking and clamp downs. Cafés and shops displayed lists of hashtags to follow. This was popular displacement of unpopular and untrustworthy mainline reporting: and this in a democracy with a free press. 
 
Foreign indifference
 
There was almost a month of sustained protest. Yet if it was so fundamental, why didn’t it get the foreign and international news coverage afforded to the Arab spring?  
 
A careful examination of a world map of the source of tweets and social media messaging is some indicator and should cause any self respecting international news editor to pause next time he or she lets a reporter parachuted into a foreign country claim that the tweet traffic was an expression of local sentiment. 
 
Every analysis shows that during the Arab Spring and the Egyptian uprising only 20 per cent of the Twitter traffic came from inside the country itself. In Turkey’s summer nearer 90 per cent came from inside the country. The rest came from those areas with high levels of expatriate Turks – Germany and the UK in particular. This was social media substituting for traditional media as the means of acquiring reliable and trusted news and information.
 
In the UK media owners have been contemplating the future of traditional media with increasing seriousness. Competing with the news coming from social media and rumours propagated by the digital and social media manipulators is shaping the journalism training agenda. But no-one has yet contemplated the prospect of an unreliable and untrustworthy media being replaced by the word of the streets. 
 
What did Turkey do last summer? It pointed to a chilling future for a mainstream media in any democratic society when the trust of its readers, viewers and listeners is undermined or lost altogether.  Were the resignations of Government ministers caught up in but protesting their innocence of corruption linked to construction contracts just a co-incidence? Who knows? 
 
 
Thought Leader Profile
Peter L. Walker, FCIPR has combined his extensive knowledge in business consultancy, corporate social responsibility and stakeholder engagement to forge a career as one of the UK’s leading public relations practitioners.
 
A Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Chartered  Practitioner he is also an admitted Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations . Actively involved in professional organisations, including a term as President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations he is a Freeman of the City of London, a member of the Court of the Guild of Public Relations Practitioners and a trustee of its Charity Foundation sits on the board of the PR World Alliance, and is an advisor to the World Council for Corporate Responsibility.
 
At PIELLE, he has not only specialised in delivering professional corporate responsibility, reputation, issues and risk management strategies but is also responsible for the company’s successful development activity in foreign markets. Taking place mainly in emerging countries in Africa and Asia, his work has included sustainability studies, public health education, country branding, economic development programmes and Government capacity building.
 

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The Author

Peter Walker

Peter L. Walker, FCIPR has combined his extensive knowledge in business consultancy, corporate social responsibility and stakeholder engagement to forge a career as one of the UK’s leading public relations practitioners.

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