By Maria Merkouraki, Intern at KEDISA-PhD Candidate in Public and Digital Diplomacy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
According to the Twiplomacy Study (2018), President Erdogan is one of the ten most powerful politicians in terms of attracting public opinion on Twitter, and he holds one of the most influential Twitter accounts among world political leaders. Today, the Turkish President’s official Twitter account has approximately 20 million followers, and Erdogan appears to be heavily investing in digital diplomacy.
A close examination of Erdogan’s official Twitter account activity during the crucial period for the upcoming election in 2023 reveals that his campaign is centered on a peculiar digital storytelling. Why? Because he thinks that by doing this, he will win more voters and get them to ignore the plethora of domestic issues that the country is facing, such as the economic downturn. The key questions, in this case, are: How does Erdogan’s pre-election campaign affect the diplomatic trajectory of Turkey? What implications will his possible re-election have at the level of international politics for the entire world? Lastly, how did the Russian-Ukrainian War and the February 2023 earthquakes that struck Southern Turkey influence Erdogan’s pre-election strategy?
Typically, Erdogan chooses ambivalent, regressive, and coercive digital diplomacy tactics that tend between nominal and pretentious soft power, but ultimately reflect harsh messages on Twitter. This seems to confuse the receiver of the message, regardless of the aspect of the Turkish president’s digital diplomacy – foreign or domestic. Simultaneously, the fact that Erdogan’s Twitter communication with his followers remains strictly monologic or one-track diplomatic normalizes the aggressive and inflammatory narrative while conveying messages concerning its foreign policy by equating soft power with hard rhetoric. On the other side, he announces soft power messages through a series of informative tweets, in order to establish a seemingly human-centric digital diplomacy and present himself as a peace advocate by tackling issues such as climate change, human rights, and humanitarian aid. In the end, the tweets arising from his Twitter account lead to powerful hybrid propaganda, which is associated with Erdogan’s digital mask diplomacy. The aforementioned personification of this conservative narrative is a strategic choice based on what can be called erdoganism.
But why this choice? And why does he always inflate it during pre-election periods? Going back to the definition of Erdoganism, it first appeared in 2011 and was identified with the electoral dominance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdoganism mainly reflected the combination between the conservative views and ideals of the A.K.P. and the liberal policies stemming from the President’s strategic agenda in foreign policy. During that period, Erdogan placed himself at the center of development, pursuing a domestic policy that would ensure his omnipotence. President Erdogan managed to shape his subsequent foreign policy unilaterally, taking advantage of his demagogic skills. Thanks to these skills, he won the hearts of the Turks, to the extent that the emergence of a new culture was mentioned, that of a cult of personality. The cult of personality, according to Erdogan, was an aftereffect of the soft power of Erdoganism. This combination validated his neo-Ottoman ideal, which subsequently turned out to be a key element of Turkish foreign policy and Turkey’s diplomacy, nevertheless ensuring his re-election.
In today’s reality, this combination of the cult of personality and erdoganism seems to intensify the danger of the concentration of power, while his one-man rule has made him increasingly vulnerable to the international community. The effect of this situation is also confirmed through Erdogan’s official Twitter account, as follows: (a) There is a boosting to the president’s erratic rule; (b) full social media control is observed; and (c) lastly, there is a weakening of the opposition and the adoption of an even stricter and more authoritarian profile for the country while implementing Erdogan’s foreign policy positions.
At the same time, Erdogan reinforced an immovable and rigid foreign policy at the digital level that had its origins in the timeless ideals of pan-Islamism. The pivotal event that triggered this harsh digital policy was the coup of July 15, 2016. After its prevention, the current Turkish President adopted an even more aggressive strategy based on the classical principles of realism theory.
The climax of “Erdogan’s” hard policy was the referendum on April 16, 2016. Erdogan then prevailed completely and universally, establishing himself as the all-mighty and absolute Turkish leader. The consequences of this clear victory were immediately clear in the country’s foreign policy and his digital diplomacy, too. In fact, after the failure of the Davutoglu Doctrine, soft power through a series of practices immediately turned into Realpolitik. Erdogan’s Agenda 2023, which he never fails to mention in a multitude of his tweets, bears no resemblance to Ahmet Davutoglu’s doctrine of strategic depth. This agenda is described as threatening and based on peculiar Turkish beliefs that shape the country’s foreign policy and diplomatic posture, focusing on three defining pillars: history, religion, and nationalism. These three components have a common denominator: geography. Geography and the need for Turkey’s re-emergence as a regional player — and a further global player — in the international system ensure Erdogan’s new vision.
Furthermore, digital Erdoganism involves announcements on social media, including even the transfer of military operations beyond the Turkish borders under the guise of promoting stability in the peripheral region around Turkey. Here, the digital diplomacy adopted by Erdogan is based on a series of imperialist strategies interpreted as “defense.” Today, digital imperialism and digital hybrid warfare are the most modern tools of Turkey’s Digital Diplomacy. The implementation of this unattractive policy, as a result of extreme erdoganism in recent years, is announced on Erdogan’s social media with a series of actions, including the following: (a) the recent bypass of NATO’s master plan and Turkey’s choice to source S – 400 from Russia, (b) the continuous violation of the Greek airspace and Greek sea borders, (c) the opening of Varosia in violation of the UN Security Council and resolutions 550/1984 and 789/1992, (d) the questioning of the European Union as the cradle of Democracy and the problematic diplomatic relations with European countries, (e) the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in violation of Turkey’s commitments to UNESCO, (f) the signing of an illegal Memorandum with Libya for the delimitation of the Turkish-Libyan Exclusive Economic Zone, (g) the continuous violation of the territorial waters of Cyprus and Greece, (h) the manifested support to Azerbaijan against Armenia in the war at the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, (i) the systematic rejection of International Law, (j) the issue of F-35 and the difficulties in relations with the USA, (k) the enigmatic behavior in the Russian-Ukrainian War, (l) the hard stand on the admission of Sweden and Norway in NATO, (j) the continued adoption of a harassment strategy with a series of military exercises in areas outside Turkey’s national borders and (k) the Kurdish Problem.
In particular, the digitized pre-election Erdoganism, which began several months before the announcement of Erdogan’s candidacy on June 9, 2022, is influenced by the following determining factors:
- First, Erdogan wants a sufficient share of the energy fields around the EEZ of Cyprus. However, simultaneously, he is politically isolated from the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, to form a strong “alliance” against Erdogan’s energy ambitions.
- Second, the President knows that Turkey has systematically failed recently to transform itself into an all-powerful leader of the Muslim world.
- Third, the relations between the EU and the West seem shaken due to President Erdogan’s conscious rejection of the Western ideal.
- Finally, fourthly, there is a new conflict regime formed in the Middle East, since on the one hand there is the Iran-Russia-Turkey triangle and on the other hand, there is the Israel-Saudi Arabia-Egypt-United Arab axis.
At that point, it is crucial to highlight the negative aspect of digital erdoganism during the pre-election period through the examples of the Russian-Ukrainian War and the recent earthquakes in February 2023, which caused horrible destruction in Turkey.
Traditionally, Erdogan’s objective has been to portray Turkey as a powerful regional and global actor, particularly in its diplomatic dimension. The specific goal here is to make Turkey a great power capable of existing on its own, despite the ups and downs of Ankara’s diplomacy caused by the turmoil of a multipolar world. In other words, Erdogan exhibits a commitment to advancing and upholding human rights, and he asserts his role as a key regional peace broker in averting crises, as was the case with the use of grain diplomacy during the Russian-Ukrainian War. In particular, Erdogan’s strategic tactics through his tweets during the run-up to the pre-election were based on a threefold strategy in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: a) good governance; b) supra-nationality; and c) interference. Under his tweets, Erdogan’s strategy during the height of the war was based on principles that punctuate the great chapter headings here: a) realism, b) force takes precedence over right, and c) transactional diplomacy.
The above foreign policy and diplomacy of Erdogan, which he also adopts at the digital level, show that politics for him is a smart power narrative strategy that tends to be harsh and based on the ideological narrative “Them” and “Us.” More precisely, it is associated with the role of Turkey in the international arena. That choice reflects that Erdogan understood quickly that a new front was opening in a country of iron conservatism. That, failing to defeat inflation, he could at least appear as the guardian of the fundamental values of the silent majority and win back the lost admiration of a large number of voters.
Moreover, many times, Erdogan uses sensitive issues such as the February 2023 earthquakes to his advantage to influence domestic public opinion. Looking at his official Twitter account, it becomes clear that this natural disaster in Turkey quickly took on a political tone. On Twitter, Erdogan continued to claim that Turkey had entered a period of “unity, cohesion, and togetherness.” This choice of Erdogan is not accidental. Choosing an emotional tone in his tweets serves to attract more voters. More specifically, this digital narrative is linked to a long tradition of paternalistic and top-down governance, which reflects a tendency to manipulate digital public opinion through sentimental abuse that has its roots in a state-led modernization drive under the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century. Does this choice help Erdogan win back public opinion? Meanwhile, while the twin earthquakes in Turkey have given momentum to diplomatic contacts as nearly 88 countries delivered aid, Erdogan continues his ambivalent Twiplomacy “under the rubble,” both domestically and internationally. It is characteristic that he emphasized, “See the Turks do have friends other than Turks”. On the other hand, as the days passed the greatest catastrophe, his political strategy was accompanied by two radical discourses: a) lies on social media; and b) destructive political allegations. Specifically, according to President Erdogan’s messages on Twitter, it is clear that he tried to use earthquake diplomacy to manage and de-escalate the tension between his country and Greece. However, this post-disaster solidarity will not last long because Erdogan has decided to return to puzzling foreign policy messages due to upcoming elections.
In conclusion, these elections are considered the most critical recently, as for the first time the A.K.P. threatens to lose power, which it has held since 2002 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan the presidency. However, although recent polls demonstrate Erdogan’s weakness, his defeat by today’s standards does not appear to be a foregone conclusion, even though democratic social media such as Twitter seem to condemn him both domestically and internationally. Thus, there are two possible scenarios here: In the first case, if Erdogan is finally re-elected, as Professor Ahmet Kuru mentioned, it could be a result of further erosion of the opposition and the continuation of his autocratic rule. In the second case, if Erdogan is not re-elected, maybe Turkey will usher in a new era of transparency.
Indicative Bibliography and Internet sources
- Dogan Toner, (2022), Communication Strategies in Turkey: Erdogan, the AKP and
Political Messaging, Publisher I.B. Tauris
- Soner Cagaptay, (2017), “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern
Turkey”, Publisher I.B. Tauris
- Çolakoğlu, S. (2015), Diplomasi. In Ş. Kardaş, & A. Balcı, Uluslararası İlişkilere Giriş
(pp. 379-388). İstanbul: Küre Yayınları.