We live in an age of post-truth or post-reality which means that our daily lives are governed more and more by perceptions rather than true or correct information. Selahattin Emre Çelebi interviewed Prof. Ali Saydam on the chaotic matrix of perceptions. Prof. Saydam is the author of Perception Management: How to Manage Communication in Turkey along many of his publications and has devoted forty years of his professional career to the field of communication.
Q: Prof. Saydam, I want to begin with asking about a recently popularized concept: what is the ‘post-truth’?
Ali Saydam: I love this ‘post’ story. It started with post-modernism; anything that starts with ‘post’ indicates the disruption or transformation of the concept coming after it. When you use it before modernism, a negation to modernism is understood. I believe it is important to discuss the subject in the light of the theories on the concepts of ‘truth’ vs ‘reality’.
For example, Turkey argues that a huge gap between its truth and perception is being created and reflected successfully; and Turkey has been struggling to break this ‘created’ image.
Here, it is important to note that truth and reality can never come together. In my conferences, I give this example: Telling a lie is not a good thing morally – this is the truth. Then I ask them, almost 2500 people listening, who has not lied in the past two weeks? Only a few raise their hands, who are actually lying at that moment. Reality, on the other hand, is that from the lies we tell children at home to adults at work, we tell at least 200 lies a day – but the truth is still that lying is not good virtue.
Reality is that from the lies we tell children at home to adults at work, we tell at least 200 lies a day – but the truth is still that lying is not good virtue.
Another example is war. What is the truth behind war? It is a bad thing to kill, no? But what is the reality behind war/killing? The reality can be: you are killing due to a threat to your existence or due to the interests of your country. Look at what the U.S. done in Iraq; started a war in which more than 1 million Iraqis died. In this regard, there are some mundane realities behind each truth, and these two concepts are never the same.
Let’s give another example from the recent Istanbul elections. The truth behind the Istanbul elections is expressed explicitly: Weakening President Erdogan and forcing him to change his execution – this is the truth. In order to achieve this, a wide front has already been established. Let’s repeat the headline of Der Spiegel: ‘Erdogan destroys democracy in Turkey in order to protect his power; the decision of the Higher Election Commission (YSK) shows that political power in Turkey will not change by elections’. This is a very serious headline! Similar positions and rhetoric are being repeated by both the U.S. and other western media channels and administrations.
The U.S. Department of State comments on the elections and says: We have noted the ‘injustice’ decision of YSK! In which local elections do they act in this manner?
Therefore, the truth here is that after a ‘breaking point’ – which sociologists locate after the ‘one minute’ reaction of President Erdogan – we see the emergence of an anti-Erdogan camp. This camp, which was thinking to nominate Erdogan for the Nobel Peace Prize before this breaking point, now has been initiating an anti-Erdogan campaign. This campaign gets many supporters both in Turkey and the West since this that.
On the Turkish extension of this campaign, you see the political parties come together. Without that kind of a common goal, it is impossible to see them together: Saadet (Welfare Party), HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), CHP (Republican People’s Party), Iyi Parti (Good Party). It is not logical to think that these parties can ideologically come together, but you see them come together in this anti-Erdogan campaign. Only these political parties? No, you have the terrorist groups like DHKP-C (The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front), FETO (Gulenist terrorist organization), and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Their only aim is to create a camp against Erdogan and remove him from his position.
The anti-Erdogan campaigners want to create a situation of Erdogan vs. Imamoglu! The truth which brings all conflicting political parties together is to remove Erdogan.
This picture is clear in the coming Istanbul election: the anti-Erdogan campaigners want to create a situation of Erdogan vs. Imamoglu! In this regard, the truth which brings all these various actors together is to remove Erdogan. Why does he need to be removed? Because of Turkish political rhetoric of ‘national independence’, which is considered as ‘crossing the line’ from the perspective of the campaigners – this is the whole truth!
The dispute of ‘what is reality?” is being pulled into the framework of democracy and rule of law. How: ‘Is the decision of YSK just?’ This is the reality. Now you are dealing with the reality and say: ‘they stole our votes’. But, there is nothing about stealing in the decision of YSK. Why, because YSK is determining the situation in its decision. It is the duty of judicial authorities to tell you ‘who’ and ‘how’, not YSK’s duty! But the reality in this situation is being pulled to another area: ‘you give the mazbata (certification) or not’, ‘they took away my mazbata’, and no one discusses the truth behind these realities. President says ‘permanence of the state’ they reject immediately and say ‘there is no question of permanence’, why? Because it is the truth. In politics, it is not the truth that is desired to be spoken, it is the reality. You give your fight in the realm of reality and you don’t even speak the truth.
In politics, it is not the truth that is desired to be spoken, it is the reality. You give your fight in the realm of reality and you don’t even speak the truth.
In this regard, when we say post-truth, we refer to the twisted form of the truth. It is one of the hardest tasks to balance the truth and the reality – good and correct – amuse and solemnity. If you are too serious you do not amuse, if you amuse too much they would not take you seriously, it is quite important to keep these balances. Also, it is not correct to leave reality aside and deal only with the truth.
Today the dispute in Turkey is in the realm of reality. Look at the discussions on television and social media – all the fight and rumble are being conducted among the realities. ‘YSK said this or that’, ‘4 judges rejecting the verdict said this’, ‘justice is this’, ‘and the law is that!’ Therefore, it is healthy to examine the situation from the dilemma of truth vs reality – not from post-truth – and keep a balance in this dilemma.
Q: From what you explain so far, I understand that the dilemma of truth vs reality is not something new? This is something we have had all the time in the past?
Ali Saydam: Yes, indeed.
Q: So, what is the different today? Are we less interested in the truth today compared to the past?
Ali Saydam: Yes, this is true. Especially with the pluralization of mass communication tools together with the advancement in digital technology, we see the dominance of communication through realities. What people call ‘perception operations’ and insult it in every manner – which I totally oppose since you would be confined to other perception operations if you do not conduct yours – is exactly this. In situations where perception operations are being conducted, you cannot talk about the truth! You cannot really carry a dispute by arguing that lying is bad. There is wisdom here behind the truth, you cannot dispute wisdom, that is absolute; whereas the disputes carried out through realities become perception operations.
Of course, the big difference today is the means of communication. What was the mean of communication before modern times? Müezzin (person who calls for prayers) climbs the minaret and calls believers or an official with a drum informs the creed of Sultan to the public.
Remember the cigarette commercials 20-30 years ago. What is the truth there? It is ‘smoking causes lung cancer’. But, what was the perception? Camel: you become an adventurer wondering nature; Marlboro: You become a cowboy; Parliament: Nightlife, fancy dressed women and men.
In modern times, there were a few communication channels and it was not easy to appear in mainstream media. Then, we had television. Remember the tobacco/cigarette commercials 20-30 years ago. What is the truth there? It is ‘smoking causes lung cancer’. But, what was the perception? Camel: you become an adventurer wondering nature; Marlboro: You become a cowboy; Parliament: Nightlife, fancy dressed women and men. Are these telling anything about the truth of cancer? These examples are also perception operations – communication based on reality, not on the truth.
Then, we communicated through only television, radio and analogue media, but today you have YouTube channels, influencers, bloggers who influence people for money. What do they influence for? The truth? No, reality – i.e. perception – and what is perception – it is the reality. There goes the saying ‘Perception is real because people believe in it’. This is not about the truth.
Q: In other words, in these perception operations or disputes in the realm of realities, we cannot really see or comprehend the truth then?
Ali Saydam: Exactly; perception operations are not conducted within the realm of the truth, it is conducted through realities. It is an expressionist attempt, not an impressionist one. It is not the duty of the perception operations to reveal what the truth is. Rather, it is dwelling on realities and competing opposing discourses. Let’s give this example: how does Coca Cola set up its perception? By telling the truth, meaning it is a drink that contains substances causing cancer and obesity? No, but this is the truth! Will Coca Cola communicate with its customers through these facts? Of course not! ‘Happiness with a cold drink’, ‘you get happy and enjoy when you drink it’. This is how communication is built via realities, and this would never serve to reveal the truth. On the contrary, it conceals the truth and reveals the reality. Communication is done through reality, not truth; therefore, it does not take you to the truth.
In this point, we should ask these questions: Is Turkey able to tell its own reality? Is Turkey able to communicate through its reality? I have the feeling that Turkey, interestingly, has been trying to communicate via its truth most of the time.
Q: What is the role of social media in this regard?
Ali Saydam: Indeed, it is huge, and with social media, it is almost impossible to change the perception that is created. For example, Cumhuriyet newspaper speaks with a truck driver, and this driver makes up a story arguing that 400 workers died during the construction of the new Istanbul airport. Cumhuriyet published this story on its front page. It is an absolute lie! During the construction process, 26 or 27 workers died related to the conditions of the construction sector. After Cumhuriyet done this front page, respected, serious newspapers of the West, like Financial Times and Wall Street Journal took this story and spread it to the rest of the world. Turkey immediately denied this lie but with the effect of social media, lies spread fast. Today, go and ask anyone on the street ‘how many people did die during the construction of the new airport?’ Will they say 27 or 400? The perception remains in the minds of people. We have this saying ‘Throw mud and remains its mark’ – in the past if this mark is counted one, today it is one thousand.
Today we have Youtubers, bloggers and others who influence people for money. What do they influence for? For the truth? No, for real which is perception. There goes the saying ‘Perception is real because people believe in it.’
There is another interesting trend in social media: sarcastic humor. If you do this, you double your influence, and if you add an image you increase your influence further.
As I said earlier, in Turkey, we see this as a campaign to weaken President Erdogan. If the President wants this airport, the more it is denigrated the more he would be perceived as unsuccessful – it is a setup of reality.
Q: There is a term used for social media attitudes – ‘echo rooms’ – where people sharing the same views or perceiving the same realities repeat the same arguments, ignoring others. Does this mean we are in a chaos of realities? How do we hear/comprehend each other? How do people compromise?
Ali Saydam: Today, every individual is a publisher. In order to manage this chaos, you have to have some special talents and expertise. If there are some spreading lies about you through digital platforms-social media, then you have to develop your managing skills to obviate the lies to spread. The problem is exactly here.
When we look at the conservative Muslims in Turkey, we see the lack of entertainment skills. But, the most influential realm in social media is entertainment.
In addition, for example when we look at the conservative Muslims in Turkey, we see the lack of entertainment skills. But, the most followed and effective/influencing realm in social media is entertainment. In my view, this is one of the reasons for the failure of Turkey in explaining its reality. Today’s entertainment does not fit with the nature of conservative Muslims in Turkey. You can see this in their daily talk as well. So, here is the problem: there is a section in Turkish society who do not use social media as it should be, because of their nature that is constructed on a set of customs and traditions related to the belief system. This is another major difference of today from the past.
In the past, everybody used to use the same media channels and defend their rights by sharing -more or less- the same culture and values. However, today is different, social media has its own culture and values. The conservatives are not able to cope with this new culture. Only in the field of rap and some other types of music, they manage to be successful and grab the spirit of times. On the other hand, for example, they were also not able to produce anything as effective as in the field of satiric comics like Limon or Gır Gır. The entertainment business is not very strong among conservative Muslims, they are serious people by nature.
Q: How is communication adapting itself to this pluralization of mediums?
Ali Saydam: Well, the core of communication never changes. There is only one aim of communication: convince to change. The indication of convincing is to lead a change. You will convince and change the attitude. ‘You do not buy this product but buy that instead’, ‘you will vote for this party and not the other’, ‘you drink this and not that’. You have to convince – this aim never changes in communication. But how you will convince change depends on the culture and values of the target group, the means of communication, and the spirit of time. Modernity has an important role here and indeed, ‘how’ is constantly changing – but ‘what’ – the aim or the core never changes. There is only one rule: You convince!