Rumors and Conflict in Authoritarian Settings

Basak Gemici, University of Pittsburgh

Published on: November 24, 2021

How do we make sense of rumors as data in qualitative fieldwork in authoritarian settings? Here I discuss this question and illustrate how rumors relate to conflict and violence with examples from my fieldwork and news in Turkey.

Even if the focus of the research is not rumors, ethnographers and qualitative researchers come across them. Kate Pride Brown (2020) suggests that a cultural analysis of a rumor’s content could inform our findings rather than treating them as useless data or putting too much energy into corroboration. She proposes explaining the implicit power dynamics and the speaker’s values in transmitting a rumor, among other strategies to analyze them. Rumors signal the socially important topics at a given time and place (Peterson and Gist 1951). They are unverified but informative and occur in the context of ambiguity and threat (Difonza and Bordia 2007). Controlling the media and access to information has historically been a crucial pillar of wartime governance, military rules, other emergency conditions, and authoritarian regimes.

For instance, public TV and radio stations were the first state apparatus the juntas used to take over during the long 20th century full of worldwide military coups (Singh 2014). Although it seems more difficult to manage independent reporting in the age of digital media, populist authoritarian governments prosecute journalists and find ways to create ambiguity or create “fake news.” In the last decade, the former president of the United States abandoned established norms of ethics and transparency, verbally attacking crucial democratic institutions such as the news media and the judiciary. In Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, populist authoritarian leaders consolidated power, curbed NGO activities, and asserted political control over the judiciary and free press (Freedom in the World, 2018). Turkey and China have been vying to be the world’s biggest jail for journalists and have clamped down on criticism pretexting “anti-state” crimes. Turkish President Erdoğan even established his own “ministry of propaganda,” a.k.a. Directorate of Communications directly affiliated with the office of the presidency. Under these circumstances, some independent journalists founded a news verification site called [] after the putsch in 2016 in Turkey.

In authoritarian regimes where the political accountability mechanisms are broken, free media is clamped down, and the rule of law is neutralized, people experience hardships in reading situations. Rumors help sensemaking. However, rumors’ effects are unpredictable, and sometimes they precipitate violence. During my fieldwork in Turkey between 2017-2019, the most frequent rumor I was told was that Syrian refugees were being prioritized in public hospitals and receiving large sums of cash from the state. Interestingly, these were among the responses when I asked research participants about their changing interactions (if any) with civil servants like the doctors, teachers, tax officers, and the police. As I triangulated with state sources and, I discovered both claims were not valid. This was a time shortly after the state of emergency rule and amid an ever-deepening economic crisis.

The art of sharing grievances without naming and blaming is mastered in authoritarian settings. My research participants obscured the subjects of the sentences in general, interjected rhetorical questions like, “you know what I mean, right?” In this instance, respondents did not directly talk about unjust practices and poor service at the hospitals or the governments’ failing economic policies. But in this climate, anyone can scapegoat refugees. By producing and transmitting this rumor, they inform me about how their sense of self has become more at risk and threatened in relation to refugees and state agents. As the visibility of Syrians increases in public spaces and transparency of state institutions and policies decreases along with the biased news sources, people quickly formulate rumors to make sense of their deepening insecurities and poverty. The feeling of increased injustice under this regime shows itself in other circulating rumors such as “Syrians don’t pay tax” when a local mob attacked Syrians and looted their shops in Ankara in summer 2021 upon the killing of a Turkish teenager in a street fight. As an unintended consequence of ambiguity and lack of access to independent reporting for the regime, even ardent supporters spread these rumors.

Rumors, Conflict, and Environment

The quality of democracy is related to the quality of the environment as well. Environmental destruction can be a weapon during war and armed conflict (Austin and Bruch 2000). In Turkey, the number of forest fires in Kurdish provinces increases at times of armed conflict, which goes unreported by the mainstream media (Dinç 2021). More recently, in July 2021, more than 200 wildfires caused massive devastation in at least 17 cities in Turkey. Despite taking place in the Western provinces, local governance failed to respond timely and effectively to the fires due to extensive centralization of power, reduced capacity, and rivalry between the opponent municipalities.

Amidst this crisis moment and ambiguity when no incumbent took responsibility, rumors spread again. This time rumors in social media accused the PKK (armed Kurdish group) of the fires. Hate motivated actions against the Kurds living in Western provinces followed the rumors. For instance, Turkish peasants expelled Kurdish seasonal workers in some villages. Ordinary people took it upon themselves, launched checkpoints, stopped the cars, and conducted ID control, looking for the so-called arsonist Kurds.

I endorse Brown (2020)’s strategies in taking rumors as a valuable piece of data. It is vital to analyze the local meanings of the rumors and identify the power dynamics along with the how/when/who/where questions. An increase in rising hate crimes has been worrisome in countries like the USA and UK as well. Analyzing rumors can help understand further underlying local dynamics, interpretations, and ways of rationalization for hate motivation.

Basak Gemici is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Considering the salience of ethnicity and gender in organizing both populism and daily life, she studies how populist authoritarianism is reproduced and challenged in ordinary people's social interactions over the case of Turkey.