Turkey’s Twitter Battlefield

Authoritarian Turkish PM Erdogan may dream of a social media-free state, but he should know his citizens’ desire for free information can’t be ‘switched off.’

Rachael Jolley
Rachael Jolley
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Members of the Turkish Youth Union hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against a ban on Twitter, in Ankara, Turkey, March 21, 2014.
Members of the Turkish Youth Union hold cartoons depicting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a protest against a ban on Twitter, in Ankara, Turkey, March 21, 2014.Credit: AP
Rachael Jolley
Rachael Jolley

Twitter has become a battlefield for hearts, minds and power in Turkey.

When it first started to come to prominence in 2006, no one could have predicted this simple 140 character messaging process could be perceived as wielding such a big stick that it would leave powerful figures and governments quaking. But now clearly it does. For otherwise why would the Turkish government try to switch it off?

Like the arrival of the printing press, the arrival of Twitter has sent the all-powerful into a spin of worry about control of their people, as well as control over the messages they want to see published. In the old days it was about printing pamphlets and distributing them by hand; these days the Internet makes it possible to distribute those messages without leaving home.

And in the last few days, while the Erdogan government struggled to turn off the channel, the eyes of the world (and millions of Twitter users) swivelled towards Turkey and wondered what on earth was going on, and why a prime minister would try and silence a nation’s social media. In effect he was trying to smash the presses so they could no longer tell their stories. What happened instead was that suddenly far more people were interested in those stories.

Storytelling is deeply embedded in humans, and switching off that impulse is impossible. The news will get out, by hook, crook, and now by technical cleverness. So from all over the world people started sending messages on how Turks could get around the switch off. And some of them worked. Turkey’s tweets continued to get published; not all of them, but many.

Turkey had already taken Twitter to its heart, with an estimated 12 million users within its borders. No wonder then that its political parties worried by the reach of social media and the independence of the voices within it, had begun to see the potential of co-opting this influence, pouring their own resources into social media campaigns, ahead of the local elections at the end of March.

As novelist Kaya Genç outlined in an article for Index on Censorship magazine, the governing Justice and Development Party itself, somewhat ironically in view of current events, has been training up its own Twitter army to use social media in its campaigning. The opposition’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul, Mustafa Sarigül, is another Turkish politician who has identified Twitter as an important vehicle for Turkish political discourse, and is spending money on campaigns via the social media outlet.

While there is nothing wrong with politicians deciding to engage with social media (and in most countries journalists and politicians have been at the forefront of its use), the legitimate impulse should carry with it a desire to both listen to what others have to say, and to use it to contribute to the debate, not to twist it. No one would begrudge the right of a politician to their own Twitter feed, actively tweeting out thoughts and activities and comments, but the clear concern lies where it is being used as a vehicle for propaganda magnifying lies and distortion. And, of course, any form of publishing can be used to do just that.

It’s worth comparing the rise of social media in Turkey with a similar trend in Brazil, far away geographically but sharing several important characteristics. Social media activity and the creation of an alternative news media has occurred in both Brazil and Turkey at a broadly similar time, and for broadly similar reasons. At the heart of it is a popular distrust in “big media,” and particularly among activists for change. In both countries traditional news channels and newspapers are controlled by big business interests, perceived as old-style barons far more interested in saving their skins or building power than presenting objective news coverage. In both Brazil and Turkey, significant public protests last year, at Gezi Park and the city protests across Brazil often referred to as the Brazil Autumn, focussed public distrust on big media’s failure to report the breadth of the stories of the protests.

The now-famous Turkish “penguin protest” is emblematic of that distrust. Those protesting the poor quality of news coverage of Gezi Park started an innovative campaign by carrying large toy penguins to show their dissatisfaction that the mainstream media had showed an animal documentary instead of the far more pressing news of thousands demonstrating in the streets.

The result of the dissatisfaction in both Brazil and Turkey has been a rise in “small media”: Alternatives to the old-fashioned press and TV reports using social media as its base, as well as news websites such as the Turkish T24.com and Midia Ninja in Brazil, to cover important stories that they felt were being ignored. This “small media” movement is seeing its readership expand quickly, admittedly from a small base, and is also attracting journalists who previously worked for the major news outlets, and have become disillusioned.

Citizen journalism is also expanding to fill spaces that the mainstream media has left open; and new tools and platforms are giving both journalists and others different ways of reporting the news, especially when they feel it is not being reported as such. In Syria there are amazing projects drawing on local knowledge and initiative, dedicated to transmitting stories of war damage and devastation from remote locations that traditional news channels have been unable to reach.

Hearts and minds have always come together in extraordinary circumstances to smuggle out messages, stories and articles to others from behind closed borders or from intimidating regimes, and frightened authoritarians have always worried about what others might say about them. Looking back at history from the standpoint of today’s Turkey one might say nothing much has changed, except the methods and the machinery. But those stories remain powerful.

Rachael Jolley is editor of Index on Censorship. Follow her on Twitter: @londoninsider.

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