Everyone Is Getting Turkey’s Twitter Block Wrong

Turkey isn’t trying to be North Korea, China or Iran; it’s trying to be Azerbaijan


An immense number of pixels have been lit analyzing Turkey’s Twitter block. Some basic facts are widely understood. I’ve written about how the block came about and why it doesn’t work in terms of keeping people off Twitter, nor in terms of keeping information from spreading on other social media. I’ve even joked about “North Korea or bust” as a government strategy.

https://twitter.com/zeynep/status/447460375844241408

But it is misguided to assume that the Turkish government is unaware that the damaging information is not going to be stuffed back into the bag. All the analyses out there asking whether Erdogan understands this are missing the point. Of course he does.

Comparisons drawn from Egypt’s ban of the Internet and mobile phones are wildly inapplicable. That was the last war.

Neither is this a simple case of censoring information. The information isn’t censorable, and the ruling party in Turkey knows this.

So what’s going on?

The unending leaks of alleged wiretaps implicating the prime minister and his inner circle in a massive corruption scandal are certainly the target of the Twitter block, but not in the way most think.

In the case of Turkey, we are not dealing with Mubarak, whose inner circle was widely reported as technologically illiterate, and was also facing a do-or-die moment. Remember, they didn’t just shut Twitter, or just Internet. Egypt shut down cell networks as well, attempting to block almost all peer-to-peer communications in Egypt. These are the actions of a regime facing an existential crisis. It didn’t work. Mubarak’s shutdown backfired partially because there was already a known address for the protests — Tahrir Square. Al Jazeera kept information flowing anyway. Many people I talked to in Egypt told me families worried about their children in Tahrir had no way of communicating with them. So they headed to … Tahrir Square.

Nor is Turkey currently at a peak protest moment, as in the Gezi Park protests during June of 2013, so blocking Twitter’s protest coordinating potential isn’t the point here either. It certainly would not be worth the negative external attention. Besides, as I stated during the Gezi protests (which I attended as a researcher) the government in Turkey never faced a do-or-die moment like that faced by Egypt’s Mubarak regime, and Erdogan’s government probably never considered cutting off the Internet, not because they had learned the lesson about publicity from Egypt, but because the situation and their calculations were not similar at all.

Also, Henry Farrell is correct that in Turkey, this is not a Streisand moment, the term used for cases when trying to suppress information brings even more attention to it. Awareness of the corruption tapes is widespread, and the fact that they are on Facebook and YouTube is well known. Twitter had become a key source of political information for the engaged citizenry long before the Gezi protests, and had become the agora for the rest of ordinary people eager for political information during Gezi. There isn’t a huge latent constituency in Turkey waiting to go on Twitter, and Twitter’s ability to amplify content probably already was at its political peak.

To the degree that it may be a Streisand moment, it is an external one. The whole world seems to have now woken up to the depth of the political crisis in Turkey, which is not news to anyone in the country.

To further complicate the analysis: why did Erdogan block Twitter and not YouTube and Facebook, where the corruption tapes actually live? Well even if he blocked them, the leaked content can be put on Vimeo or Soundcloud, and spread on WhatsApp or on Facebook. He knows this game has no end. The only effective tactic would be to unplug the Internet completely, and if Erdogan does this, that would actually signal something different—true desperation—and would almost certainly need to further and suspend, say, elections and the constitution.

So what is the ruling party in Turkey doing, if not effectively blocking content?

They are playing a different game. And to actually understand what’s going on, the story needs to be analyzed where it lives: the specifics of Turkish politics, the timeline of the block, and what Erdogan (and his inner circle) is saying to his throngs of cheering supporters.

First, here are the crucial facts. There are four legal cases that form the (murky legal) basis for the ban: two are defamation cases (a poet who was impersonated, and a minor politician accused of corruption), one murky case that is reportedly lost because the court has been recently dissolved, and one about a housewife in whose name someone opened social media accounts, impersonating her and distributing pornography allegedly of her but actually not. The legal basis is of the block is murky, since the court orders are only for blocking specific accounts, not all of Twitter.

Since the block was imposed, Twitter has indeed suspended the account maligning the housewife as a porn starlet. Twitter would almost certainly also have done this anyway had a complaint been made through its own support pages. However, while Twitter’s help pages are available in Turkish, the forms are not, as far as I can tell, which is Twitter’s failing. There are eleven million Twitter users in Turkey and there needs to be more day-to-day support of these issues.

That’s the court case (the housewife whose reputation was maligned) that all the pro-government journalists in Turkey have been talking about for days in relation to the Twitter block. Look, they say, Erdogan saved her, and will save you too.

That’s the case Erdogan went on and on about during his big political rally today in Istanbul, the biggest prize in upcoming local elections. “There was a court order … but Twitter didn’t care. They brought the case to me,” Erdogan said, “and I said, let’s solve this ourselves. Do whatever is necessary”

That’s the case the minister of telecommunication talked about when he was called-in live to CNN Turkey tonight.

None of this is a coincidence.

During the rally, Erdogan also talked about the threat social media, including Facebook and YouTube, poses to family values. He talked about its disruption of privacy, and how these foreign companies do not obey Turkish court orders but obey US and European courts.

In other words, Erdogan’s strategy is to demonize social media.

It is a strategy of placing social media outside the sacred sphere, as a disruption of family, as a threat to unity, as an outside blade tearing at the fabric of society.

And Turkey’s not the the first country in the world where this has been tried. Scholarly work by Katy Pearce and Sarah Kendzior on Azerbaijan provides a great example of another country that’s done just that: social media has been subjected to such a fear-mongering campaign that ordinary people stay off because they see it as a threat to their well-being. Azerbaijan started this campaign early, and under much more oppressive conditions than those in Turkey, and has managed to keep social media from taking off in the first place. In Turkey, social media is already well established and beloved by the opposition as a tool to oppose censorship.

Erdogan likely still has enough supporters to win elections, but to continue to win, he needs to keep them off social media. His game is to scare them about all that comes from social media. He knows they’ll hear of the corruption tapes. But they are now associated with the same source that maligns housewives as porn-stars.

Will this work?

Consider that housewife in Samsun, Turkey, a city in the Black Sea region. Her lawyer repeatedly said she had no intention of getting all of Twitter blocked, she just wanted the maligning of her reputation to stop. She couldn’t figure out how to go about it. She couldn’t figure out how to complain to Twitter, whose forms are in English. She was distressed enough to hire a lawyer and go to court. The court order was translated into English and sent to Twitter, but she was not able to get relief either.

The point isn’t whether Erdogan is actually motivated by this case, or even if he’s representing the facts correctly. The point is it’s clear why her story resonates with Erdogan’s base, and even beyond.

Erdogan used the same strategy in Gezi: government-controlled mass media portrayed it as a movement which attacked and beat up women wearing the hijab even when they had their babies in their arms, and one in which protesters went into Mosques to have alcohol-fueled orgies—stories which turned out to be false, but which the prime minister has repeated in almost every rally since (I suspect the housewife with malicious porn impersonators will be the new constant story).

It worked. Many people were scared off from going to Gezi to check it out themselves, where they would have found a peaceful, colorful and safe protest, except from occasional tear gas from the police.

This is what Erdogan is now doing to social media: portray it as a place from which only ugly things come, and which poses a danger to family and to unity. Given that Turkey has a civil war that has erupted on its border with Syria, and is housing millions of distraught refugees, it is not hard to understand why people fear anything that they see as fomenting “disunity.”

Erdogan is not trying to block social media as much as taint it.

I daresay this is brilliant politics, and possibly the only political strategy worth trying given what he’s facing. The fact that much good comes out of digital technologies, like busting of censorship, does not negate other concerns. Anxiety-inducing techniques, which Erdogan is engaging at full-throttle, may turn out to work very well.

The battle isn’t between the Internet’s ability to distribute corruption tapes and the government’s ability to suppress them. The battle is for the hearts and minds of Erdogan’s own supporters, and whether Erdogan can convince them that social media is a dangerous, uncontrolled, filthy place from which nothing good can come.

Note: Deleted the update at the end about YouTube ban which is now here.