Forget 140 characters: Here’s How to Go to Jail for 10 Months for One ‘k’

Turkey’s Twitter troubles


One of the most common refrains one hears about Twitter is that it’s only 140 characters. How can so many governments consider it a threat?

As anyone who uses the service actively knows, Twitter’s problem is not that it’s too short, but that it’s too much. The stream, the links, the tweets provide an overwhelming amount of information.

Twitter—and other social media— upset old hierarchies of civic structure not because they are short or long but because how they change the scale for visibility, and one of the most important resources in any society: attention.

Social media also remix the boundaries between the private and the public, the formal and the informal, and the ephemeral and persistent. The kind of conversations that would be uttered between friends in informal settings, disappear into the flow of time, and neither have an audience or a resonance beyond the initial few moments, can now stay, linger and blow-up.

Meet “k”, the character that got newspaper columnist and academic Önder Aytaç a 10 month jail sentence in Turkey. Aytaç is a columnist for a newspaper affiliated with the Gulenist movement, followers of Fettulah Gulen, the self-exiled cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and was once the AKP government’s closest ally, but now is among its bitterest enemies. The fight between the former allies surfaced over the closing of “private schools,” or “dershaneler,” which the Gulen movement operates in dozens of countries around the world, including the United States. These dershaneler are crucial to the movement as they are the source of both recruits and money. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, announced in late 2013 that he would be shutting them down.

During the bitter fight, Onder Aytaç tweeted this:

The tweet referring to the private schools says: “CLOSE THEM DOWN MY CHIEF :-)”, using the word “ustam” which means “my chief” or “my master,” and is a common nickname for Erdogan among his supporters. Aytaç added a letter, “k” to the word which transforms the end portion of the word to an off-color abbreviation, in effect writing “eff off.” [Or, as Ali Ates suggested on Twitter, it was like saying “my chiefffs”—adding a ffs at the end]. Erdogan sued under Turkey’s restrictive defamation laws which make it a crime to insult “public officials during the course of their job.”

Aytaç later claimed that it was a typo—he had never meant to add a “k” to the end of the tweet. And who is to say? Perhaps it’s Aytaç’s 180,000 followers—his words have the reach of a newspaper of yesteryear. Aytaç, of course, is already a very public figure; in contrast, a few dozen ordinary Turkish citizens in Izmir are now facing jail time for tweets supporting the Gezi protests. Twitter was powerful during Gezi exactly because it allowed ordinary citizens to talk to each other in this manner, and yet, the same power exposes them to the punishment by the state.

Meanwhile Aytaç has been sentenced to 10 months in jail, not convertible to a fine, for that “k”. Obviously, the alleged insult is now even more visible to broader audiences but blocking visibility is no longer an easy option for governments—though Turkey certainly tried a version of it, blocking Twitter during the crucial weeks before the local elections and initiating a campaign of demonization against social media.

Turkey’s not the only country with such restrictive defamation laws which were already stifling before social media. It may be a new world but for governments and their opponents, but some things are not: jails are very much as old-fashioned as it gets.

Welcome to the 21st century, where you can go to jail for one letter, but also be heard by hundreds of thousands of people by typing into a little device in your phone. Hang on to your hats.