The warning from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have sounded like election rally bluster. “Twitter, schmitter,” he said in an angry speech to supporters in the northwest town of Bursa. He vowed to “root out” the social media platform.
“I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Hours later, it was clear he meant it. The country’s telecommunications authority served court papers on internet companies, ordering them to pull the plug on Twitter. Turkey had become only the second country – along with China – to try to block it entirely.
And yet, days later, it’s looking increasingly like the move may backfire, leaving Erdogan looking desperate and clumsy.
From a technical perspective, the ban hasn’t worked well. Millions of tweets continue to come from Turkey, despite the fact authorities have been implementing increasingly tighter controls. Turks have become adept at tweaking their internet settings, installing and using anti-censorship software (including the popular Toronto-based Psiphon software), and "virtual private networks" — known as VPNs — that bypass local controls.
They’ve honed their skills after government attempts to block many unfavourable websites over the past months. They’ve also picked up new tricks through instructions posted elsewhere on the internet.
Even Turkish President Abdullah Gul, officially an ally of Erdogan, has circumvented the Twitter block to send out critical messages. “The shutdown of an entire social platform is unacceptable,” he tweeted. “I hope this measure will not last long.”
He hasn’t been the only one complaining. The move has brought widespread criticism among irritated voters — not the result Erdogan’s AK party would have wanted as local elections loom. Many see these as a referendum on the government. Twitter has deep penetration among Turkey’s technically savvy population, with some 30 per cent of internet users – more than 11 million people – using the social network. (By comparison, only 6.3 million Canadians use Twitter, a penetration rate of 23 per cent.)
The block was politically motivated to start with, an attempt to stop an avalanche of damaging information. Accusations suggesting corruption on a massive scale among Erdogan’s family and close supporters have been circulating, even audio recordings apparently between the prime minister and his son discussing ways to hide millions in bribes.
Turkey’s traditional media has been reluctant to focus on this, just as it tried to ignore last summer’s mass anti-government demonstrations that started in Gezi Park, in the middle of Istanbul, and spread throughout Turkey.
Turkish journalists have been fired or jailed for their reporting at a greater rate than anywhere in the world. Self censorship thrives.
That’s why so many Turks have turned to Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to pass along facts and rumours. And that’s why Erdogan has threatened to shut down access to these other sites next, using a series of authoritarian pieces of legislation, also criticized by Gul.
Erdogan’s waged an increasingly shrill campaign against social media – and its messengers. Tweeters have been prosecuted. Foreign critics have been blamed for Turkey’s troubles (including its worsening economic situation).
Twitter has been singled out as an irresponsible "Robot Lobby" that unfairly opposes Erdogan’s government. The internet itself has been painted as an evil, dangerous place that threatens good family values.
There are many in Turkey who believe this, believe that stricter limits are needed to protect privacy and prevent defamation, as Erdogan argues. Much of his support comes from rural and other communities where internet use is lower and Twitter is not a major source for information. His fiery speeches diverting blame from the government get a much warmer reception here than they do among Turkey’s urban and connected classes.
On the other hand, many Turks who used to see Erdogan as someone who would bring greater democracy – building a Turkey that would be a progressive model for the Middle East – now see him as increasingly contemptuous of public opinion.
That was the accusation when he supported overbearing police action to crush the Gezi protests. That’s the charge now as he tries to block opposition voices online and ‘show the power of the Turkish Republic.’
Twitter, shmitter indeed.