Few foes of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been able to repeatedly criticise Turkey’s long-time leader and get away with it. His 17 years in power is littered with activists, political opponents, journalists and the countless followers of an ally-turned-rival sentenced to prison, forced into exile or otherwise silenced.
But the internet, and social media like Twitter in particular, can be relied upon to leave Erdoğan looking like a flailing Whac-a-Mole player. Launching Turkey’s new cybersecurity centre last week, he again vented at his unseen foes.
“Social media has become a garbage dump and an idle platform,” Erdoğan said.
This echoed what he said in June 2013, when protests to protect Istanbul’s Gezi Park became national, thanks in large part to social media. “There is now a scourge called Twitter,” Erdoğan said then. “This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society.”
Turkey’s leader may have been wise to view online platforms as an enemy, even back then. In May 2011, Turkey’s tech community unknowingly mounted a trial run of Gezi, with an Istanbul protest against government internet filtering that attracted some 30,000 people and inspired as many as a million people to join similar demonstrations across the country.
“In 2011, nobody was really planning a Gezi-like protest,” Erkan Saka, communications professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and author of “Social Media and Politics in Turkey”, told Ahval in a podcast.
“Most of them were just interested in more internet freedoms, but there are always unintentional consequences of social action,” he said. “People learned how to collaborate online, how to organise, and I think people realised for the first time they were not a small user base. It was huge.”
Two years later, some 3 million people across Turkey took to the streets to protest the planned destruction of Gezi Park and Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism. Saka had often complained that Turkish internet users seemed passive. Then hashtags like #OccupyGezi and memes like the Lady in Red spread like wildfire.
“When Gezi started, I thought, ‘Oh, people are really participating, they are really producing. They are not just passive audiences here’,” he said, adding that today Turkish Twitter is a crucial fourth estate, speaking truth to power despite the dangers. “Day by day, hour by hour, Twitter users are like a Damocles’ Sword over authorities in Turkey.”
One might also say the reverse, as Erdoğan has vowed to destroy his nemesis.
“We’ll eradicate Twitter,” Erdoğan said in March 2014, as evidence of a major corruption scandal shot around social media and Turkey blocked Twitter. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Yet, in a sign of the frustrations to come for Turkey’s strongman, the Twitter ban was lifted after two weeks, when the Constitutional Court decided the block was unconstitutional.
Few countries have been as aggressive as Turkey about online censorship. Just after Gezi, news reports said Erdoğan was building a 6,000-strong Twitter army, one of the world’s largest, to target government criticism. Since 2014, Turkey has been far and away the global leader in requests for content removal sent to Twitter, while Turkish courts are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world’s censored Twitter content. This includes the tweets and accounts of prominent journalists, politicians and activists.
The government has blocked nearly 250,000 websites, while Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp have faced repeated blockages, along with Twitter. The government is prone to block internet access altogether in moments of crisis and thousands have been charged with insulting the president or making terrorist propaganda for seemingly innocuous social media posts.
Part of the increased online aggression is a result of the 2016 coup attempt, after which the government declared a state of emergency and significantly increased the muzzling of online media outlets and criticism. Last month Turkey’s top court ended the state’s two-and-a-half-year Wikipedia ban, but Saka did not see the move as a sign of change. “Hundreds of thousands of sites are still blocked, and every day we see a new block,” he said.
But these efforts regularly fail. In May 2018, the Washington Post reported that a hashtag and a meme had united Turkey’s opposition after #tamam became the top trending hashtag worldwide. Last December, Twitter suspended the account of independent news site Duvar English, presumably acting on a request from Turkish authorities. But after user complaints, Twitter reinstated the account that same day.
Public figures sent to prison for online crimes rarely spend time inside. Last July, a Turkish court sentenced author and social media star Pucca to nearly six years in jail for tweets it said promoted drug use. But she is still free and posts almost hourly tidbits to her 2.5 million Twitter and Instagram followers.
This month, Canan Kaftancıoğlu was re-elected as the main opposition party’s Istanbul chair five months after a court sentenced her to nearly a decade in prison for terrorist propaganda and insulting the president on Twitter. While she appeals the verdict, Kaftancıoğlu still speaks to her nearly 600,000 followers, being seen as a martyr for what many view as unjust persecution.
The rapper Ezhel is one of the few Turkish celebrities to spend time in prison after being convicted of a social media crime, but he was acquitted and released after a few weeks.
Two months later, the video of his song “Olay,” which depicts Turkey as a police state, was watched nearly 2 million times in its first 24 hours on YouTube. That paled in comparison to the video for “Susamam”. The song by Şanışer highlights corruption, political oppression and other issues and became one of the most watched videos in Turkey’s history within days of its September release.
Saka saw this as part of a larger trend. After a few years away following the failed coup, Turkish internet users are coming back online after opposition parties won the vote in major cities in local elections last year. “They are back. Maybe it’s not as much as it was during Gezi, but I can say that since last year, the elections, they are coming back. Some old users are now active again,” he said.
Turkish netizens have long seemed ahead of the curve. The Turkish online dictionary Ekşi Sözlük was founded in 1999, a year-and-a-half before Wikipedia. It still exists today, with a Twitter account that has 2.7 million followers, and has inspired imitators like incicaps, a meme-sharing page that also has 2.7 million followers.
Almost since it came to power in 2002, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to curb free speech online. In 2007, parliament passed a law regulating internet publications after less than an hour of discussion. Later that year, an Ankara court blocked YouTube for criminal activity.
Turks learned to speak carefully and became expert at finding online work-arounds. “Turkish citizens know you should always act tactically on the internet,” said Saka, adding that they also know how and when to challenge the system.
The government, on the other hand, has lagged behind. Consider that Twitter army. It never happened, said Saka, who undertook a study on political trolling in Turkey.
“Despite all the media hype, I couldn’t find any organised army-like situation,” he said, adding that he did find significant pro-AKP trolling, but mostly volunteer or organised in small circles. “Maybe they intended to build it, but they never could.”
Today, most pro-government trolling is done by the so-called Pelikan Group, which Saka said had declined in reach and influence since the AKP’s electoral defeats last year. “Just as the government doesn’t look as powerful as it used to, their trolls are also losing power,” he said. “Trolling now is less intimidating than before.”
Last month, Reuters reported that cyberattacks targeting 30 entities, including government bodies in Greece and Cyprus, appeared to be the work of hackers hired by the Turkish government. Saka said they did not appear to be sophisticated attacks, and pointed out that Turkey was just now establishing its cyber-security centre.
“Turkey likes to build big buildings, that doesn’t mean inside the building there will be a very sophisticated team,” he said. “Turkey has all the security apparatus, but technology-wise I feel Turkey is a bit behind the curve.”
Meanwhile, the hot new digital trend in Turkey is the China-based social video platform TikTok. According to one report, Turkey has more than 28 million TikTok users, giving it a higher penetration, at 34 percent, than any country in the world, including China.
TikTok content is strictly monitored and censored, but Saka said it was creating a new generation of skilled media producers who could make a political impact down the line. “All over Turkey people are now learning the very basics of video production, real time narrative skills and tools,” he said.