Turkey’s over-the-top attempt to block Twitter is more strategic than you think

Turkish Prime Minister

Following the blocking of Twitter in Turkey, startups and tech giants including Twitter found alternative ways for Turks to access the social network — but it seems the government will not have it.

“Twitter has been used as a means to carry out systematic character assassinations by circulating illegally acquired recordings, fake and fabricated records of wiretapping,” said the Turkish government this weekend.

What began as a failed banning of Twitter seems to have turned into a major social media lockout as the country has moved to block backdoor access to services like Twitter. Google’s YouTube is most likely next after it refused to remove videos alleging government corruption.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used a very controversial law, which was passed by the Turkish parliament, in order to enact the bans. The law states that the government’s Telecommunications Board can “shut down” sites based on what is deems to be “privacy violations” as Mashable points out.

“Some known circles immediately rebelled against this Internet law,” Erdoğan said in a TV interview on 6 March. “We are determined we won’t let the Turkish people be sacrificed to YouTube and Facebook.” Stating that “those people [the social media services] incite any kind of immorality or espionage for the profit of these institutions.”

The move to block Twitter has of course resulted in heavy news coverage and Turkey has become a hotly discussed topic on Twitter, with more a million mentions on the social network according to analytics service Topsy.

Turkey topsy stats

The conversation around Turkey has focused on, among other things, the government’s move to stifle free speech and its people’s right to be heard. The hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey has generated more than 700 000 mentions and has been used by notable political figures such as former US Sectary of State, Hillary Clinton.



Turkey Twitter ban

The politics of Turkey and the conversations around Erdogan’s recorded phone calls, which led to the banning of Twitter, haven’t stopped happening because the social network is no longer available.

Different reports have noted that, since the ban, tweets about Turkey have naturally increased. This is a classic case of the “Streisand effect” — a phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicising it.

Henry Farrell explains in the Washington Post that this is not the case. He argues that Turks were already talking about the issues before a Twitter ban was put in effect but what is happening is change of perception.

The Twitter ban “may make Turks more likely to think that the current government is in trouble in the forthcoming elections,” he says.

However, the world has woken up to the issues in Turkey and foreign governments are weighing in.

Turkey is not Egypt

It’s easy for analysts (and many have) to liken this to what happened in Egypt when the social network and mobile phones were blocked.

According to Princeton Fellow Zeynep Tufekci, it actually isn’t the same thing. She argues that the block is in fact more strategic than most analysts believe.

“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,” she says.

Tufekci explains that the Twitter ban cannot be solely about an attempt to stifle the spread of the leaked tapes. If this was the case, YouTube and Facebook would have been first go and even then the recordings are already out there and could easily be uploaded to other platforms. To completely stop access to these recordings, she argues, Erdoğan would have to “unplug” the internet in Turkey, which will signal far greater problem.

As Farrell has already pointed out, Turks have been talking about these recordings for some time now, so they know about it. It is the rest of the world that is just waking up to the issue. Unless Erdoğan intends to stop the rest of the world from accessing Twitter and YouTube, the news is out there and will grow the longer he works hard to sidestep every piece of tech that helps it spread.

“They are playing a different game. And to actually understand what’s going on, the story needs to be analysed 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”, explains Tufecki.

The game, it seems, is not about blocking content and is more likely an attempt to “demonise social media”.

Erdoğan’s strategy uses some murky legal cases that focuses on Twitter as tool of disruption, and a threat to unity. The housewife impersonated by a porn star, the defamation of a poet and a politician.

“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,” says Tufekci.

In the end, she says, this is not about blocking social media but more about sullying its reputation.

Image: Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr.



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