With almost nightly leaks of new corruption files making his administration look worse than ever, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vowed to wage war on social media. The battle took a new turn today — as Turkey blocked Twitter on all its major ISPs. But a panel on the #OccupyGezi movement at SXSW revealed that Turkey is a population simultaneously in love with social media’s liberating potential while also uniquely well educated in how to circumvent digital road blocks.
From Hurriyet Daily News:
Turkey has blocked access to Twitter, hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to close down the social media platform. ‘We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,’ Erdoğan said at his campaign rally in the western city of Bursa on March 20, 10 days before the upcoming local elections.
The Press Advisory of the Prime Ministry has later in the night clarified Erdoğan’s statement, arguing that Twitter officials currently ‘ignore some court rulings in Turkey, which order the social media platform to “remove some links” as per the complaints filed by Turkish citizens. (In Erdoğan’s speech) it is stated that as long as Twitter fails to change its attitude of ignoring court rulings and not doing what is necessary according to the law, technically, there might be no remedy but to block access in order to relief our citizens,’ the statement said.
Just before midnight, access to Twitter was already blocked in Turkey. The Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), which was given extraordinary powers with the recently passed Internet law, lists three court rulings and one prosecutor decision on its website as the reason of the outage. Eventually, all Internet service providers (ISP) in Turkey have abided by the rulings, as Turkish social media users have started to figure out ways to circumvent the blocking, like DNS-tweaking and VPN services.
At SXSW Interactive 2014, Yalçın Pembecioglu and Eda Demir, two editors and consultants from Bigumigu, Turkish brand managers and social trackers, shared the movement’s #OccupyGezi’s origins. I asked them if they were prepared for digital attacks like this block. The #OccupyGezi revolution was an inherently social one — and one based more around Twitter than even other revolutionary moments that came before, like the American Occupy Wall Street movement or Tahrir Square.
And what of the Twitter ban? A population so tied to a social network like Twitter would seem especially vulnerable to disruption by a corrupt government like Erdogan’s. At the panel, Pembecioglu and Demir told me that moments like today’s Twitter block were anticipated by the activists on the ground. Internet security skill shares were a commonplace part of the Gezi movement.
Indeed online reports — and globally trending Twitter topics in Turkish — show the tech-savvy Turkish population already routing around the block through the simple expediency of switching to DNS servers outside Turkey:
In Turkey, folks are painting IP's of non-Turkish DNS servers onto the posters of the governing party. pic.twitter.com/f7WGqNCwhl
— Eva (@evacide) March 21, 2014
The skillshares also ensured knowledge of tools for circumventing government suppression like Virtual Private Networking and Tor is widespread, the panelists told me.
Data Tracks Twitter’s Growth In Turkey
When the occupation of Taksim began, Yalçın and others at Bigumigu found themselves drawn from idle ‘clicktivism’ into a more direct involvement with the movement. Though not a major presence at the encampment, friends were there (and many in the audience in the panel had been part of the occupation). The social media tracking skills the company uses for its clients helped Yalçın and the team become involved remotely. They were able to track activity and fact-check reports coming from friends on the ground, before passing on the right information and helping to shut down misinformation. Unlike the Tahrir protests, where much of the Twitter activity came from foreign supporters, the majority of #OccupyGezi tweets came from people on the ground and local supporters. The two most important topics of tweets were sharing location of medical aid, and sharing the location of police.
This chart, from Turkish publication Radikal, shows the amazing growth of Twitter during the height of the Taksim revolutionary moment:
A stunning growth in active Turkish Twitter users was similarly matched by similar growth in number of messages sent. While traffic fluctuated throughout the period depicted in the chart below, the peak moment comes with over 18 million twitter messages shared on June 1st:
As long as it’s being monitored by reliable fact checkers, the increase in Twitter volume actually helped increase the reliability of information. Real facts would be duplicated by multiple witnesses while misinformation would gradually be drowned out. With virtual space and the streets so closely linked, tweeters developed strong networks of trust, learning who was reliable and who was not. The message also became more balanced — the flood of Gezi tweeters also brought more pro-government voices onto the social network, at least until it was officially banned.
Though the trees of Gezi Park fell, protests continue to break out in Turkey as fast as the police and government can suppress them. A day after the panel, protests erupted — in the streets and on Twitter — over the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, a comatose victim of a tear-gas canister to the head during the first wave of OccupyGezi police violence that had finally succumbed to the injury.
— Anonymous Operations (@YourAnonCentral) March 11, 2014
As I wrote this piece today, several Turkish phrases were trending globally on Twitter — a sign of how many speakers of the language remain on the network.
One trending topic was #DNSyiDeğilHÜKÜMETİOyunlaDeğiştir. According to Yalçın Pembecioglu, this translates as
change the government with your vote, instead of changing DNS.
Trailer for upcoming documentary on the Gezi protests, Fall Of Heaven.