Turkey’s internet censorship war: Why Erdoğan hates YouTube and Twitter
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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly declared social media to be society’s „worst menace“. Yet his recent ban on Twitter lasted a mere two weeks. Why was it banned in the first place? Julian De Medeiros reports from Istanbul, where the storm surrounding Turkish internet rights continues to rage.

Social media corrodes and destroys privacy. Or so the Turkish government would have us believe.

At the same time it’s forms of free speech like these that invariably flourish under regimes which deny their citizens privacy and political discourse. In fact, the very nature of Twitter is undeniably public, not private at all.

The social media ban only seemed to confirm the liberal narrative: Autocratic leader vs. a young and tech-savvy generation of Turks. The international press quickly latched on to this story, the same one that had been popularized during the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street Protests.

Twitter has never been so popular in Turkey

Many are claiming that the Twitter ban achieved the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than curbing usage, the micro-blogging service (which was already one of the most frequently visited websites in the country) saw a massive user-increase with the hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey making it into the top global trending list.

Independent social media agencies reported that Twitter in Turkey had seen a wholesale 138% increase in usage immediately following the ban. If the Government was really trying to discourage social media use, their tactics did not seem to make any sense.

As a result most reporting on Turkey’s ban on Twitter and Youtube (the former has since been rescinded) has been marked by a certain smugness regarding how easy it is for users to circumvent the blocks by using Google DSN, VPN or text message services. In effect, Turkey’s social media bans failed to prevent users from expressing themselves online. They simply made it more difficult.

Islamofascist autocracy or misguided democracy?

On the other hand, I have spoken to many Turks who feared that their country was being misrepresented as a backward and totalitarian state. They see Turkey is a functioning democracy, experiencing violent hiccups as the result of the misguided policies of a majoritarian leader.

It led young professional, liberal minded, well educated Turks to believe that the only way for their message to be heard was to miscast themselves as the victims of what neo-con pundits began to refer to as ‚Islamofascism‘.

But before we explode in liberal outrage at these totalitarian politics, let’s consider the following. Mere hours after the ban on Twitter took effect, President Abdullah Gül (regarded as the proverbial ‚good cop‘ to Erdogan’s bad, and who some have already pinpointed as the PM’s likely successor) tweeted on his official account: „The wholesale shuttering of social media platforms cannot be approved.“

It was a surprising challenge to Erdoğan’s vocal characterization of social media as ‚the biggest menace‘ to Turkish society. The western world’s political elite quickly echoed the president’s sentiment.

Yet ironically this is the same narrative that feeds into the petty paranoia of Erdoğan’s successful political persona. Indeed, the Turkish government has repeatedly and fantastically stated that the recent social media blocks are a justified response to foreign conspirators seeking to destabilize the country.

With the Twitter ban coming into effect just weeks prior to the local elections, it offered the PM another way to impress the conservative voter-base with his strong-arm tactics and hostile political rhetoric.

Following the court’s decision to rescind the ban on Twitter, Erdoğan announced, „while they are protecting an American company, our national and moral values are being disregarded.“ The statement cunningly accommodated the „American“ equation into the familiar conspiratorial narrative of Western meddling. In other words, blame the West for using the internet to facilitate political unrest in Turkey.

The Turkish-American intelligence alliance

This could not be further from the truth. Ever since Erdoğan’s rise to power, the US has been keen to enlist Turkey’s services and military capacities. As a key NATO ally, Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, was first asked to facilitate the global war on terror, and now to safeguard a potential spillover of the ongoing conflict in Syria.

In return, the US has turned a blind eye to any Turkish provocation, including its massive financial deals with Iran and the frequent jailing of journalists and political dissidents. But most of all, it has invested heavily in bringing Turkey up to date on the digital and technological forefront of the War on Terror.

Turkey protestsDemonstrations against Turkey’s internet policy and police aggression have spread to other cities around Europe.
Image: MILAN, ITALY – JUNE 1: Turkish people during a protest march in Milan JUNE 1, 2013. Turkish people protest against prime minister Erdogan for the violent attacks by riot police at Gezi Park (Istanbul) via Shutterstock / copyright: Stefano Tinti

In this capacity Erdoğan has relied heavily on American intelligence and technological support to cement his position in Turkish politics and stabilize Turkey’s domestic issues such as the Kurdish crisis, the traditionally powerful military class, and the subjugation of Istanbul’s increasingly liberal-minded middle class citizens. Reports indicate that much of the required infrastructure for the Turkish Intelligence Agency’s (MIT) functioning, was assisted by American advisors, linking Turkey more strongly to the US than to its European allies

For example, one confirmed intelligence centre in Turkey, the SIGINT Sinop Station on the Turkish side of the Black Sea coast was originally run by the NSA, but was eventually handed over to the Turkish Secret Service. In 2009 Gen. Keith Alexander, the former head of the NSA arrived in Turkey to discuss the possibility of further intelligence cooperation.

American spying stations for Turkey’s anti-terror intelligence

As part of the agreement, the Turks would offer intelligence to help fight Al-Qaeda and protect the Syrian and Iranian border crossings. In exchange, the US would construct spying stations to assist in the battle against the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK).

One can only presume that such cooperation has increased as a result of Turkey’s frequent skirmishes with organizations such as the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) at Turkish-Syrian border posts, as well as frequent counter-terror arrests in Istanbul and in Turkey’s East. The counter-terrorism and data-mining technology required to facilitate such operations simply doesn’t mesh with the characterization of Erdoğan as a naive ruler who thinks he can shut down the Internet.

It’s hardly surprising that the technological advances required to sustain such covert actions would come back to haunt the Erdoğan Government. Indeed, the Youtube ban was initially justified by the leak of a video, which appeared to feature an audio clip of the Turkish intelligence and military chief conspiring to stage a terrorist attack on Turkey to facilitate sending troops into Syria.

That as a result Youtube is still banned in Turkey and that Twitter is not, suggests that the Turkish Government’s true focus is keeping the military operations in Syria shrouded in secrecy, not fighting a prolonged media war with social activists and Gezi Park sympathizers.

What did the ban achieve?

What the social media blocks have actually achieved is twofold: First, they vilify and effectively criminalize Turkey’s tech-savvy youth, which justifies the ruling party’s characterization of political opponents as terrorists and members of a ‚parallel state‘.

Secondly, the dramatic bans have distracted onlookers from the growing technological capabilities required to safeguard Turkey’s geo-political position in the region, bolstered by their close proximity to Syria and their importance as a key NATO ally.

All this exposes the logic of the ban as deeply flawed. What it actually seeks to attempt, is to prevent any challenge to the stagnant echo-chamber of the current media landscape in Turkey. Whether the Youtube ban will stay in place remains to be seen, although the constitutional court has already declared that the Government has no right to deny the Turks their Twitter.

As a result, on April 3rd the world happily welcomed back the Turks into the dedicated ranks of global tweeters: „tekrar hoşgeldin“ („Welcome back“).

Feature image: ISTANBUL – JUNE 20: Police stand guard with riot shields during demonstrations against the government in Taksim Square on June 20, 2013 in Istanbul. via Shutterstock / copyright: Dona_Bozzi

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