Turks take to Twitter to defy government ban

Turmoil and defiance: Anti-government protests on the streets have moved onto social media.

Turkey’s prime minister attempted to ban social media to crush dissent, but Turks responded by posting anti-censorship messages on Twitter. Is the internet an unstoppable ally of democracy?

In his time as Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has triumphed over armed rebels as well as the country’s powerful generals. Perhaps this gave him the confidence to attempt the impossible this weekend, when he tried to ban Twitter. The move, condemned on the streets of Turkey and across the world, backfired spectacularly. Twitter usage in Turkey has increased by 138% as defiance grows and Erdogan has been ridiculed as a Canute, trying to hold back the internet tide.

Why the ban? Two users had posted audio recordings on Twitter attempting to pin a corruption charge on the prime minister, and despite being a democratically elected leader in a country with many of the freedoms of a Western democracy, Erdogan decided the best response was to block the site altogether.

But the public was prepared for this – perhaps because Erdogan claimed last summer that Twitter is ‘a menace to society’. By the time the ban came into force, methods for circumventing the censors had been well publicised, with detailed instructions written on the walls of public spaces and even on banknotes. Adding to Erdogan’s embarrassment, Turkey’s president also took to Twitter to say that the ban ‘cannot be approved’.

The attempted crackdown, and the popular defiance of it, came at the same time as a challenge to China’s online censorship: while on a state visit, Michelle Obama, the US First Lady, declared it was a ‘universal birthright’ to have free access to information on the internet.

China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is a huge, highly effective censorship tool which controls the country’s 560m internet users. While the Communist Party blocked Twitter and Facebook long ago, it offered state-friendly copycats like Sina Weibo which are easier to monitor.

While Erdogan was foolish to think he could shut off Twitter once it had already established a foothold in the country, China shows that clever authoritarian regimes can adapt to keep internet use limited and controlled.

Control, alter or delete?

Some say the extent of Chinese censorship proves how nervous the authorities are: deep down they know eventually the web will be their downfall. Look at the Arab Spring uprisings, which have been organised using social media, they say. Dictators everywhere are quaking in fear. Erdogan’s Twitter ban has failed: the democratising power of the internet cannot be stopped.

But others argue that plotting history’s course is not such a simple task. In Venezuela and Russia, corrupt regimes have learned to harness social media for pro-government propaganda, and China’s successful strategy for muffling and suppressing online dissent still works. Democracy’s social media triumph is far from inevitable.

You Decide

  1. Will social media be the downfall of dictatorships around the world?
  2. Are there circumstances in which it is right to censor or limit what views can be expressed on the internet? What are they?

Activities

  1. In groups, design a poster or placard to show your support for free use of the internet, or one which outlines the controls needed for views that can be expressed on social media sites.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, research online censorship. Make a presentation of where and how it has been used, and to what degree, around the world. Conclude with a prediction on whether it will continue to work in the future.

Some People Say...

“The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.’Tommy Smothers”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care what happens in Turkey?
Turkey has long been a democratic, moderate state and a friend of the West: it’s seen as a test case for proving that democracy and Islam are in no way incompatible. In recent years however, Erdogan has become autocratic and conservative. In December, he crushed an investigation into corruption and put allies in charge of the justice system. He has tried to crush widespread protests by young people who fear he is making the country too Islamic.
Why did Erdogan try something so likely to fail?
Some commentators think the latest move shows how inflated his ego has become. Others think he is campaigning for upcoming elections. If anything, this may have hastened his own downfall. The ban and the reaction to it are certainly being watched across the world.

Word Watch

Block
Those who tried to access the site were taken to a page saying that the courts had ordered ‘protection measures’ and removed the site. However, many users found roundabout ways in and used other tricks to evade censorship.
First Lady
Wife of the American president, in this case Barack Obama, with whom Michelle is travelling in China. Another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, famously said attempting to censor the internet in China would be ‘like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.’ But many point out this was 14 years ago, and the jelly is still stuck.
Universal birthright
Making this claim in a country which experiences heavy censorship is obviously controversial. While former US first ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have made critical remarks while on previous official foreign visits, there had been no prior warning of such an outspoken pro-democracy and free speech statement from the Obamas.
Great Firewall
China does not simply censor all anger against members of the ruling classes. China’s president has a social media account himself and he actively encourages citizens to report on corruption. While criticism of those high up in the government is not tolerated, in recent years many corrupt local officials have been exposed and then brought to justice.
Communist Party
The Communists have ruled China since they won the civil war in 1950. It is the only political party allowed in the country.

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