Wednesday 2 April 2014

Three Lessons from Turkey’s Social Media Attack

As we reported recently, the Turkish government passed a law in early March to allow the Turkish Telecommunication Authority (TIB) to block access to designated websites within 4 hours of the initial request.  The country’s most prominent critic of social media, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, championed the law as he decried social media a menace. 

Erdogan recently elicited a firestorm of activity within Turkey and across the world when he ordered TIB to block access to Twitter across the country on March 20.  He was apparently following through on a promise he made during a political rally earlier that day, assuring supporters that he would eradicate social media from the country, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

The events unfolding in Turkey over the past several weeks and months act as reminders of how grave the consequences are when we allow freedom of expression to be threatened.  Regardless if you have been following the story or not, we can all be reminded of the following three lessons:

1. Destructive laws have consequences; President Gul underestimated that reality.

President Abdullah Gul, who approved the recent law attacking freedom of expression, publicly condemned Erdogan’s actions, calling the Twitter shutdown “unacceptable.”  He railed against the Prime Minister, saying that the law only protects instances in which websites were violating privacy, according to the BBC.  For observers of the country’s march toward such an impasse about freedom of expression, Gul’s surprise seemed puzzling.  How could he not have seen what was coming in that law he approved, when the law’s detractors had so clearly articulated its dangers?  Gul and other leaders distanced themselves from Erdogan’s actions, but it remains unclear if there will be longer-term political ramifications for the polarizing Prime Minister.

2. “Shutting down” social media reinforced its power and omnipresence.

The Twitter shutdown inflamed Erdogan’s opposition and generated international attention for the shutdown and the country’s largely problematic privacy laws.  Turkish internet users, more savvy than the TIB, circumvented the Twitter “block” by using alternative means to communicate with each other and the world.  Almost immediately after Erdogan’s orders were carried out by the Telecommunication Authority, Twitter users across the world starting using the hashtag #TurkeyBlockedTwitter (among other variations) to spread the word about Erdogan’s inflammatory actions.  Erodgan’s effort suffered at the mercy of the very qualities of social media he vilified: Providing an avenue to distribute sensitive information broadly and quickly organize anti-government demonstrations.  When President Gul eventually declared his condemnation of the event, he did so on Twitter first.  Twitter itself offered support to Turkish users by offering helpful tweets and then successfully filed petitions in Turkish court to challenge the blockage.

3. This story doesn't have an end, and Turkey’s hostile environment continues to worsen.

Just yesterday, the BBC reported that the Turkish government has continued to increase its social media censorship efforts.  Learning from their initial mistakes, the Turkish government is instructing internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to domain name servers such as Google, Level 3, and OpenDNS, and redirect users away from their desired destinations.  Considering Erdogan’s political party, Justice and Development Party (AK), performed well in this week’s local elections – elections he had personally framed as a referendum on his rule – it does not appear Turkish citizens can expect these restrictions to cease.  

What are your thoughts on the recent events unfolding in Turkey?  What other lessons can we learn from these developments?

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