Turkey’s Twitter ban is not an example of the Streisand Effect

March 21

An image of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on a twitter account is pictured through a magnifying glass in this illustration picture taken in Istanbul March 21, 2014. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

TechPresident reports that the Turkish government’s ban on Twitter has resulted in a big surge in Turkish Twitter activity. Technology geeks use the metaphor of the “Streisand effect” to describe this kind of self-undermining effort to stop news from spreading. When Barbra Streisand tried to sue an environmentalist who had incidentally photographed her house as part of a project on beach erosion, she drew attention to the photo. It was then seen by many more people than would otherwise have seen it. Similarly, the Turkish government’s efforts to block access to possible evidence of corruption have been depicted by techies as a self-defeating move that only makes people more aware of it.

They’re probably wrong. The Streisand Effect, as journalist Mike Masnick originally defined it, doesn’t really apply here. Most Turks who were potentially interested in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recorded phone calls knew about them already. The tapped conversations have been the topic of widespread gossip and speculation in Turkey for weeks. This information would not have languished in obscurity if the Twitter ban hadn’t happened.

If the government ban does backfire politically, it may be for the same reasons that Egypt’s Arab Spring era crackdown on the Internet failed in 2011. In Egypt, the protests got bigger after Egypt’s Internet access was shut down. Thomas Schelling’s arguments about signaling plausibly help explain why this happened. The blockage sent an unintended signal to the Egyptian public — that the government was so terrified by the demonstrations that it was willing to take the drastic step of blocking the Internet to slow protesters down. This, in turn, made the public more likely to believe that the regime would lose, and more willing to support demonstrations. Egyptian economic and political elites began to defect from the regime, having no desire to lash themselves to the mast of a sinking ship.

Similarly, the Twitter ban may make Turks more likely to think that the current government is in trouble in the forthcoming elections. It will be particularly interesting to see how economic and political elites react. If the ban leads to them distancing themselves from Erdogan (as Turkey’s president has done, although admittedly he has been unhappy for a while), it will be tougher for Erdogan to hold his electoral coalition together. The fear of defeat can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, alternatively, they hold together, Erdogan’s prospects are less likely to be damaged. In short, the ban will have political consequences if actors interpret it as providing information about Erdogan’s private beliefs about his party’s electoral prospects. It will not have consequences because it highlights new information about Erdogan’s possible corruption, since voters who are likely to be influenced by this information probably know it already.

Schelling’s insights could be applied to other self-defeating efforts by governments to crack down on information-fueled protests. For example, the former Ukrainian government tried to terrify protesters into going home by texting them to tell them that the government knew they had been at the protests (presumably through the geolocation features on their cellphones, or through figuring out which mast their phones had connected to). Schelling’s theory of “bridge-burning” suggests why this backfired. Schelling describes how leaders give their followers incentives to win, by making defeat more costly. If an army burns the bridge behind it, it has nowhere to retreat to, and therefore must win and advance if it is to survive. The Ukrainian government may plausibly have burnt the bridges of the protesters that it was instead trying to discourage. Since they knew that they had been identified, and were likely to be imprisoned and worse if they lost, they had excellently strong incentives to persevere and to win. Which they did; albeit with unpredicted consequences that the world is still trying to figure out.

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