The Turkish government has been attempting to block Twitter since last Thursday. The policy comes about in the lead-up to local elections and after embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, facing corruption allegations, vowed to “root out” Twitter. While tech savvy Turkish citizens spread word of workarounds, the government responded by tightening the block, and conflicting court rulings left Twitter’s legal status in limbo. While the most recent court ruling has lifted the block, restoring access to Twitter may not happen before the upcoming elections on March 30, as the ministry has 45 days to act on the ruling. Additionally, a higher court will still rule on the constitutionality of the matter.
Looking at the growth of Turkish Twitter users in the last few years helps show both why Erdoğan initially targeted Twitter (it’s less popular than Facebook, which Erdoğan has since banned, too) and why it has generated such outrage. As part of a study on Twitter usage, we used the Twitter API to search random, plausible Twitter ID numbers in order to get a sample of Twitter users. Over the course of a few days, we were able to collect basic information on 226,407 accounts. Geolocating Twitter users isn’t easy. Many users don’t provide straightforward answers to the “Place” question and even fewer send out their latitude and longitude with their tweets. Twitter does allow people to set their default language, and we took advantage of the fact that the majority of people in Turkey speak Turkish, and the majority of Turkish users prefer to tweet in Turkish. In our sample, 6,183 had Turkish as their default language. Since many people sign up but never send any tweets, we focused on users who had engaged with Twitter enough to follow 10 or more other accounts. In this part of the project, our focus is on trends when people signed up for the service.
Since 2011, when Twitter released a Turkish language version of the Web site, Turkish usage has exploded. Approximately 183,000 Turkish Internet users signed up each month in 2011. The first big wave in new subscribers reached a peak with the June 2011 general elections. Campaign politicians from all parties were heavy users of the site, and political and celebrity tweets were relayed in the mass media.
The growth rate in Twitter users more than doubled the following year, as approximately 384,000 new accounts joined each month in 2012. The trending topics during the peaks in 2012 were also quite political: Turkish hacker group Redhack’s announcement of attacks on government Web sites; polemics of politicians; court cases on tweets that are considered to be insults; and mobilization against the plans to shut down private university preparation centers were among the highlights.
The rate of growth leveled off during the first five months of 2013, however, as the average monthly count of new users was the same as 2012. In June 2013, anti-government protests erupted over the destruction of a park in order to build a shopping mall, turning into nation-wide protests against the AKP government. Approximately 660,000 Turkish language users joined Twitter that month, the largest per-month increase in Turkey. At the time, the prime minister called Twitter a menace since many protesters used it for on-ground coordination. However, these remarks not only led to increasing usage of Twitter by the opposition but also by the pro-government Internet users who used Twitter to engage in “trending topic wars.”
In the aftermath of the Gezi protests, Twitter expanded its reach in Turkey. Five hundred thousand accounts a month were created in the second half of 2013, a rate 22 percent higher than the corresponding period a year earlier. Continuing this trend, the first two months of 2014 have seen 45 percent more new Turkish language accounts than the first two months from last year. This last peak coincides with the upcoming elections as well as the discussions of political scandals around the AKP government.
While political events may be a major impetus behind the growth of Twitter in Turkey, Twitter isn’t an entirely political sphere. Of the top 50 Twitter accounts from Turkey, more than two-thirds are non-political, including comedians, actors, singers, and sports teams. This means that when the government shuts down Twitter, it isn’t just cutting off information about the next protest or Photoshopped images of the prime minister, but also one of the most popular Internet pastime activities; a pastime that incorporates and builds everyday conversations. For example, one of the peaks in the graph above is May/June 2012 which marked the end of the soccer season and the consequent “trending topic wars” between soccer fans. Being frustrated about lack of access to Twitter may even unite and politicize fans of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş even further. There’s still two more months in the Süper Lig soccer season, and that’s a long time to go without taunting opposing fans on Twitter.