What Turkish Google searches tell us about the Twitter ban


Turkish searches for methods to circumvent the Twitter ban and the most common local spelling of the Prime Minister's last name. (Google Trends)

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nationwide Twitter ban continues in Turkey. And through the digital wizardly of Google Trends searches, we can take a peek at how the ban may have affected Turkish users' online behaviors. As you can see above, searches for circumvention techniques have increased by an order of magnitude.

Local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) appear to have initially implemented the ban by Domain Name System (DNS) rerouting. DNS is sort of like a phone book that translates a URL into the series of numbers that make up an IP address so browsers can navigate the Web. By changing the DNS record, ISPs could redirect Turkish Internet users to a page notifying them of the reasons for the ban.

But getting around DNS redirection is as simple as changing the DNS server record on your computer to point to a public server not affected by the blocking order -- which is just what many Turkish Twitter users did. And that's reflected in the Google Trend data: There was a huge spike in searches for DNS at the beginning of the ban. In fact, as the chart shows, searches for DNS far outweighed searches for the the most common local spelling of Erdogan's name.

Searches for DNS start to fall at roughly the same time that a tougher IP level block was rolled out. Once that was in effect, changing the DNS record no longer allowed users to access Twitter. But other methods like using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or the anonymous browsing tool Tor would still allow users to get around the ban.


(Tor Project)

As The Switch previously reported, Tor usage is surging in Turkey -- and even more recent data shows the number of users connecting from Turkey has now doubled compared to before the Twitter ban went into effect.

But perhaps the most telling spike in local Google interest was the massive jump in searches for Twitter during the ban. Even before Erdogan's move to block the social platform, it was a far more popular search than any of the circumvention methods and the prime minister. And after the ban, it skyrocketed. On the first full day of the ban, "twitter" topped the list of Google's local "hot searches."


(Google Trends)

However, local interest has since started to revert to earlier levels.


Searches from Turkey. (Google Trends)

But even while interest in Twitter peaked, searches for Facebook and YouTube were even more popular in Turkey. In recent speeches, Erdogan has hinted a similar fate to Twitter's may await them if they do not comply with Turkish orders to remove content. The Wall Street Journal previously reported that Google has refused requests to remove YouTube content related to an ongoing alleged corruption scandal. And if Erdogan follows through on his threat, it won't be the first time YouTube was blocked in Turkey.

Some experts have derided the Twitter ban as illegal, and potentially motivated at influencing upcoming local elections by quieting or discrediting leaks that have spread through social media and that allegedly show evidence of political corruption within his party.

But if quieting scandals spread through social media was Erdogan's goal, Google search data suggests it hasn't worked. Earlier Tuesday morning, the top Turkish "hot search" on Google was "Burak Erdoğan" -- the name of his eldest son. The bump appears to be related to an alleged audio recording of a conversation between the younger Erdogan and a Swiss romantic partner that popped up on YouTube and Twitter within the last day.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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