Why Turkey banned Twitter (and why banning Twitter isn’t working)


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)

Late on Thursday, Turkey's government attempted to ban Twitter. It didn't go well. Turkish Twitter users are finding it easy to get around the ban and are even mocking it, with one widely shared picture showing a bunch of Twitter-style birds defecating on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's head.

Why Erdoğan? The prime minister is believed to be the driving force behind the ban. "Twitter, mwitter!" Erdoğan had reportedly told supporters at a rally on Thursday. "We will wipe out all of these." Erdoğan's office has justified the ban by pointing to a Turkish court order that demanded the online service take down links that had allegedly insulted Turkish citizens.

But the timing of the ban – just days before municipal elections on March 30 – is key. Turkey's ban on Twitter reflects broader issues in Turkish society, and rising insecurity among Erdoğan's allies.

What they apparently don't realize is that blocking Twitter is unlikely to make any of it better.

Erdoğan and the Islamist AK Party have dominated Turkish politics since 2002, when they were swept to power after decades of secular rule and frequent coups by  Turkey's powerful military. While there have been some troubling signs – according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey was the top jailer of journalists worldwide in 2013, and critics say AKP has used accusations of a secular anti-government plot to jail their enemies – many citizens were encouraged by Erdoğan's pro-business and pro-European Union policies. The country has also become a key military ally of the United States and an important actor in the Muslim world.

In 2015, however, Erdoğan will be forced to vacate the prime minister's office; he is limited by party rules to three terms. While he hasn't formally committed to it yet, there is a huge amount of speculation that he will attempt to move into the office of president this year, and use the AKP's political power to strengthen the position, which is largely a figurehead under current circumstances. Critics of Erdoğan have accused him of "Putinism," and for significant parts of Turkish society – especially those who fear a creeping Islamization of Turkey's largely secular society – such a shift is scary.

Things came to a head in May 2013, when the government announced plans to redevelop Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park into a shopping mall designed to look like an Ottoman-era military barracks. Locals were angry with a move that would have not only destroyed one of the most prominent green spaces in the Istanbul city center, but would also replace it with a monument to the twin themes of Erdoğan's time as leader: Capitalism and Islamist nationalism. Thousands of people descended on Gezi Park for huge anti-government protests. Police responded with a heavy handed crackdown, and at least eight people died.

The Gezi Park protests were a huge challenge to Erdoğan's authority, and Twitter clearly played a role in spreading discontent: Protesters used #geziparkı to share scenes from the protest, and the controversial death of a 15-year-old boy reportedly hit by a police tear gas canister was announced on the service. But these protests alone might not have prompted such a drastic response from the Turkish government: Instead, Erdoğan's Twitter clampdown seems to be specifically targeting a more insidious threat that comes closer to his own base.

Late last year, a corruption scandal engulfed the AKP party, with dozens of high profile people linked to the party arrested and widespread calls for the prime minister to resign. While the investigation was ongoing, it appeared that someone with inside knowledge of the Turkish political elite's lives was leaking information: One recording, apparently from a tapped phone, shared online in February, appeared to feature Erdoğan himself ordering his son to dispose of a large amount of cash (the prime minister says the recording was faked).

Erdoğan has accused supporters of Fethullah Gülen, an enigmatic Islamic preacher now based in Pennsylvania, of orchestrating a "coup" against him. Gülen's supporters, who form a broad group referred to by outsiders as the Gülen movement, had previously been allied with Erdoğan, but now some analysts believe they are using their networks in the police and judiciary to help force the AKP from power. Gülen himself has denied any involvement and rejected claims the Gülen movement was political, but has lashed out at Turkey's prime minister, calling Erdoğan's leadership "ten times" worse than Turkey's army coup era in a recent interview.

Erdoğan's Twitter crackdown appears to be specifically targeting the alleged leaks, in particular one anonymous account named Haramzadeler, (which apparently is translated as “Sons of Thieves” but could also mean “bastard”) and another called Bascalan (“Prime Thief,” a play on the Turkish word for prime minister), according to Bloomberg. Erdoğan has also threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube, two other services which he says are being used to share recordings that damage his government, be they real or fake.

The spectacular failure of Turkey's Twitter ban shows it's a little more complicated than that, however. Astute Internet users in the country were soon able to realize that they could still tweet via text, by changing their DNS settings, or by using a VPN. Services that monitor Twitter usage in Turkey have reported no visible drop in usage, according to Hurriyet Daily News. Many of Turkey's elite, even President Abdullah Gül, have broken the ban.

That should probably worry Erdoğan. If Twitter isn't going away, it seems unlikely his broader problems are either.

Correction: The post originally said that Erdoğan was limited by constitutional term limits. It is in fact AK Party rules that limit his time in the prime minister's office.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor · March 20