Starting Feb. 24, YouTube and Twitter accounts under the name of Bascalan (head of thieves), a humorous wordplay on the Turkish title of prime minister (Basbakan), posted the recordings of a hushed but commandeering father instructing his son to hide and “zero-out” millions of dollars in cash stashed at home. The voices are claimed to be of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son, Bilal. On March 20, the bitter confrontation between Erdogan and his critics over the embarrassing – and ongoing – revelations came to head with a quickly enacted ban on Twitter inside Turkey. This comes ahead of the Turkish local elections for appointing municipal leaders, which are scheduled March 30.
In my previous work on the consequences of media disruption in Egypt in 2011, I have argued that a complete disruption of mobile and Internet communication exacerbates urban unrest through network processes of decentralization and detachment.
In the Egyptian case, the country was experiencing ongoing street protests. Personal media, accessible on mobile devices, acted as tools for mobilization and contagion. In the Turkish case, on the other hand, social media, Twitter and YouTube, are alternative megaphones that challenge the state sanctioned narrative. Therefore the technical nature of disruption is different from the Egyptian case, nevertheless the recent Twitter ban in Turkey is also likely to amplify the controversy over the recordings and attract more attention toward the online platforms that it is targeting.
Erdogan is well aware of the importance of social media in Turkish politics and owns a Twitter account with millions of followers. Decoupling the campaign of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from the alternative spaces of public opinion will cost it political capital in the upcoming elections. Perhaps the same premonitions motivated Turkish President Abdullah Gul to promptly react to the Twitter ban, hoping for its removal on Twitter itself.
The recordings linked to Erdogan are part of an ongoing scandal involving graft among other issues. The sons of three ministers in Erdogan’s government were linked to the investigations and their dwellings were raided in December 2013. However, the Turkish government changed the prosecutors in charge of the case in late December as the confrontation between Erdogan and his detractors in the Turkish deep state entered a new phase.
Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s enigmatic and informal adversary, has intensified attacks on the accused in the graft case. Immediately after the start of the corruption investigations in December, in a clear retaliation, Erdogan’s government started a far-reaching operation to transform state laws and to reinstall officials.
On Feb. 6, the AKP majority in the Turkish Parliament passed a bill handing the government unprecedented latitude over online venues in order to “protect privacy” (which was ratified by the Gul, on February 19). The bill gave the Turkish telecommunication authorities the power to restrict access to certain online material in the matter of hours. De facto, this was the legislation that was invoked on March 20 in order to ban Twitter on executive orders.
The Turkish telecommunication authority (TIB) collects recordings of personal calls per demands of the Turkish government on a massive scale, and in doing so retains not only the calls of the opponents, but also the figures inside the government. Once the infighting inside the apparatus of Turkish power escalated, recordings of conversations linked to Erdogan and his son started to surface. Between the ratification of the new censorship laws on Feb. 6 and the revelations on Bascalan’s personal channel on Feb. 24, a tool of the state control was turned against the head of the government. The media outlets close to Gulen, including the Zaman media group, were quick to deny having a role in the revelations.
In Turkey, usage of social media found political relevance during the Taksim Square protests last year. In June 2013, in a post on the Monkey Cage, Sandra González-Bailón and Pablo Barberá noted that the majority of tweeters in and around Taksim Square were not so called “influentials,” instead the most active users in Taksim were those who were senders, not receivers of messages – those who tended to follow more than being followed.
During the early stages of the Gezi protests Twitter was more of a tool for mobilization on the fly. In contrast, social media can also be used as “megaphones” to raise awareness on a specific event, or to promote a certain point of view. It is the same “megaphone effect” that Sean Aday et al detect in their study of link sharing during the Arab Spring protests. Sharing links to articles and alike during protests is unlikely to help micro mechanisms of mobilization in the short run.
In the course of an ongoing urban conflict, protesters do not share links online to coordinate ephemeral congregations at a certain locale or to warn against presence in some others. Instead their messages are likely to be nondescript pointers to spatiotemporal elements of the ongoing conflict.
In the course of urban unrest, events are driven by micro-messages, and the Turkish authorities were quick to learn that the most effective means of countering such decentralized processes was to stage some of their own. The AKP was reported to have recruited a social media team to mirror the protesters. However, the Turkish authorities never disrupted mobile and Internet communications all together in the course of clashes. The unanticipated consequences of a full disruption of connectivity during the Egyptian uprising of 2011 had taught them one lesson: If the processes are uncertain, the best way of insuring against them is to take part in them.
Among other things, the Gezi protests introduced alternative media to the Turkish society: The influence of online social media grew as the Turkish audience quit the state-sanctioned coverage of mass media for alternative outlets. In the course of urban unrest, Erdogan’s government decided not to summarily ban Twitter, YouTube and other venues of personal publication. During the recent revelations however, the executive branch has decided to impose a ban, particularly because now the Turkish alternative media is functioning as “megaphones” against the AKP leaders, not as tools of mobilization on the ground.
In other places I have argued that a full disruption of the medium would decentralize rebellion, implicate uninterested bystanders, and sever the link of predictability between the state and constituents. In the ongoing case of Turkish revelations the spatiotemporal consequences of disruption during rebellion are absent, but the rest will afflict the AKP similar to the Egyptian case. There are two major processes at work here: first, attracting more attention to the scandal and its growing domain, and second, banning Erdogan and the AKP from the political bonds and informational surveying tools they had honed in the Turkish social media.
Disrupting megaphones during an awareness campaign generates more attention to the absent source. Thursday night’s blockage of Twitter’s DNS (Domain Name System) records in Turkey was an easily surmountable obstacle. Later on changing DNS servers became ineffective. Now it is necessary to apply VPNs and related proxy services in order to bypass the censors. On the political level, it is likely that the new obstructions are signs of further escalations against the anonymous opponents of Erdogan online before the local elections at the end of March and presidential elections in August.
The second process operates on the network level. The AKP is involved in an ongoing skirmish over new public spheres that have emerged during recent contentious activities, including the Gezi protests. Banning social media is as much banning others as it is banning oneself. Regardless of Erdogan’s ultimate goals, the ban will cost him dearly, as the Twitter account under his name boasts more than four million followers and three thousands tweets. It will undermine the very same connections that his political base had striven to produce during the Turkish democratic exercise that has become synonymous with the AKP and its increasingly authoritarian adventures.
Navid Hassanpour is a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Yale University, a resident fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, and a research associate at Yale Institute for Network Science. Follow him on Twitter: @navidhassanpour. Hassanpour would like to thank Sukru Ekin Kocabas for his helpful comments on this piece.