The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do governments keep banning social media when it never works out for them?

A Twitter error message pops up in front of Turkish national flag. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic)
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You'd think world leaders would know better. Shut down the Internet (or some services that it hosts), and the users will come after you.

But, faced with allegations of corruption, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went ahead Thursday night and banned Twitter anyway. Now Turks are pushing back. Twitter is facilitating the uproar by offering advice on how to evade the ban with text messaging. Other users have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the blockage.

In short, Turkey's Twitter ban is as porous as the paywall on this Web site. Erdogan's attempt to stifle social media isn't working, and may even be inflaming the opposition.

This is hardly the first time a government has responded to a crisis by cracking down on the Internet. Tunisia's Zine El Abedine Ben Ali tried it and later got overthrown. Same goes for former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, the violence has only worsened since President Bashar al-Assad's attempt to smother the Web.

How do these leaders keep making the same mistakes? Don't they learn?

It shouldn't surprise us that these leaders have more in common than just an affinity for dropping the hammer on the Web. Many are also isolated, says Steven Cook, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who met with Erdogan last April.

Erdogan "is surrounded by young people who are quite afraid of the prime minister and not willing to fill him in on what's going on," said Cook. "These are yes-men — the people he takes counsel from are a very small group of people."

If the Internet creates filter bubbles that keep us from having to grapple with dissonant views, the filter that afflicts censor-happy regimes like Turkey's is arguably even worse. Even if it provokes protests in the short term and hardens opposition against him in the long term, Erdogan might be making a calculated political play for the medium term, said Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who follows Turkey closely.

"It's not effective for most things, and it backfires in terms of public relations," she told me. "But the government may be able to use it to harden polarization and to solidify its base, allow it to squeak by in elections."

In a post on Medium, Tufekci added that most of Erdogan's base is not on Twitter.

There's also a historical perspective to Erdogan's apparent megalomania, according to Cook.

"As a Turkish Islamist, he has reason to be paranoid," he said. "There is a long history of the old elite of the secular state repressing pious Muslims. He sees it as similar to that — even though he accuses a Muslim cleric" of stirring up trouble.

If Erdogan is convinced that he's the victim, and sees enemies everywhere, shutting down their ability to associate might seem like a perfectly rational move — at least in the moment. It's an age-old move out of the dictators' playbook: Control the flow of information, and you control the people.

Unfortunately for Erdogan and others like him, it's easier than ever not only to get around the controls, but also to tell the rest of the world about them. Why rulers aren't more aware of this fact is still a mystery, though.

"When I become a strongman, I'll let you know," Cook joked.