“I was wrong about this Internet thing.”
I heard this sentiment again and again during my interviews at Gezi Park, Istanbul, during the height of the protests in June 2013. The protests were sparked by top-down plans to raze a small park in the city’s historic Taksim square in the Beyoğlu district, an area known for its concentration of artists, nightlife, and theaters, and to replace it with a shopping mall and a hotel fashioned as a replica of the Ottoman Barracks that had once stood where the park was.
This growing realization of the Internet’s power came from middle-aged people who had previously chided youth for their attachment to screens, phones, and social media. Yet when Turkey’s heavily self-censored corporate media—owned by large conglomerates that vie for lucrative construction, energy, and urban renewal contracts from the government and that use their mass media outlets as a means to curry favor with the powerful ruling party, the AKP—broadcast penguin documentaries and cooking shows while ignoring the multi-day clashes between protesters and the police at the center of the most populous city in the country, it was social media that got the news out to the bewildered, angry residents of Istanbul.
At least 50 percent of the population of Turkey is online, most through broadband connectivity. Mobile devices are ubiquitous as well—the number of cell phone subscriptions cover about 90 percent of the population. Twitter has become the medium of choice for the protesters, who favor it for its lightweight applications on mobile devices, short texts, and ability to get news with pictures out quickly to large numbers of people. With estimates as high as 39 percent of Turkey’s Internet users adopting the platform, and daily “trending topics” wars between supporters of AKP and Gezi protesters, it was not a huge surprise when the Prime Minister Erdogan singled out the platform and called it a “menace to society. The biggest lies are all there.”1
Many protesters were convinced that without Twitter’s ability to spread news quickly and widely, they could not have organized such large-scale action. Many had wrestled with the problem of false reports on Twitter, targeted by Erdogan as an indication of platform’s untrustworthiness, and had undergone a crash course on social media literacy. “I have learned which accounts to trust and how to verify information,” many told me. Others went a step further: “If I hear of clashes, I personally try to get there and take a picture to provide proof,” a protester told me, while showing a wound in his leg from being hit with a tear gas canister while on a mission to verify and report.
Despite AKP officials’ blatant dislike of social media as source of dissent, the Internet was not unplugged either in the Gezi Park or in the country, nor were any of the platforms shut down. Instead, the AKP seems to have decided on a strategy of engaging in a public relations blitz on social media by hiring “6,000 social media experts” itself,2 increasing its efforts to force social media companies to open offices in Turkey so that the government can acquire user IP’s in response to court rulings (currently Facebook and Google have offices in Turkey, but Twitter does not), and relying on its total dominance of mass media. In fact, polls showed that majority of AKP supporters believed that the protests were “organized by foreign sources,” a claim repeated multiple times by the prime minister and other AKP officials on mass media. AKP officials have also announced that they will pass new laws to “regulate misinformation” on social media—sending a clear signal that Turkey’s Internet users will come under close scrutiny.
However, Turkey’s electoral system, designed by generals in the 1980 coup, makes it very hard for new parties to break into the parliamentary system. This barrier, coupled with the incompetence of legacy opposition parties—which cannot be replaced, thanks to the said electoral system—and the AKP’s own powerful electoral machinery, makes it unlikely that a social media-organized opposition will mount an effective electoral challenge in the 2014 elections.
Without the Internet, the opposition to the AKP’s popular but strong-handed rule may never have made it into the streets in such a spectacular fashion. It remains to be seen if they can find their way into the voting booth in the face of corrupt mass media, a skewed electoral system, and a smart, powerful, and dominant ruling party that is ready to both beat them and join them online.