Effect of Social Media on Turkish Politics

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Social media and their participatory role in Turkish politics

Abstract

Social movements have been definitely affected by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the digital age. Today, they are mostly organized through social media where individuals can communicate easily with each other. In Turkey under an authoritarian regime where mass media have been increasingly controlled, regulated, and censored by the government, social media has been widely used, especially by educated urban youth, to oppose the government by organizing protests. Social media plays a crucial role in Turkish politics, as not only opponents of the government use them, but also government officials and supporters are very much active on social media. Young generations used social media to organize the Gezi park protests in 2013 which have had a great impact on Turkish politics. There have also been whistle-blowers on social media who have been followed by millions of people, including Russian government officials. Turkish government’s efforts to increasingly regulate social media have not succeeded since Turkish society has become more and more tech-savvy in order to have access to social media.

1. Introduction

In Turkey under an authoritarian regime where mass media has been increasingly controlled, regulated, and censored by the government, e.g. censored media coverage during Roboski massacre in 2011, the Gezi Park protests and corruption scandal in 2013, Ankara and Suruç bombings in 2015 etc., social media, as diverse as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and EkşiSözlük (Sour Dictionary), have been widely used, especially by educated urban youth (92% of students in the Gezi Park Protests (Konda Araştırma ve Danışmanlık, 2014)) to create groups where they can share their political opinions, to organize protests such as İnternetime Dokunma! (Don’t Touch my Internet!) and the Gezi Park protests, to denounce corruption by sharing the wiretaps of the president Erdoğan and his family, and to struggle against the islamo-conservative politics of the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) government that has been ruling the country since 2002.

Besides, a participatory role has been increasingly attributed to social media since not only opponents of the government, opposition politicians, journalists, and anonymous accounts that share accurate information about Erdogan’s political and daily life use it to express their voice, but also pro-government supporters, the ruling party officers and deputies, and even AK trolls who are paid by the government to constantly circulate pro-government opinions on social media are getting more and more active in the digital world.

Nevertheless, the government has been enlarging its control over social media, and new laws are made or existing laws are amended concerning the Internet freedom that cause arbitrary blockings of YouTube and Twitter and by prosecuting many people due to criticizing Erdogan on social media.

Therefore, this paper, after elucidating briefly the relationship between information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social movements, aims to explain the Turkish political experience with social media. Firstly, it reveals social media usage in Turkey. Secondly, the attitude of young generations towards social media is being described. Later, it shows the effect of social media on the organization of Gezi Park protests. It further informs about anonymous social media users and their role in Turkish politics. Finally it demonstrates increasing state regulation on the Internet and social media.

2. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social movements

In contemporary societies due to the increasing usage of the Internet, and especially of ICTs, circumstances of political participation and engagement have been changing. As Gladwell (2010) claims, nowadays activists and protesters are ‘defined by their tools’.

Even though the basic rules and norms of political activity still prevail, ICTs have been changing the organizational patterns of local and global politics (Palfrey & Gasser, 2013). The phenomenon of networked citizen results in the constant interaction between public and private spheres of political identities in various political milieus(Loader & Mercea, 2011). Therefore, ICTs play a key role in the processes of social and political changes in various countries by allowing individuals to co-produce and co-distribute information before, during, and after political engagement (Bennett, 2012; Shirky, 2011).

However, it should be noted that social media occupy the role of ‘facilitators of protest rather than causes’ (Wolfsfeld et al., 2013:120). They are intrinsically related to both the organizational and cultural structures of social movements and the conditions by which these movements are structured (Tufekci, 2014a & Tufekci, 2014d). Besides, these movements are fundamentally critical of modern institutions that are sunk into the accusations of corruption and repression, and they do not have leaders to coordinate and organize mobilization processes (Tufekci, 2014d; Tufekci, 2014a).

As a consequence of technological developments and decreasing economic costs of accessing the Internet, social media furnish people a chance to actively participate in the production and the circulation of political news and opinions that were previously under the hegemony of political parties and mass media organizations (Loader & Mercea, 2011; Bryer, 2011). The mutual connection between individuals, for instance at the moment of political crises when regimes try to stop online information flow, assists them to employ necessary measures to sustain their connectivity (Howard & Agarwal et al., 2011). For example, as it was the case in the Asiana Airlines incident, information created by the users of digital media can be the only source for the broadcasting of certain events to larger public (Kim et al., 2015).

By decentralizing the process of news production and limiting the control of so called gate-keepers, they allow the wider public to interact and converse among each other while also creating another scale of the importance of information since accessing these created social milieus becomes more significant than accessing information (Meier, 2012). The access of people to information created and broadcasted in the digital space by following certain e-mail lists and social media profiles and pages therefore is not the same for each user as the visibility and accessibility of information in these milieus are restricted to some people who are distinguished by the others with their advantages of being a sort of member of these groups (Kavada, 2015).

On the other hand, social media do not prevent the accumulation of information by a few entities, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc., which are the main actors in this new phenomenon (Loader & Mercea, 2011). In addition, activists, politicians and journalists that were already engaged in political debates and causes are the ones who use social media most actively, and users of social media do not completely give up following media coverage produced by big media enterprises (Loader & Mercea, 2011).

The Internet, according to Kaplan & Haenlein (2010:60), is ‘a platform to facilitate information exchange between users’. Apart from being platforms of strengthening existing social networks and aiding individuals to join other networks or create new groups, social media, moreover, are platforms where new kind of decentralized and non-hierarchical groupings are formed (Kelly Garrett, 2006).

Besides, by facilitating communication and coordination of actors engaged in political activity they provide flexibility for the organization of social movements (Bennett &Segerberg, 2011). For instance, as Howard & Hussain (2011) and Howard & Agarwal et al. (2011) argue, although opposition and dissent against authoritarian regimes had existed for many years in Arab countries, the adoption of social media during the Arab spring and consequently the individualization of information flow were the main reasons for the success of respective movements since people used them to build political and social networks and to organize demonstrations simultaneously in various places.

On the other hand, according to Howard & Hussain (2011:47), although the Internet in these countries was only available to ten to twenty percent of their population, which were ‘an elite made up of educated professionals, young entrepreneurs, urban dwellers, and government workers’ and as a result an influential part of these societies, the strongest and toughest movements took place in the countries where people were relatively more networked, and their technical knowledge about social media was relatively higher. Moreover, social media can be the only available means to public when confronting political regimes in authoritarian countries (Howard & Hussain, 2011). For instance, they played a crucial role in Iran where traditional opposition methods are completely suppressed by the government(Eaves, 2009). As a result, the Internet has acquired a controversial role against political elites that rule with the methods and ideas of non-digital era (Howard & Agarwal et al., 2011).

At the end, although the size of an individual’s social network affects his or her possibilities to follow diverse events and issues (Boulianne, 2015), it should be argued that social media allow individuals to personalize information in the digital space and distribute it with others while restructuring the role of NGOs as facilitators rather than as direct actors (Bennett &Segerberg, 2011; Shirky, 2011).

3. The relationship between social media and politics in Turkey

3.1. Social media usage in Turkey

Turkey, according to Howard (2010) has a significantly online society that uses social media to follow news and interact with each other. Howard (2010:96) further claims that ‘Turkey’s political parties are very active online, information technologies are prevalent, the country has a democratic history’. Saka (2014:418) asserts that ‘Turkey is one of the top 20 countries for Internet penetration (ranking 11th)’, ‘94 percent of Turkey’s online population uses Facebook’, and ‘Turkey has the highest penetration rate in Twitter usage globally as well as being second in the world for check-ins on Foursquare’. According to PEW Research Center (2014), in Turkey, 82% of Internet users access the internet daily, 79% of Internet users use social networking sites, and 42% of social networking users share their political opinions on social networking sites. Besides, as Tufekci (2014b) and Varnali&Gorgulu (2015) highlight, Twitter with around eleven million users in Turkey, plays the role of an agora for people to access political information.

In Turkey, the Internet and social media not only have been increasingly used by large public, but also mainstream media corporations attempt to be more active online to reconstruct their relationship with people, who distrust them due to their economic affiliations with the Turkish government and its supporters (Open Society Foundations, 2012). The opposition has been using social media for a long time and refers them ‘as a tool to oppose censorship’ (Tufekci, 2014b) while enforcing their networks through WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook to be politically informed against huge media censorship in recent years and to call for demonstrations (Tufekci, 2014c). For example, social media serve minorities, ‘such as environmentalist and leftist political groups’, to organize demonstrations and denounce discriminations exercised by the government (Open Society Foundations, 2012:40). Therefore, in Turkey social media can be considered as a tool to reach news and information that big media corporations do not broadcast and as a tool increasingly crucial for some people’s lives (Tufekci, 2014c).

Even though politicians, generally, do not interact with their followers on social media (Open Society Foundations, 2012), recent online experiences of the opposition politicians, such as the usage of Eksi Sozluk by the leader of the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party), and the usage of Periscope and Facebook by the leader of the pro-Kurdish party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) to answer the questions of people before the elections in 2015 (Es&Hoyng, 2015) can reveal that social media have been progressively used in an interactive manner by the opposition politicians to reach their audiences due to increasing censorship in mass media.

Twitter is widely used by government supporters and most of the deputies and officials of the ruling party too (Tufekci, 2014c). There are various examples concerning the interactive usage of social media by the ruling party deputies, such as the creation of a poll by the Minister of Finance on Twitter for asking people’s opinions about a possible taxation of meteorite fragments found in a village by villagers (Today’s Zaman, 2015).

3.2. Young generations and social media in Turkey

According to PEW Research Center (2014), in Turkey, 60% of 18-29 years old use social networking sites. Social media in their political lives play a key role since they do not trust and follow media coverage from big media corporations (Celik, 2013). As a result, urban youth from middle class origins, who have been born into the digital world and criticized ‘as an apolitical digital generation’, not only use social media to express their dissent against the AK Party government, but they also use them to organize demonstrations and to break long existing social boundaries between diverse identities (Celik, 2013).

3.3. The role of social media in the Gezi Park protests

Although only 13% of the population in Turkey have higher education level, 60% of Gezi Park protesters had either an undergraduate or a graduate degree (Konda Arastirma ve Danismanlik, 2014). Besides, students constituted a relatively big part (37%) of protesters in contrast to their lower representation (7%) in the country’s demographic situation (Konda Arastirma ve Danismanlik, 2014). Only 8% of protesters did not have a social media account (Konda Arastirma ve Danismanlik, 2014). Thus as opposed to the majority of society (71%) that initially heard about the Gezi Park protests via television, 69% of protesters heard about it for the first time on social media (Konda Arastirma ve Danismanlik, 2014).Finally, people that used social media for accessing information about protests were critical towards the police violence and Erdogan in contrast to the supportive attitude towards Erdogan and police forces of people who followed the news about protests on television (Konda Arastirma ve Danismanlik, 2014).

Therefore, as Erdogan called Twitter as a scourge (Gursel, 2013), ‘social media played an important role in providing information regarding developments during the protests and for those wishing to express their support’ (Amnesty International, 2013:50). According to Tastan (2013), social media fuelled the participation of people in the Gezi Park protests. Vissers & Stolle (2014) argue that Facebook amplified the mobilization of people during the Gezi Park protests.

Saka (2014:420) claims that protesters were already active on social media before the beginning of protests. Therefore, Twitter played a key role in the proliferation of the Gezi Park Protests since the first occupants of the Park adopted it as their tool to distribute the cutting of trees (Tufekci, 2013). Varnali & Gorgulu (2015) underscore that there was a significant increase in the number of daily tweets sent within Turkey from nine million to fifteen million during the first day of protests. The contrast between the censorship of big media corporations and content circulation on social media irritated people, and hence they went out on streets to see what had been happening and participated in demonstrations (Tufekci, 2013).

Twitter, during the Gezi Park protests, was considered as an online platform where people could express their opinions freely and share occurring political events (Varnali & Gorgulu, 2015). Protesters by using social media could coordinate spontaneously and broadcast police brutality while affirming their presence in protest fields (Tufekci, 2014a). Protesters constantly shared their activities in the Gezi Park or in other parts of the country via Facebook and Twitter (Gole, 2013). For instance, the individual protest of Erdem Gunduz by standing silently towards Gezi Park got spread through Twitter, and the hashtag #duranadam (#standingman) became a worldwide trend topic (Gursel, 2013). However, not only protesters, but also AK Party supporters widely used Twitter to express their disapproval for protests and to support Erdogan by creating hashtags, as diverse as ‘#TurkeyStands-BehindThePrimeMinister, #StopLyingCNN, #ReligiousYouthFollowingEachOther’ (Varnali&Gorgulu, 2015:4).

3.4. The role of @fuatavni_f and others in Turkish politics

@fuatavni_f, anonymous whistle-blower who shares accurate information about the juridical system, police force, and foreign policy of current Turkish government, has around two million seven hundred nine thousand followers on Twitter as of April 18, 2016. His previous account before the court order that blocked its access within Turkey, according to Akarcesme (2014), ‘had reached over 1 million followers’. Besides, since he has been revealing diverse information about the daily life of the president Erdogan (Gurbuz, 2014), he was identified by Erdogan as one of the members of his team (Akarcesme, 2014).

Not only people in Turkey follow his Twitter account to learn what was not said by the government and mainstream media about corruption scandals (Larson, 2014) or the affiliations of the government with rebel groups, or even with internationally recognized terrorist groups by supplying them heavy weapons and arms, but also a Russian government officer during a press conference repeated the assertions of Fuatavni that had taken place a month before the shooting of the Russian fighter by Turkish military and had accused Erdogan for planning shooting of a Russian fighter to prevent a loss on his power and influence in the Syrian game (Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, 2015). Apart from @fuatavni_f the Turkish government also suffered from many wiretaps, which revealed corruptive relationships occurred between Erdogan, his family, four ministers, and pro-government businessmen shared by two anonymous Twitter accounts @Haramzadeler333 and @Bascalan (Today’s Zaman, 2014).

3.5. State regulation on the Internet and social media in Turkey

In Turkey ‘censorship is now made easier’ (Ermert, 2014).Following the Gezi Park protests and corruption scandals the Internet started to be increasingly regulated (Akgul & Kirlidog, 2015). As a consequence, a new amendment, which was considered as against freedom of speech and privacy on the Internet, was passed in the parliament and approved by the ex-president Gul (Akgul & Kirlidog, 2015).

By repeating that Twitter and YouTube must establish official offices in order to sustain their activities in Turkey the Turkish government has been blocking access to Twitter and YouTube many times in recent years (Akgul & Kirlidog, 2015). Moreover, Turkey was the leader country that asked Twitter the most removal requests between July and December 2014 (Akgul & Kirlidog, 2015; Lubbock, 2015). For instance, @Haramzadeler333 and @Bascalan were blocked following the dissemination of corruption wiretaps (Akgul & Kirlidog, 2015), and in March 2014 ‘a court order blocked Twitter for several days’ (BBC Trending, 2014). However, these bans did not cause Twitter users to decrease their online activity, but oppositely increased it (Akgul & Kirlidog, 2015; Farrell, 2014; Saka, 2014; Freedom Research Association, 2015), more precisely the volume of tweets doubled following the ban of Twitter (Es & Hoyng, 2015).

According to Es & Hoyng (2015), the AK Party government has been attempting to sustain their power on social media by creating an army of AK trolls that spontaneously share pro-government information from fake accounts controlled by a few people paid by the government. Besides, around 70 people, so far, have been‘prosecuted for insulting the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an offence punishable by up to four years in prison’ due to their posts on social media (Lubbock, 2015). Nevertheless, all these efforts to ban social media have been resulted in creating a quite well-informed population on technological devices and especially on ICTs (Lubbock, 2015; Yalkin et al., 2014).

4. Conclusion

As a conclusion, it should be stated that social media have been adopted by many people in various countries to express their political opinion and to participate in political activities and debates. These people attribute social media a very significant role in their political and social lives as in their opinions political institutions have already lost their credibility.

In Turkey social media are considered by wide public as the only tool to freely express their political opinion. Young generations especially in urban milieus use them to coordinate and interact with each other in the moments of public dissent and anger towards the government. By circulating information about demonstrations and police brutality on social media Gezi Park protesters could express their anger and inter-communicate during street clashes with the police. Furthermore, well-known anonymous Twitter accounts, e.g. @fuatavni_f is followed by every one out of five Twitter users in Turkey, occupy a crucial role in their struggle against the Turkish government and corruption. Finally, although the government hardens access to social media platforms and the Internet in general, these measures result in improving the technological skills of social media users since every time a web-site or application is blocked more and more people get to know new tools such as VPN providers to reach them.

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