On March 20th, merely hours after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan vowed to ‘eradicate Twitter’, Turkish authorities blocked access to the social networking site. Authorities defended the ban arguing Twitter has failed to abide by several court rulings ordering it to remove offensive content.
Coming just ten days before Turkey faced local elections on March 30, the ban has been labelled as an effort by the ruling Justice and Development Party (the “AKP”) to silence dissent. Twitter is not the only social media site to draw Erdogan’s ire as he has previously vowed to ban Facebook and YouTube, and announced last June “This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society”.
The AKP has come increasingly under fire in recent months following the emergence of a corruption scandal in December. Another scandal erupted in February when an unverified audio recording leaked online purporting to contain a conversation of Erdogan instructing his son to hide large amounts of money on December 17, the day that prominent Turkish politicians and businessmen were arrested on corruption allegations. These scandals resulted in a tough re-election campaign for the AKP and delivered a blow to Erdogan’s image even though he still won the election by a decent margin.
Efforts to suppress social media in Twitter have been construed as the AKP’s attempt to limit the damage caused by recent scandals. Erdogan has often been portrayed by critics as intolerant towards freedom of expression and political opposition. Despite widely being accepted as a democracy, Turkey ranks a lowly 154th in the world in the 2014 Press Freedoms Index. The AKP’s critics have thus relied on social media as a medium for expressing dissent and opposition against the Erdogan government.
Nonetheless, some analysts believe the scandals will not prove too damaging for the AKP. One such analyst, Professor Emre Gonen of Istanbul’s Bilgi University notes that Turkey has experienced economic, social and political stability under the AKP, and estimates it still enjoys about 40% public support. However Erdogan’s actions highlight feelings of growing insecurity. After all, why should a leader, who has won three consecutive elections and has engineered a real GDP rise of over 45% since assuming power take such drastic measures against freedom of expression?
One should also not discount the role social media has played in the popular protests in Turkey. Twitter played a major role in last year’s Taksim Square protests against the Erdogan government. Twitter was not only useful in mobilizing protesters but it also helped to draw international attention to the protests. Ever since Taksim Square, the Erdogan government has identified social media as a serious threat to Erdogan’s legitimacy as a leader and have cracked down on social media use in Turkey with a number of moves that eventually culminated in the complete ban of popular social media websites YouTube and Twitter.
The March 30 elections have been categorized by some observers as a vote of confidence for Erdogan. Based on this view, it would mean that the elections showed that the Turkish public continues to support the party despite recent turmoil. However, when one considers the international attention that the ban has attracted, it is safe to say that the international legitimacy of the Erdogan government still remains under threat. In trying to stabilize his party and consolidate his rule by stifling social media use, Erdogan risks doing the opposite. In fact, the ban seems to have led to a surge in Twitter use in Turkey. Said to have the fourth most active Twitter community in the world, Turkey’s Twitter users posted over 500,000 tweets in the 10 hours immediately following the ban. Users have also found creative ways to circumvent the ban. Thus, the ban may not only lead to an increased profile for both Twitter and social media in Turkey, but may also further undermine Erdogan and the AKP as they seek to recover from recent scandals.