Twitter down, what next?

Twitter down, what next?

On Thursday night (March 20), I was driving home at a time that Istanbul’s sluggish traffic was at its worst. A friend called me and asked, “Have you heard what Erdoğan just said? He claimed he would eradicate Twitter.” I was surely surprised, but not terribly worried. “It is horrible that he said something like this,” I replied to my friend. “But he probably cannot really do that. Turkey is not Iran or China.”

Well, it turned out that I was too naïve. I went to bed that night, woke up early in the morning, and saw that, lo and behold, Twitter was gone!

This, of course, is unacceptable and shows how far the government has moved away from the days it was doing reform after reform to bring more freedom to Turkey. Quite the contrary, Turkey is moving away from freedom these days, and the ban on Twitter shows how dramatic this decline has become.

One can wonder how this ban exactly came to be. Notably, it is based on not a court order, but a political decision by the Communication Technologies Institution (CTI), which is a branch of the government. (Erdogan, with a recent law, had increased the powers of the CTI.) In its statement, the CTI referred to several court orders to block certain Twitter accounts, but these were all individual cases in which one certain Twitter account was found guilty of “offense” or “violation of privacy.” There was simply no legal basis to shut down the whole of Twitter.

Besides technicalities, here is the real reason why Erdoğan decided to “eradicate” Twitter: It has become a political threat to his rule. This became apparent during the Gezi Park protests of last summer, during which demonstrators organized themselves and carried out their propaganda on Twitter. Erdoğan, then, had defined social media as “a menace to society,” but did not take any measure to ban it.

The real menace emerged this year, in the past two months, when dozens of wiretapped phone conversations between key figures of the governing elites, including Erdoğan himself, appeared on the Internet. All conversations implied a scandalous truth about the government --- such as manipulation of the media, interference in the judicial process, or mere corruption. Hence Erdoğan defined this effort as a “coup attempt” by the “parallel state” that has allegedly been created within the police force and the judiciary by the religious followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

All those wiretapped conversations have been uploaded to YouTube, but they went viral mainly thanks to Twitter, which is used by more than 12 million Turks and which really has become a universe of its own. By shutting down Twitter, Erdoğan, thus, wants to block this instrument of the “coup.”

The government’s argument is there are “violations of privacy” on social media, and that is why they need to block it. If the audios in question were really about private life, such as sex, then I would understand that argument. (In the past, Turkey has seen sex tapes of politicians, which really deserved condemnation and censorship.) But in the past two months, what we have learned thanks to social media are political facts about the government that the public really deserves to learn.

What is worrying is what might come next. Every government has a right to defend itself, but they range from liberal democracies to dictatorships based on what sort of things they dare to do for that end. We will see how far Erdoğan will go.