Turks losing battle against government on social media

Turks losing battle against government on social media

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
Turks losing battle against government on social media Turkey’s government is winning the battle over freedom-minded citizens in terms of the war over free speech and censorship in social media, according to Aslı Tunç, a communications professor at Bilgi University.

“The government is giving the message; ‘We are watching you; be careful,’” she said. “This is a tug of war, but the battle is being lost. Citizens are unfortunately losing the battle.”

What is the scope of social media in Turkey?

Turkey has a very vibrant environment. We have 14 million-15 million Twitter users. It skyrocketed after the Gezi protests.

In terms of Facebook, almost all Internet users are on Facebook; between 35 million and 40 million users.

In the past, they were only teenagers using social media; currently, older generations, our mothers, fathers, even grandparents are joining Facebook. YouTube is big, too. So compared to the world, we are one of the biggest social media users.

Can we deduce that Internet penetration is high in Turkey?

The Internet penetration is almost half of the population at 48.5 percent which is a high percentage compared to the world.

But there is still a digital gap; there are haves and have-nots. In southeastern Anatolia, Internet penetration is lower; Internet cafes are still significant in rural areas. In the urban areas, Internet penetration is very high; you could compare it to European peers.

So, the profile is young, but spreading to older generations, while the majority are urban.

This is true for Facebook. But Twitter is mostly urban, educated and young people. They are mostly using it for journalistic purposes. Twitter is becoming more and more important because of the dysfunction of the mainstream media.

Now, then, the simple question: what’s the impact of social media?

We use it to get proper news; there are alternative critical voices. There is opposition there which we cannot see in the mainstream media. People discovered the importance and value of it in terms of journalistic patterns. We can of course talk about hate speech, which is a growing and concerning development.

So is it becoming a substitute for the mainstream media.

The mainstream media is so problematic; we need a refreshing platform to get alternative news, especially from journalists who are recently unemployed or citizen journalists who are witnessing some of the events. Of course, the issue of reliability comes to mind; is this news reliable? This is a legitimate question. Gradually, people have become much more digitally literate, which means they know whom to trust and whom to follow; there are ways to check and double check. Lies and deception and manipulations don’t work much on Twitter.

Still, what is the answer when it comes to its impact?

 I don’t want to glorify social media, although I find it very important in developing countries like Turkey. In terms of cyber activism and social movements, in order to gather people to collect forces in certain groups, it is crucial; we can’t deny the importance of social media. But of course, we cannot put all the significance in a platform which is mostly corporate. All of them are profit-oriented companies; how can we trust them totally to defend our freedom of expression? Should we do that? At the end of the day, they are there to make money, but we desperately need those platforms in our countries. I am not saying social media is replacing journalism, as the need for journalists still lingers – to ask the right questions, for instance. Social media is a complementary platform, but since we don’t have those facilities in terms of the mainstream media, we put too much faith in social media.

But to what degree are people using social media to learn? I feel like some are there to voice their views or consolidate their stances.

In a polarized country like Turkey, of course this is a concern. The advantage of social media like Twitter is that it is very interactive. You are a passive audience when you watch TV or read a newspaper. Twitter is so open for clashes of views, for debates. You cannot avoid getting exposed to other views. But no research has been done about this; this is a very new area for researchers.

It seems that this newly discovered area by citizens is now the target of the government.

Twitter became a refreshing environment for critical voices. But the political establishment does not like that. They try to regulate; but actually their aim is to limit and censor this environment for their own benefit. This is the case for every developing country, but it is very hard to regulate the Internet.

There are common regulations for developed countries; especially on issues like child pornography. In Turkey the concern is something else. The government finds it easy to regulate the mainstream media, but on the Internet; there is a kind of slippery ground.

But there are still constrains and legal limitations to control the environment. Since 2007, we have had a very problematic Internet law called 5651. It carries all those limitations in the print press to cyberspace. It is done in such a way that the lawmakers did not understand the mentality of the cyber world at all; so all our taboos, delicate issues and red lines have been carried to the Internet, like protecting [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk’s legacy and the vague description of obscenity.

But how does the mentality of cyberspace differ from traditional media?

The online world is much more dynamic; you cannot control it easily. There are too many dimensions, for example; there are content providers, domain providers; they can be in different countries.
Lawmakers do not know the complexities on how the Internet works; they just look at the content, at regulating and removing content. In print media, it is easy to do that.

On the Internet, there are a lot of ways to bypass these regulations, and young people especially know how to bypass them. Censorship does not work; you cannot just block out the Internet. But obviously, the wish of the political establishment is just to block out the content they don’t like. By saying they want to protect families and children, they want to protect content that is critical of them. No one can object to the aim of protecting children from dangerous content, especially in conservative societies. But their real agenda is to muzzle critical voices.

With the recent amendments to 5651, they have added new restrictions and new oppressive items to that already-problematic law.

It has become even more suffocating now. There are a lot of cases now involving insult to the president, for instance. This is creating a chilling effect on Twitter. Self-censorship is very common on Twitter as well.

The government is giving the message; “We are watching you; be careful.” This is a tug of war, but the battle is being lost. Citizens are unfortunately losing the battle. On the other side, there are two sides of the story, Twitter is an American-based company; and so is Facebook; how can we trust [them in that battle]?

Can you explain to our readers the issue between the government and the sector?

Twitter is claiming that they are pro-freedom of expression and they want to stay in the Turkish market, so the clash between Twitter and the government is that the latter is claiming that the former is not paying taxes and that Twitter should properly pay taxes in Turkey. Twitter does not want to open an office here. They say the atmosphere is kind of risky; they feel they cannot trust the political atmosphere. It is very hostile because of the censorship. But they are compromising in order not to be shut down completely; they are withdrawing content, blurring some of the information and the like.
At any rate; the playground is shrinking every day. As a citizen seeking democracy and diverse views, we are losing ground.

Turkey’s fantasy is to be like China; to create an intranet where censorship can be very easy and they can filter all controversial stuff.

But it seems that they are less sensitive to hate speech or messages that can be seen as pro-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), for instance.

This is a very recent debate; there is a double standard on content regulation. They are much more tolerant to ISIL and jihadist messages, as well as hate speech toward the government’s opponents, while totally intolerant to every criticism toward the government. There are huge double standards.

Who is Aslı Tunç?


Aslı Tunç is a professor at the Media and Communication Systems Department at Istanbul Bilgi University. She has a BA in communication sciences from Istanbul University and an MA in film and television studies from Anadolu University.

 She received her Ph.D. in media and communications at Temple University in Philadelphia in 2000. She has given lectures and seminars at universities in the U.S., the U.K. and Greece on the freedom of expression and the media’s changing role in Turkey and around the world. She has written numerous publications and country reports on the issues of democracy and media, the social impacts of new media technologies and the media ownership structure in Turkey. She has worked for the Freedom House as a contributor to the report "The Struggle for Turkey's Internet", and as a delegate in the global delegation to the "Internet Governance Forum" in September. 

Most recently, she is the co-author of a book in Turkish (Blogdan Al Haberi, Haber Blogları, Demokrasi ve Gazeteciliğin Geleceği Üzerine) on the impact of political news blogs on the future of journalism. She is a regular contributor to the P24: Platform for Independent Journalism website (platform24.org)