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Twitter in Turkey

Cenk Baslamis, Istanbul / adJune 5, 2013

With continuing protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in Turkey, there has been sharp criticism that traditional media have largely been silent. But what role have social media been playing?

©Nikola Mihov/Wostok Press/Maxppp Turquie, Istanbul
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In Turkey, where the redevelopment of Gezi Park in Istanbul's main Taksim Square has turned into huge protests against the government, the young activists who once were criticized for being "apolitical" are using a world-famous weapon against the security forces: Twitter.

The government's decision to build barracks and a shopping center in Gezi Park and the police's tough action against the mostly peaceful demonstrators seem not to be serious enough to warrant coverage by the Turkish media. 

But as social networks Twitter and Facebook are overwhelmed by videos and photos of clashes between the activists and security forces' excessive use of tear gas, until recently the news channels broadcast either talk shows or documentaries about penguins.

©Nikola Mihov/Wostok Press/Maxppp Turquie, Istanbul 02/06/2013 Photo: pixel
Thousands have gathered to protest against ErdoganImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In comes Twitter

In comes Twitter. The famous social media site is widely used by the demonstrators to communicate and warn each other about the deployment of police and their extensive use of pepper gas. Despite a group of forces being called "rapid force," the security forces in Istanbul cannot be as rapid as the Twitter users warning fellow demonstrators against possible attacks.

The 140 characters Twitter allows are enough for the defenders of Gezi Park to organize demonstrations and to ask for help to acquire much needed supplies in the park, such as medicine and food.

A "nuisance"

Since some users have up to 50,000 followers, the word spreads quickly.  So, maybe it was no coincidence that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his Monday press conference called Twitter "the main troublemaker" and " the nuisance for the society." But just 10 days ago Erdogan, visiting Silicon Valley in the US, said, ‘'Knowledge is the universal material for mankind that will benefit for all of us.''

Activists perform yoga at the Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey 04 June 2013. Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU
Activists of all sorts met in Gezi Park in IstanbulImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Tuesday night in Izmir, Turkey's third largest city, 24 Twitter users were taken into custody on the grounds that "they incited hatred among the population'' which led to panic among some people.

On the other hand, Twitter has absolutely no control of what is posted, and can also be a source of disinformation for both sides, paving the way for possible provocations.

Disinformation spreads fast

A picture of a young man's severely injured body which had been the source of a mass public outcry among Twitter users turned to be of foreign origin. That "thousands" of police officers resigned was another example of "disinformation," as well as the head of the police force being dismissed.

A video released with the help of Twitter allegedly showing the death of a demonstrator also turned out to be fake. It was later learnt that the picture of a policeman spraying pepper gas on a dog was indeed of Italian origin.

Despite some users' complaints of slow connection or no access at certain times, GSM providers deny any restrictions to the Internet, but admit to some trouble in communications around Taksim Square.

Facebook is also widely used but Twitter is the main source for tens of thousands of demonstrators. On Wednesday M. Serdar Kuzuloglu, a columnist for daily Radikal, called Twitter, "the nerve center of a resistance movement that does not have a command center."

©Romain Beurrier/Wostok Press/Maxppp Turquie, pixel
Clashes erupted around Besiktas Stadium, close to Taksim SquareImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As for the Turkish media, its silence over events in Taksim has angered many people. The public anger was so great that on Monday a group of Gezi Park defenders gathered in front of Turkey's first and main news channel NTV to protest. And in Taksim Square the channel's broadcasting vehicle was attacked by the protesters.

The channel had to apologize for its coverage - or rather lack of coverage - of events but it was too little, too late.

"Self-censorship by the news networks' defeated the instincts of journalism," said Mehmet Yilmaz, a columnist for the popular Hurriyet daily.