Top attempts by Dictators to Shut down Twitter in Mideast (including Turkey’s PM Erdogan)

(By Juan Cole)

Trying to close down social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube has been a desperate ploy of dictatorial regimes throughout the world. It doesn’t work very well, since typically users find workarounds.

But what is interesting is why authoritarian regimes make the attempt in the first place.

At midnight last night, Twitter went dark in Turkey after the service was lambasted by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. News of his massive corruption has been leaking out on social media, with damning audio clips and other evidence. Erdogan controls the old media– television and the print press– in Turkey, but has no way to stop the ten million Turkish Twitter users from sharing around the leaked material (which he maintains is fraudulent). So Erdogan said, “We Will eradicate Twitter.” Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing local municipal elections at the end of the month and it may be he hoped to close down conversations about the corruption issue in the run-up to them. If AKP does well in those elections, they will form a platform for his anticipated run for the presidency in five months.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 3.18.46 AM

If the audio clips are actually fraudulent, it should be possible for Erdogan to have forensics performed on them and to discredit them. In a democracy, you deal with allegations by debating them, not by trying to close down national discussions. Erdogan is demonstrating an increasingly troubling tendency toward dictatorial methods.

Erdogan’s clumsy attempt at internet censorship crashed and burned immediately. Turkish youth are sophisticated about using Tor and VPN workarounds, and the Turkish twittersphere was reconstituted so fast it probably made Erdogan’s head spin.

Let us just review past such attempts at censoring social media in the Middle East:

In 2009, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali attempted to ban Facebook in that country. The attempt was relatively quickly abandoned in the face of a firestorm of public discontent. 18 months later, activist youth deployed social media as one tool in their revolution against Ben Ali, which unseated him in January 2011.

On January 28, 2011 through early February of that year, the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt attempted to turn off the internet in a fruitless bid to stop the building revolution against him. Some Egyptians still had access to international servers via satellite, so the ban was incomplete. But it anyway backfired on Mubarak. When youth could not text their friends in Tahrir Square and in other squares in major cities, they had to go physically to find their friends and assure themselves of their safety. So the crowds swelled to the tens of thousands, which aided the revolution.

In the wake of the February 17, 2011, uprisings against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, his son Muhammad, who was in charge of telecommunications, cut off the internet. But there was still cell phone service and SMS texting still worked. Moreover, Libyan youth set up media centers and got online with satellite internet services. Gaddafi was overthrown by a popular uprising in the capital of Tripoli in August, 2011, after which the internet was restored.

Syria’s one-party Baath dictatorship banned Facebook and some other social media in 2007. But ironically the regime restored social media access in February of 2011 under popular pressure, in time for it to be used to protest the government.

There is no instance in the Middle East of a successful government ban on Twitter or Facebook in the long term, and many of those leaders who proposed such a step were nevertheless overthrown. If Erdogan thinks he is different, he has another think coming.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 3.16.13 AM

12 Responses

  1. there was an AKP “attempt” to prove the tapes “montages,” and it was as comical as this Twitter attempt. Some nameless person passed copies of the tapes to non-Turkish speaking American audio “experts” who turned out to be music studio engineers with no knowledge of Turkish.
    they each confirmed that there were breaks in the tape. No surprise because the tapes submitted were of five calls between Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal about the need to get several million dollars in currency out of the house in advance of a police search.

    No wonder the Turkish Medical Association posted a statement yesterday questioning the man’s sanity. Perhaps we’ll learn that, a la Nixon, he’s going to Anit Kabir at night to talk to Ataturk.

  2. At some point developments like these make people show their true intentions and commitment. For better or worse.

    In Egypt, we have to face up to the reality of how things are unfolding. Social media or not, its increasingly evident the Man simply doesn’t give a damn, and if twitterheads want to make something of it they’ll get moved to the top of his midnight visit list. It’s already happening.

    We’ll see what Erdoğan’s intentions are, as empowered by his evident sway over a potentially belligerent majority who’d like to go back to a glory that never was. I’m assured there are many who would believe the guy if he said the world was flat. Despite the transparency of his denials, I get the clear sense that its selling.

    Events ultimately turn on what the people are ready to DO. At the end of the day, is a given govt ready to go crack some heads, or more? After which, are those heads going to decide the better part of valor is discretion, and reconcile themselves to a benevolent master, or they going to do whatever it is THEY have to do.

    Its about power. One set of people has it, knows it, is used to it, and isn’t going to willingly let it go. The other side has never really had real power, but somehow feels themselves empowered by what……social media??? At best it’s a tool, nada mas. What other game have these people got?

    The one thing all these govts ( with the arguable exception of of Tunisia), have in common, is a tradition of serious strong men. And culturally, I don’t see any of them losing sleep over doing whatever it is they may feel the need to do. Not for themselves, mind you, but for all the little people/children they may need to discipline. And those are the nicer ones.

    Nixon slunk off to San Clemente with his faux bluster, but he didn’t really have a choice. At this point in US history, under similar circumstances, would a similar President be obliged to be so considerate?

    Pressure can come in many forms, but when push comes to shove, the utility of social mead, to be kind, is limited.

  3. You know, I missed the point here.

    In neither Egypt or Turkey do the progressive elements constitute anything like a majority; nor is it as though Assad is lacking support in Syria. The issue really is the behavior of the majority toward a not insignificant minority, and even then its no so much a minority as a perspective/orientation that simply faces forward. Its not a black and white thing at all.

    So, the question, put in a starker way, is whether these countries are ready for Democracy (capitalized), where the majority rules with an abiding respect for minority rights (or, even just their perspective/concerns)? A truly functioning Democracy.

    Politicians win by consolidating and mobilizing their base, and nothing does that so well as red meat, sold in a diatribe. Dress it up as legitimate news, like Fox, and you’ve got a recipe for success. The result is righteous stratification, whose strength is biased toward the old, the stupid, and the inherently dispossessed and uncritical.

    It takes maturity for an elite to exist to transcend this stuff, and I don’t mean liberals, progressives or intellectuals of any particular stripe. Just people with enough perspective to know that societies survive through balance, and the world really can spin in reverse (and has a consistent history of doing so) if they don’t assume responsibility for things.

    • Travis,

      The problem is in Turkey the military shut down left wing movements with each military coup and while the governments failed to take care of the trauma of urbanization the Islamic sects helped out the urban poor.

      Much like Korea, Turkey used religion as the opium of the masses until… that religious feeling started dominating politics.

      And don’t forget… educated people become somewhat secular in the Middle East. And Muslims are self-righteous.

      In Turkey if you are successful and don’t pray you’re evil.
      If you are a beautiful woman and don’t cover your hair you are a whore.
      If you resist the government and protest it is because you haven’t been brought up with Islamic values and you’re an atheist/terrorist.

      This is how Islamists think… and “think” might be too much a verb for these masses.

      So yes you are right… Turkey is not ready for a democracy. Democracy undermines progress in Turkey. Unfortunately the military was problematic as well. But at least their fascism was limited to security affairs.

      With Erdogan it is about whether you should drink, how many kids you should have, whether you can defend a park, whether a woman should kill herself for wanting an abortion etc. etc.

      Oh and this leaving aside a dependent judiciary, corruption, allowing Syrian terrorists into the country… The list is endless.

      That’s what you get when an ignorant bully and his crew rules a country for 12 years.

  4. At this point, those wacky “moderate Islamic democrats” who are delivering us from the evils of Kemalism have switched to an IP/DNS based ban, so it’s beyond twitter.

    Remember when Gul said he’d sign the law that would make this possible only it wouldn’t ever really happen? Funny that people insist on still believing there’s life and independent thought in the man.

    • Communications are essential to any movement or organization, but for mass dissemination of news to the broader population, I don’t know. Even in Turkey, how many people have the initiative or ability to access twitter over VPN? As with viewers of Fox in the US, I suspect most people in Turkey/elsewhere by and large are destined to remain clueless.

      The Great Firewall of China is easily enough breached, but only for those with the initiative.

      • Considering that Twitter use was up 138% after the ban, that alternate DNS routes were sprayed in graffiti and posted on message boards outside stores and restaurants, considering Twitter sent out instructions on how to use SMS to tweet, considering all the posts crossing my FB account on alternative routs and software …

  5. Zeynep Tufekci argues that to think Erdoğan’s aim to stop the oposition from using Twitter is to misunderstand what is happening in Turkey at the moment, rather Erdoğan’s strategy is to demonize social media so as to innoculate his followers from Twitters subversive messages and protect his voter base

Comments are closed.