In an increasingly common refrain, an authoritarian ruler discovers that social media Web sites are making life uncomfortable for him in the run-up to elections; finds Twitter particularly annoying; instructs local authorities to shut off access for his citizens; announces that he is unfazed by international criticism of this act of censorship which he says will demonstrate the power of his republic.
Welcome to Turkey, the UK’s staunch ally in the fight against jihad and the Forces of Darkness. There is a certain grim familiarity in the story of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s battle against social media. He leads the AKP, the “justice and development party,” that has been in power since 2002. It is now in its third term, having been returned in 2011 with just under half of the popular vote, but Erdogan rules as though he had the 99.9 percent share beloved of “strong” leaders everywhere.
In December last year, during a corruption investigation, Turkish police arrested scores of people, including three Turkish Cabinet members and some of their offspring. The accusations of sleaze and corruption behind the arrests were particularly annoying for a prime minister whose party lists “fighting against corruption” as one of its main goals.
Erdogan’s response to the prosecution followed the authoritarian rule book to the letter: The prosecutors in charge of the investigation were summarily fired, as were a large number of police officers. A compliant Grand National Assembly then amended the law to hand powers hitherto exercised by judges and prosecutors over to the justice minister. It has also passed a new law giving the authorities extensive powers to monitor Internet use in Turkey.
In the old days, given that Erdogan seems to have control of Turkey’s mainstream media, that would have been job done. However, Twitter turned out to be a real thorn in his side, because links to leaked audio recordings of wiretapped phone conversations among journalists, businesspeople and Cabinet ministers were being regularly tweeted.
So in the end, Erdogan’s patience snapped and he lashed out. Turkey’s Telecommunications Department announced that a “protection measure” had been taken for Twitter, “according to Decision Nr dated 03.20.2014 of Istanbul Public Prosecutor (Article 10 With TMK Guard).”
You can guess what happened. Within seconds, the ban was being openly flouted, circumvented and ridiculed, both within Erdogan’s fiefdom and abroad. Twitter rapidly provided instructions (in both English and Turkish) on how to tweet using SMS. (“Avea and Vodafone text START to 2444. Turkcell text START to 255.”) Many Turkish people circumvented the ban either by changing their domain name settings(DNS) or by using Virtual Private Networks.
EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes tweeted that “The Twitter ban in Turkey is groundless, pointless, cowardly. Turkish people and the international community will see this as censorship. It is.”
Beginning Thursday last week, graffiti began appearing on buildings in Istanbul giving instructions about the new DNS that would circumvent the ban. Erdogan has become a laughingstock in less than a week.
So: Authoritarian ruler nil, Internet one? Maybe, but it is really only a half-time score. It would be unwise to extrapolate too far from this little spat. Some commentators were quick to draw comparisons between Erdogan’s Twitter ban and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to shut off Egypt’s access to the Internet during the uprising against his rule.
That particular experiment in isolationism ended after five days, and it is still not clear why. Some observers argue that the Egyptian regime’s about-face was forced by the Egyptian military’s realization that their vast commercial interests were being harmed by the ban, while others argue that the blockade had the counterproductive effect of encouraging even more people on to the streets to find out what was going on.
In that context, it is even possible that Erdogan knew what he was doing. In a perceptive blog post on the Twitter decision, British journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason says that the ban may have been a gambit “designed to force the secular, young and leftist opposition onto the streets during the election, boosting the turnout of their opponents, the conservative Islamist masses.”
Even so, Mason sees Erdogan’s ploy as just the latest indication of a deeper trend.
“This is not about Turkey; it’s about the right to be modern,” he says.
He says the aging elites of the pre-Internet age are slowly realizing what young people are born knowing: You cannot turn off social media without turning off modernity and economic life.
The workaround Turkish tweeters are using exploits the fundamental strength of the Internet: It is a network of networks, containing non-hierarchical pathways that simply do not allow authorities to switch part of it off. This is a signal moment in that process, when a once-respected statesman turns into a Canute-like clown.
There is a whiff of technological determinism about this that makes me uneasy. Ever since the Internet appeared in the 1980s, the really big question that it posed was whether it would prove a powerful enough force to overthrow the established order.
Will the central elements of that order — the state, transnational corporations, military and hierarchical institutions generally — be “disintermediated,” dissolved or bypassed by this new decentralized, empowering, liberating, democratizing technology?
The honest answer is that it is too early to say. There have, of course, been some heartwarming examples of how the corrupt old order has been discombobulated and outmaneuvered by technology and its resourceful users. However, in the last decade the world has also seen how the Internet has been commandeered by the established order — for example in the way the US National Security Agency and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters have turned it into an Orwellian dream machine, and in the way the Chinese have invented a new form of tech-savvy governance — what the Internet freedom campaigner Rebecca Mackinnon named “networked authoritarianism.”
Erdogan may or may not be a clown, but he is not really a serious player in this particular game and hubris is a luxury that only fools can afford.