After weeks of civil unrest in June, there remains no clarity as to the long-term social and political impact of the Turkish protests which began in Gezi Park and spread around the country. As with every uprising since the 2011 Tahir Square uprising in Egypt, global opinion suggests that the Web and social media have been at the centre of how the Turkish protests were organized, catalysed and reported. But do the Turkish protests have anything new to contribute to the ongoing debate about exactly how big a role the Web and social media are playing in catalysing political change?
In fact, statistics from Turkstat suggest that a relatively low percentage of the population is online in Turkey – less than 50 per cent (the corresponding figure for Britain is 80 per cent according to OFCOM). However, it seems that those that are online are very active, particularly on social media, and particularly among the young. Various reports suggest that Turkey has between the fourth and seventh largest number of Facebook users in the world. Voice of America suggests that Turkey is Twitter’s eighth largest market globally. The Web Foundation’s 2012 Web Index scored Turkey six out of 10 for social media use, lower than most developed nations, but higher than Egypt (5) and equal to Tunisia.
Looking specifically at social media use during the protests, information seems to have been provided by on-the-ground users and driven local conversations. A blog post by New York University researchers released on 1 June suggested that 90 per cent of geo-located tweets came from within Turkey, and 88 per cent were in Turkish. This is in stark contrast to a Starbird study on the use of Twitter in the Egyptian protests, which suggested that only 30 per cent of the most frequently re-tweeted tweets were coming from within Egypt in 2011.
Turks also used social media, particularly Twitter, to circumvent what they perceived as inadequate local media reporting. This led to the creation of a hashtag #BugünTelevizyonlariKapat (Turn off your television today). While the use of social media to amplify messages and circumvent traditional media in protest action is not new, the clear focus on domestic media is interesting and is different from how social media has been used by activists in the Syrian and Iranian cases, for instance, where web channels have often focused upon disseminating information to global media.
A sign of growing sophistication in the use of the Web for protest action was how quickly Turks turned to encryption technologies when they suspected their browsing and content creation may be being censored. According to Anchor Free, a software provider which makes Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) – VPN downloads jumped tenfold in a single day. The use of VPNs to circumvent content control online is well-established, but this speed of adoption is remarkable and shows how determined citizens are to have a voice.
In short, the Turkish experience has incorporated elements previously seen during social unrest but has also added new dimensions, such as the strong focus on local language content and the hyper-rapid uptake of encryption technologies. Once again, the platform of the Web has provided citizens with both a mobilizing tool and a way to communicate grievances. In this case, although the spark was a park being converted into a mall, in global parlance, Gezi is now becoming synonymous with freedom of speech and the importance of an independent media.
But will any of this lead to sustainable social and political change? That is near-impossible to predict. Turkish citizens are clearly capitalizing on their capacity to access and utilize the Web in order to circumvent traditional channels for engaging with government that have proved ineffective or restricted. The harsh response of the Turkish state to the use of social media as a mobilizing tool (including the arrest of social media users) is worrisome. True democracy requires the ongoing negotiation of consensus – not simply the winning of a series of elections. The voices of the Turkish people – as transmitted via the Web and social media – confirm that the citizens currently in elected office need to revisit their connection to the citizens who elected them. The reported delay in the development of Gezi Park by the ruling party is an indication of how online conversations have spurred real-world action that could lead to true change. Although sustained, long-term impacts are far from assured, the recent events in Turkey reinforce and advance the theory that the Web has an increasingly important role to play in mediating the relationship between state and citizen.
*This article first appeared in the New Internationalist and can be viewed here.