At the heart of the protests is a controversial redevelopment project that was due to convert a six-block green area in Istanbul into a new shopping center. What began as a small gathering in Taksim Gezi Square, expanded once the focus of the demonstrations widened into a general critique of the Turkish government. Twitter played a huge role in spreading awareness of the demonstrations, with use of the hashtags #occupygezi and #direngeziparkı exploding. Within a twenty-four hour window, as many as two million tweets using the protests-related hashtags were generated, and approximately 3,000 tweets per hour even after midnight local time.
Turkish police added fuel to the fire after attempting to disperse the protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Makeshift tents set up in Taksim Square — akin to those during the Occupy movement in the U.S. — were set ablaze in the early morning hours. Rather than shrinking the protests, the police action seemed to widen them, leading to as many as 10,000 Turkish protesters flooding the streets. Images of protesters in homemade gas masks circled the Internet, alongside YouTube videos of demonstrators facing further attack from the police.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to state television to denounce the protesters and deny the legitimacy of their complaints. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” Erdogan told the cameras. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Erdogan also made clear that he doubted the spontaneous nature of the protests, claiming that opposition leaders’ “foreign links” were at play in their organization, informing the country that he had ordered intelligence agencies to investigate these ties and that the development project would move forward.
But the Prime Minister’s comments have not been received well, at home or abroad. “People want to have a say in how their city is run — at least they don’t want one man to decide on every aspect of their lives,” Asli Aydintasbas, columnist for Turkish newspaper Milliyet, told ThinkProgress. One of the critiques towards Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is their unwillingness to form consensus, using their majority in Parliament to pass through several controversial measures absent of any moderation to appease the opposition.
According to CAP’s Michael Werz, Twiiter is filling the role traditionally held by the mainstream media in Turkey thanks to the ongoing suppression of the press during Erdogan’s time in office.
“Many of the protesters complained about the lack of coverage on Turkish television,” the New York Times reported on Saturday. “Some newspapers too were largely silent on the protests: on Saturday morning, the lead article in Sabah, a major pro-government newspaper, was about Mr. Erdogan’s promoting a campaign against smoking.”
CAP experts recently released a brief on the matter, calling on President Obama to use his personal relationship with Erdogan raise press freedoms during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to the United States. “While making clear that Turkish democracy will continue to reflect Turkish culture and history, U.S. leaders must show that they consider freedom of the press to be non-negotiable,” the report recommends.
Erdogan’s Twitter comment is “indicative of the Prime Minister’s disrespect for any kind of participatory democracy,” Werz told ThinkProgress. “His comments over the past two days seem to indicate that he sees an electoral victory as free pass to execute power.” And while Twitter has been used to spread rumors during the last several days — including that five protesters had been killed, and that Agent Orange had been unleashed — its ability to spread information the media has been unwilling or unable to cover has been invaluable.
There is some hope that the Turkish government has gotten the message from protesters. “If there are objections, there is nothing more natural than voicing them,” Turkish President Abullah Gül said on Monday, adding that “democracy is not just about elections.” Whether that will be enough to end the protests remains to be seen.