Turkish citizens woke up Wednesday without access to Twitter, after Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had the site blocked in an attempt to suppress charges of corruption in his government. But the ban backfired almost immediately, proving how much social media outlets undermine efforts to censor free speech.
The country’s decision to block Twitter comes as the prime minister dodges corruption allegations and gears up for election day on March 30. “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says,” Erdogan said during a campaign rally Wednesday. His threat was in response to published tweets linking the prime minister to money laundering scandal, accusations he said were fabricated by unnamed enemies.
Erdogan has expressed disapproval of social media before. Twitter helped organize and broadcast last summer’s regime-criticizing protests in Istanbul, with an explosion of millions of tweets supporting the demonstrations. After days of protests, Erdogan said social media was “the worst menace to society.” He also recently threatened to ban YouTube and Facebook, claiming the sites were being used for “all kinds of immorality, all kinds of espionage.”
But within hours of blocking Twitter, Turkish citizens spread news of the Twitter block. Twitter encouraged people to tweet via SMS, while others recommended using Google DNS to work around it. Access to other social networking sites, such as Facebook, hasn’t been affected.
“As I have said many times in the past, at the point where communication technologies have reached today, it is technically impossible to entirely block access to social media platforms used across the world such as Twitter,” tweeted Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul Friday, who vehemently disapproves of the ban along with other officials. In fact, the last time Turkey banned a popular social site, Youtube, Erdogan himself confessed he, along with other citizens, could easily access the site.
Efforts to silence citizens have become more difficult as the world becomes more connected. Research suggests censorship only begets the desire for more freedom online. Regardless of age and income, most people in countries with emerging or developing economies support Internet freedom, a recent Pew Research study found. Opposition to government-sanctioned Web restrictions is strongest in countries that have battled with prohibitive online policies. Most citizens of Venezuela, Lebanon, Chile and Egypt are anti-censorship, the study said. Moreover, social media, namely Twitter, has empowered those countries’ citizens by fueling government protests and expanding awareness. This suggests the ideal of “free speech” spreads globally in step with Internet access, countries that promote censorship won’t be able to keep up.
Social media — especially Twitter — have been instrumental in not just promoting free speech but effecting political change around the world. Despite more countries clamping down on Internet access, government dissenters still thrive. Shutting down nearly half of the Ukraine’s Russian TV channels didn’t stop the protests in Kyiv. Former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych’s law to restrict certain websites only fueled ongoing protests that eventually led to his ousting. Protesters simply respond to blocked sites by switching platforms to other social networks, such as WhatsApp, to keep the conversation going, underscoring the fact that shutting down a popular social site doesn’t do anything but force the debate to resume elsewhere.
Turkish citizens’ rapid response shows how the advent of social media has made it nearly impossible to censor communication of any kind. The Internet has become so ingrained in everyday life that countries’ economic stability hinges on free flowing Internet access. After all, both government supporters and criticizers use social media.
Read more about the issues of press freedom in Turkey by CAP experts Michael Werz and Max Hoffman.