Erdoğan and Bahçeli's next step: smashing social media

After many twists and turns, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is back to further confronting what it traditionally sees as "Public Enemy Number One" - social media.

A battlefront is now open - yet again - to curb Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and, perhaps, even Facebook.

And Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is serious about stretching its dominance to the extreme. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the usage of any social media tool will be seen as a potential crime, or luxury. There are even concerns that these platforms may come to be throttled to a near standstill in Turkey, if not shutdown there completely.

In the coming ten days or so, we will all see what the Islamist-Nationalist dominated parliament will do about passing a new bill to extend social media controls - or perhaps make severe amendments to existing ones.

The deadline seems to be July 15, the fourth anniversary of the failed coup, after which Turkey’s General Assembly goes on a summer recess. Both camps aligned to Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which supports the AKP, have promised that the time has come for social media to be controlled properly. We should all believe that they intend to fulfill that promise.

What is the real reason? As Ahval has reported, allegedly insulting tweets sent earlier this week regarding the birth of Erdoğan’s grandson were ostensibly the final straw. Erdoğan reacted with outrage, hurling threats, soon to be joined by his partner, Bahçeli, who angrily suspended his own Twitter and Facebook accounts, and demanding a law that he hopes will prevent social media from destroying "our national and cultural values", as he put it.

This is, however, just one of the reasons behind the moves.

What prompted Erdoğan is not only what he sees as a slanderous campaign against his family. Yes, throughout the years - more or less beginning from the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013  onwards - the strongman of Turkey managed to intimidate both the conventional and digital media systematically by filing thousands of legal cases over allegations of insults that any report, news story, analysis, picture, video or comment regarding his family is like entering a minefield.

As a result, the top taboo in Turkish media today is, yes, Erdoğan and his family members. It is not a surprise: everywhere in the world, autocrats - having adopted mafia codes - follow that strict pattern.

The second reason was a livestream in late June. Apparently on the advice of his close circle, Erdoğan held a chat on YouTube with a large group of young people, which after some minutes turned into a tsunami of dislikes, which by far outnumbered the supportive ones. As the online protests, tagged "NoVotesForYou", reached beyond 100,000, the livestream was shut down for comment. A shock, obviously, for the palace.

But the main reason, certainly, is Erdoğan's and Bahçeli's profound contempt for dissent, which we witness in all forms every day in Turkey.

The AKP-MHP alliance is built on, and strives for, a country and a society in which there will be absolute submission to and unity around the rulers.

With the conventional media overwhelmingly - perhaps up to 95 percent - pro-government, the remaining segments that cause headaches are largely on social media and the internet, which fulfil a role as a public debate platform and provide some limited possibilities for alternative, independent, critical media - such as Ahval and a few of its competitors.

In order to suffocate the public discourse and flow of dissent, then, the next step, by the logic of the construction of the oppressive government, must be to curb it as much as possible: the law of nature does not allow freedom and non-freedom together - you have to choose one. That is the equation, whose choice threatens social media users in Turkey.

Possibly, before taking the final step of shutting social media platforms in Turkey, the parliament's majority will oblige large social media companies to open offices with representatives in Turkey, and introduce huge fines (up to $50 million) to those who defy the authorities’ demands to remove undesirable content within a certain time or to shut down "hostile" social media accounts altogether.

Turkey is already one of the top digital censors of the world. According to a new report published by the Freedom of Expression Association, nearly 410,000 websites, 130,000 URL addresses, 7,000 twitter accounts, 40,000 tweets, 10,000 YouTube videos, and 6,200 Facebook posts were banned by the Turkish the authorities. These figures are telling of Ankara’s hostility to the free flow of information, news, comment, and jokes.

The problem with the Turkish parliament - not just with the government and its allies, but also with some parts of the opposition - is the interpretation of content: any critical view can be branded as terrorist activity, any irony as insult, any critical remark about religion or the founder of the nation Mustafa Kemal Atatürk can be seen as a crime.

There is no clear distinction in separating harmful content from the ones defined by the criteria of European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey has ratified.

If such restrictive amendments pass, the social media giants will find themselves in the middle of a storm. Erdoğan’s regime is maximalist and unrelenting when it comes to attempts to subordinate domestic as well as foreign media: it never ceases to apply all sorts of pressure.

After the passing of the law, in order to pressure Twitter and YouTube - the two main culprits of free speech - all sorts of tools will be set in motion.

Still, it may not work. Young Turks are incredibly tech-savvy and use of social media - unless given up by the companies’ managements - will continue to soar.

But can a total closure take place? It can because Erdoğan’s government knows it can. It has the memory, ability and experience from before. YouTube was banned - because of a sarcastic video on Atatürk - between May 2008 and November 2010.

Wikipedia was banned from April 2017 to the end of 2019 because of its articles on Turkey's role in Syria and its "state terrorism". Twitter was also subjected to a total closure for two months in early 2014. Facebook remained largely untouched, mainly because large numbers of AKP voters use it but also because Facebook is not as keen as Twitter or YouTube on freedom of expression, which may keep it immune from Ankara’s rage.

In a nutshell, we should expect a new attack on social media in the coming days.

The mode in Ankara is of despair, due to declining support among the young voters - who will be key when, or if, Erdoğan will allow elections - and it is therefore vital for him that Turkey turns into a land of Orwellian dystopia, kept in darkness and fear. This notion is, at the moment, at its strongest.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.