Is Erdoğan about to realise his dream of wiping out critical social media?
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is preparing to submit an 11-item social media draft law to the parliament this week, Doğan news agency (DHA) reported on Monday.
The proposal, which was first presented to the party’s leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is planned to be enacted before parliament goes on holiday on July 24, the agency said.
According to the draft legislation, local and international social media companies that have more than one million users will be required to have a Turkey representative. The internet traffic bandwidth of such companies that do not comply will first be reduced to 50 percent and later to 95 percent, as stated in the regulation that will allow the government to impose penalties and implement access bans.
Social network providers will also be obliged to store the data of users based in Turkey.
As part of the arrangement, end-users will be able to submit requests to the companies to remove social media content or deny access to their online platforms. Network providers who leave requests unanswered by a specified deadline will be fined, DHA said.
Social network providers will also have to remove content deemed questionable by the Turkish court, and those that do not comply within a specified hour will held legally responsible for “damages”.
Although social media controls have been a topic of discussion in Turkish politics for some time, the government has pressed to design a new legal framework to, as Erdoğan has said, either put the online platforms under control or completely abolish them, after the president’s daughter, Esra Albayrak, was insulted on Twitter.
Erdoğan’s enmity against social media goes back to the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which erupted after a group of environmentalists sought to protect a park from being bulldozed in Taksim, in the heart of Istanbul. The protests quickly spread to all major cities and towns across Turkey and turned into a nationwide demonstration against Erdoğan and his increasing authoritarianism.
The protests, which caught the AKP off guard, was the first time social media was seen in Turkey as an important tool in helping its citizens organise and resist the government.
In March 2014, Erdoğan vowed to shut down Twitter in the run-up to local elections after prosecutors allegedly linked to the Gülen movement, a Turkish Islamist movement that would later be accused of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup attempt, brought corruption charges against the president’s entourage and attempted to have some of his close allies jailed. The cases had led to several ministers resigning.
For weeks, Turks were glued to their smart phones’ social media channels to follow the latest information leaked from the corruption cases. The leaks eventually included matters of national security after a tape revealed a conversation between then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and other senior officials. Erdoğan famously said he would wipe out Twitter and did not care what the international community thought of such a ban.
Various factions within Erdoğan’s government have attempted to create ‘’troll armies’’ against dissent in Turkey starting as early as 2013 - after the Gezi protests - to bully and silence online opposition figures, critical journalists, activists or average citizens who happen to have a dissident voice and considerable followings on social media.
Once Davutoğlu was pushed out of his premiership by an online declaration released in May 2016, by the so-called Pelican group, a secretive AKP-linked organisation with substantial influence in Turkey, a sudden tension appeared between Davutoğlu and Erdoğan supporters on social media that could have potentially led to a nasty divorce between the two senior politicians even then.
This threat of potential “civil war” within the governing party quickly diminished after the July 2016 coup attempt.
The government immediately blamed Turkey’s other powerful Islamist faction at the time, the Gülen movement, for the attempt. The movement’s interest in investing human resources into the state cadres, including all vital security establishment branches, was known for decades.
There were also many indications that Gülenists were seriously involved in the coup, particularly some of the movement’s leading ‘imams’ caught in Ankara’s main airbase where the coup plotters were based. Some other well-known media figures affiliated with the group turned out have sent tweets about the coup before it happened or gave interviews implying some type of dramatic events in the offing.
Erdoğan and Davutoğlu found a common enemy in the Gülenists, a group known by its shrewd social media campaigns against the AKP government. Some called the Gülen movement, a firm ally of Erdoğan in the previous decade, Turkey’s main opposition party because of their strong opposition views in their TV networks, newspapers, talking heads or reports released by their NGOs.
Large dumps of information leaks from the Dec. 17-25 corruption investigation, including many recorded conversations of the suspects, were pumped into the social media after the probe was halted, with investigators either relocated or arrested months after the cases began.
Also, some online social media accounts, such as one called “Fuat Avni”, began sharing alleged insider information on the inner workings of AKP senior officials. These social media campaigns, largely viewed to be assisting the Gülenists in its war against Erdoğan’s government, slowly ceased to exist after the coup attempt. Erdoğan’s great domestic crackdown began on most of opposition factions, but primarily focused anyone and everyone associated with the Gülen movement.
The governing coalition has continued to devote resources into social media since the coup attempt, feeding what is reported to be thousands of online trolls. But all those efforts were still not enough to dominate the social media sphere - even during Turkey’s state of emergency period. Erdoğan’s previous success in dismantling the country’s critical print media and dominating both mainstream TV channels had been turned on its head with the free-flowing communication that social media offers.
So tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have faced charges for their online posts, comments and sometimes even “likes”, hanging a big cloud of fear over social media in Turkey. Still, social media services to this day continue as a steady and dependable platform for people to share opinions and ideas, organise accordingly and, ultimately, make a meaningful response to the administration’s behaviour.
Nobody knows how this new bill, if enacted, will genuinely change the social media landscape in Turkey. Some argue that technology-savvy Turkish youth will find creative ways to overcome whatever will be thrown to their way. According to this line of optimistic thinking, social media resistance will continue in one way or another, and AKP’s whack-a-mole strategy will fail.
Another line of argument is that decisive online policing could very well bring a temporary solace to Erdoğan, like it did in Iran.
We may soon find out how Erdoğan’s war against the social media will end.