Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

  • January 11, 2014

People & Protest

The young protesters, who were mostly educated, creative, and computer savvy, used social media to take the resistance to a more sophisticated level.

It was déjà vu for those who lived through the summer of resistance in Turkey when they logged into their Facebook and Twitter accounts on the evening of December 22. Citizen journalism was at work once again while the traditional media opted for silence regarding to the heavy-handed police response to demonstrations in Istanbul. That afternoon, thousands gathered in Kadıköy, the Asian district of Istanbul, which had been one of the main sites of resistance throughout the the summer. The protesters were reacting to the recent allegations of corruption following the arrests of the sons of three ministers, a mayor, a CEO of a national bank, and a a construction mogul, among others. Shoe boxes filled with cash had turned into Pandora’s box, just three months before important local elections.

In the aftermath of the erupting corruption scandal, familiar pages began to resurface on Facebook, one after the other. The names of the pages will give an idea: “don’t be a slave to the system”, “the opposer”, “we are resisting”, and “Çapulers” (the name the protesters adopted after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s used the term çapulcu, or looters, to describe participants in the mass demonstrations). On the day of the urban rally, as the protesters clashed with police, photos and live-stream coverage fille Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter streams, familiar hashtags from six months ago, like #direnkadıköy and #direnankara once again united protesters across social media.

Social media proved to be a force to reckon with during the Gezi uprising, especially when all hell broke loose throughout June. As far as social media were concerned, this was definitely a revolution. But today, six months later, we should ask ourselves the question: is there now a lack of momentum? Has the urgency gone forever? Did social media play out its part? Was #diren the hashtag of yesterday?

Let’s take a few steps back and return to the day when the protests took off in Turkey: let’s go back to May 31, when a peaceful sit-in in Gezi Park to protest its demolition for a development project sparked nationwide protests. According to a study by New York University, at least two million tweets with the protest hashtags were sent in just eight hours on that day alone. This shows the scale and popularity of Twitter long before it became the designated form of communication during the protests. Social media has been big in Turkey for years now, with half the country’s population on the internet, almost 90 percent of those people on Facebook, and 69 percent of the 18-29 demographic using social media before the start of the protests.

Humor, structure and citizen journalism

The daily number of tweets sent by Twitter users in Turkey at times went up to a whooping 8 million even months before the Gezi protests. Turkey had almost always been among the top ten countries in terms of the numbers of both Facebook and Twitter users. The increase in social media use in the last two years had displayed an average of 300 percent increase.

So, the resistance had already secured its weapons of communication with smart phones, laptop computers, DNS-changing apps, and live-stream video setups. In adapting, spreading and cementing a hashtag in the immediate aftermath of the protests, the çapulers showed that the Occupy Wall Street movement was an inspiration, most evident in finding a common hashtag that could be used along with other words: #diren for #occupy.

The weeks following May 31 displayed a full-blown uprising as the çapulers and the police — which was encouraged by the government to use disproportionate force against its own citizens — clashed night after night. While Facebook and Twitter were the go-to social platforms during the protests, livestream channels, Tumblr pages, websites, blogs, Instagram and YouTube proved to be useful in uniting, and at times entertaining, çapulers across Turkey.

Humor definitely was one of the defining characteristics of the protests, both on the streets and on social media. Slogans, sprayed on the walls of the city were derived from memes that had been shared on social media platforms. “The Gasfather,” read one banner, with Erdoğan’s portrait photo-shopped over Marlon Brando’s face on the legendary poster of The Godfather. Another showed penguins marching with the headline “Antarctica supports you,” a reference to news channel CNN Turk’s running of a documentary on penguins during the clashes.

These young people were from a generation that had been thoroughly dismissed as depoliticized, supposedly spending 2.5 hours a day on the Internet. While some were affiliated to political causes (leftists, Kurds, LGBT communities), many were not political in the traditional sense. But it was apparent that most were sick of the decrepit political machinations, and finally had a chance to become political on their own terms, rejecting any kind of externally-imposed authority. Thus the protesters found their collective voice — voices of color, peace, and humor.

The young protesters, who were mostly educated, creative, and computer savvy, took the resistance to a more sophisticated level, and to the second defining characteristic of the social media: control and coherent structure. The information and content shared randomly in the panic-stricken and adrenaline-filled first days of the protests soon found more structured outlets in guides and and references on the internet. Websites of timelines, useful information, collated evidence, Tumblr pages of street art and graffiti, as well as dozens of live-stream video coverage from the protest sites, led many in front of their computers to bookmark specific sites in the coming days of the protests.

The third characteristic of the social media during the protests was the emergence of a responsible citizen journalism. While everyone on the streets with smart phones became journalists, misinformation and heated first reactions flooded the Twitter streams and Facebook walls in the first days. Soon the çapulers learned to share information after confirming and fact-checking. Within a week, there were dozens of Twitter accounts and Facebook pages that served as alternative media outlets like the independent social media journalist collective @140journos.

Trending topic is enough

All throughout the protests, most of the politicians in the AKP, no to mention the ones in other parties, showed how out of sync they were with the new generation and the new form of communication. While 55 percent of the deputies were actively using Twitter, and President Abdullah Gül had the highest Klout score in Turkey, they were just remodeling old forms of communication on new platforms. Twitter, for most of them, was a micro version of press releases, and Facebook pages provided an opportunity for photo-ops in crowded party rallies.

Prime Minister Erdoğan might have called Twitter “a menace” during the heat of the protests, but apart from a few feeble attempts to detain teenagers for sending anti-government tweets the oppression on the streets was hardly reciprocated in social media. The AKP’s style of war always was (and still is) on the defensive side, and Twitter has been its only weapon of choice, mobilizing hundreds of accounts to create offensive hashtags when a prominent name posts a critical message, or when there is an anti-government mass movement across Twitter.

The fight-back messages are almost unanimously full of slurs and insults, sometimes generated through programs, hundreds of replicated tweets. It is not uncommon to see the pro-government hashtags rise to trending topics, like the December 22’s “ErdoğanaGüvenimizTam” (Our trust is implicit in Erdoğan). Last September, intimidation tactics were used once again when a report was published in the media about the AKP’s decision to form a 6,000 team responsible for pro-government propaganda on social media.

Erdoğan was happy about his accolades’ performance on Twitter when he said that “nice things have started to happen on Twitter” back in October. However, we are yet to see the pro-government Twitter users engage in meaningful conversation, create Facebook pages that serve as alternative outlets of media, or mobilize websites, blogs and video streaming channels for intelligent and creative use.

Going back to the çapulers, apart from the occasional clash with the police, the heat of the days of resistance on social media seems to have died down. Facebook posts and tweets seem to have reverted back to holiday snapshots, Breaking Bad memes and football discussions throughout late summer, the fall, and the first days of winter.

For the careful eye, though, the spirit of the resistance is still there, dormant most of the time, but there. For every couple of cute photos of beloved pets, you will see a link to a petition against pet shops. A glamorous (or drunk, or both) photo from a wedding is followed by an article on Turkish justice’s blind eye to rapists. Your Facebook friends might seem to have gone back to their old ways, but they are no longer shy to share articles and op-ed pieces against the system.

Many seem to have found their calling in the resistance, taking up their causes, whether it’s violence against women, employment for transgender individuals or the demolition of a park. It seems the protests of the long-gone summer have opened new pathways of self-expression and resistance. A palpable sense of hope that was all but gone earlier this year keeps running strong into the new year.

This essay is part of the first ROAR symposium: ‘Reflections on the Gezi Uprising.’

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

Emrah Güler

Emrah Güler is a journalist and writer for Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review, among others, writing mainly on cinema, pop culture and social media. He runs his own social media agency, medya GaGa, in Ankara.

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