Photo: Murad Sezer

‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

  • February 20, 2015

Media & Manipulation

Turkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

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Binnaz Saktanber

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements.

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