In a move condemned worldwide as an outrageous attack on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blocked Twitter soon after announcing that he would “eradicate” it. His declaration on March the 20th in the Western City of Busra that he didn’t “care what the international community says,” and that “everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic” is filled with not only paranoia and grandiose delusions but a clear ignorance of the internet’s ability to circumvent attempts to block it.
Erdogan’s war on social media accelerated, in rhetoric as in practice, after leaked records of telephone conversations were wildly shared online. Among other things, they revealed, according to the BBC analysis of the leaked tape, “a recording in which he and his son allegedly discuss how to hide large sums of cash”. The ongoing criminal investigation involves many key people in the Turkish government, mostly members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). But whatever the reason(s) behind Erdogan’s anger towards social media, corruption claims have so far cost him the resignation of four ministers as well as the Opposition’s call for his resignation. With the AKP already being heavily criticized for making Turkey the leading jailer of journalists (almost 20% of all jailed journalists are in Turkey), one cannot help but wonder if this drastic move proves that Erdogan has effectively lost it and is shooting himself in the foot (as suggested in this Cartoon by Latuff).
If Erdogan truly believed that he could ban Twitter, this was extremely foolish indeed. Within 10 hours of his announcement, almost 2.5 million Turkish tweets were posted. That’s around 17,000 tweets a minute. From using SMS or VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), to changing their DNS (Domain Name System) servers or using Tor (The Onion Router), Turkish users found little difficulty circumventing the ban. Indeed, Tweets from Turkey went up 138% following the ban. Erdogan’s “digital coup” only showed one thing: you cannot ban the internet, you can only try.
Since the ban consisted of simply blocking DNS servers, all internet-savy activists had to do was spread the word of alternative DNS servers provided by Google Public DNS. And throughout the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, they did exactly that. People painted and used graffiti on walls and on posters of the AKP, instructing citizens to use Google DNS servers.
Using a different DNS essentially means that you’re disguising the location of your computer and are therefore unaffected by the ban. This proved to be the most popular method. Also popular was the use of SMS provided by Twitter’s “Policy”, its Global Public Policy Team. Easier still, they could simply go to Tor and connect to Twitter from there.
By Thursday the 20th afternoon, the hashtags #TwitterisblockedinTurkey and #DictatorErdogan were the top trending hashtags worldwide. With an estimated 10 million people using Twitter in Turkey, this is hardly surprising. The growing outrage prompted Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, to denounce the ban, via Twitter. Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European commission, also condemned the ban on Twitter, calling it “groundless, pointless, cowardly”. It is important to remember that Gul was himself the target of an online campaign last month when he approved, albeit with public reservation, a law tightening internet control. The #UnfollowAbdullahGul campaign cost the president 80,000 followers on Twitter and might explain why he’s denouncing Erdogan now.
How things will play out, we can’t really know yet. But one thing’s for sure, Turkish citizens are showing us the power of social media by taking things into their own hands and inspiring the world with their great use of that power’s potential. From #OccupyGezi to #UnfollowAbdullahGul to #TwitterisblockedinTurkey and #DictatorErdogan, we might be seeing the development of a truly authentic online-based organization movement that is seeking societal change in the name of ideals of personal freedoms.