Taksim Square Protests: After Blackout, the Turkish Revolution May Not Be Tweeted
According to Fast Company, Turkish authorities have begun to seriously limit and even cut off access to Twitter across the country. The move comes in the wake of demonstrations against the impending destruction of Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul that began May 28. Since then, the protests have exploded in size and scope. What began as opposition to the construction of yet another shopping mall in Turkey's largest city has now become "a broader protest against an increasingly authoritarian state." Protesters across Turkey have even adopted a familiar English moniker: Occupy Gezi.
The protesters, many of them secular Turks, have faced stiff opposition from those in power. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has responded with tear gas, tanks, and a denouncement of Twitter and similar web sites as "the biggest trouble for society right now." The mainstream Turkish media has completely blocked coverage of the protests as well.
The lack of mainstream media attention there means choking off access to Twitter poses two potential serious problems for the Occupy Gezi movement. First, Twitter and other social media sites like Tumblr have been important sources for foreign consumption of news about the protests. It is far easier for demonstrators to garner international support when pictures of Turkish citizens facing down water cannons are available worldwide, and with those sites down, such pictures cannot get out. Second, Twitter is an essential communication tool for the organization of future protests. It got well-deserved credit for its role in the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Without such a weapon in their arsenal, protesters will have to find alternative — and inevitably less effective — means of coordinating their efforts. For now, it seems like some have taken to posting bulletins on the walls of buildings around Gezi Park, but that is a poor substitute for a trending hashtag.
If very recent history is any guide, the decision to block Twitter means Prime Minister Erdogan is taking the protesters very seriously. It also puts him in the ignominious company of Twitter's enemies, including Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It must take a lot to elicit a condemnation from Syria for "violence... against peaceful protesters," but Erdogan has managed to do just that.
No, Gezi Park is not Tahrir Square. Not yet, at least. The protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey have not reached the scale of those in Egypt from two years ago. Indeed, they may never reach that scale. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Erdogan's defiance in the face of opposition may represent a turning point for his government. In recent years, Turkey has emerged as an important regional power broker in both the ongoing civil war in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its application to join the European Union is still pending. Is Erdogan willing to risk Turkey's international standing in a bid to silence opposition? The severity and longevity of his crackdown on Occupy Gezi may hold the answer.