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Arrested for tweeting in Turkey: The social media machine of the #Occupygezi movement

turkey protests“Now we have a menace called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” –Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergodan

In Turkey, it has become dangerous to tweet – it’s dangerous to use social media at all, for that matter. With arrest numbers for tweets, posts, and photo-sharing rising, it’s become evident that an Internet connection and a certain political view can get you into a lot of trouble. Despite this threat, social media remains revolutionaries’ loudest voice and best option for connecting to supporters, locally and globally. This much as been proven in recent years and uprisings, and Turkey’s #Occupygezi movement is only the latest example in the great experiment of political unrest in the social sphere.

The dissension in Turkey is primarily concentrated in Istanbul, but also in Ankara, Izmir, and a handful of other cities. The conflict began when a group of protesters gathered at Gezi Park in Istanbul to oppose plans to change the central green space into a mall. But when police confronted the gathering with tear gas and brutal tactics, the purpose of the protest widened and more people joined in to raise their voices against Prime Minister Ergodan and his AK Party’s policies, including a new law that prohibits the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m., and the promotion of an “Islamist” agenda.

Over a hundred thousand people convened in Taksim Square to rally against the leadership, with other protests continuing in Ankara. And while the original nucleus of protesters represented the educated and urban classes, now trade unions and many different groups of people have joined in – and the police continue to respond with violent tactics, while many mainstream news outlets in Turkey decline to report on the events.

“We use social media because it is the only thing we can use to show people what is really happening.”

Since the Turkish media shied away from the event as a major issue, people involved with the movement spread word via social media, which helped draw global attention to the issue. And even though Ergodan is asking protesters to cease and desist, the demonstrations continue, with many calling for his resignation. 

Selen Cimin, a lawyer who has been present at the Gezi-Taksim protests since the beginning, tells us that social media has been a part of the fight in Turkey since the uprisings began. “We use social media because it is the only thing we can use to show people what is really happening,” she writes from Istanbul.

“From the first moment I was at Taksim but before the big problems started, when we were just gathering in the park, they stopped Internet Turkey protests (credit: Tyra Deckard) and phone access around Gezi Park. I think they brought the ‘jammers’ (not sure if that’s the right word) and it was really difficult to reach each other and use the Internet. But somehow we could call each other sometimes, but couldn’t access the Internet. Before that we were using social media to share the pictures, [to show] how it was like a festival and peaceful, to show people and invite them to support.”

Cimin said that social media was an integral part of initially spreading the word. On the first day of the protest, when the police came to Gezi, she said a helpful police officer helped her get away from the crowd, and she found other supporters camped out in a bar, where they used Facebook and Twitter to send messages out.

“After that, social media helped us to learn what was happening around [us], because we couldn’t follow [on] TV or anywhere. Of course, we  didn’t have perfect Internet access around Taksim, but about every 15 minutes we were trying, and we could check our Twitter and Facebook. And I think everybody was like me, and when we found news or information we were sharing with people around [us]. Nobody knew each other but if someone had some new information they were just shouting and telling everyone they met.”

Cimin credits social media for how many people eventually showed up. “I think it got more crowded and crowded because of social media, because when we shared news of the violence, [people] wanted to join to show their reaction and help the other people. For example, football club supporters connected [thanks to] social media, and invited everybody to join them. And civil organizations invited their supporters, and then people invited their friends. That was all social media.”

And it wasn’t just intangible support – organizers used social sites to nail down exactly what items protesters needed. “We shared on Twitter and Facebook what people need there most and people started to bring the necessities, like food (which was one of the most important, because you were waiting there for hours and there’s nowhere open), gas masks, water, barrets, even tampons and pads, toilet paper, and paper towels. They offered shelter to sleep somewhere if you [were] tired.” 

While Facebook and Twitter have been crucial for organization and outreach, dissidents are also turning to YouTube – and using some lighthearted humor in the process. Turkish protesters are tempering the demonstrations with levity through videos that use the slogan “Everyday I’m Capuling.” In Turkish, “capulcu” translates to looter or marauder, and Ergodan used the term to describe the demonstrators. Now they’re embracing it.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube aren’t the only online tools demonstrators are using. Turkish professionals living in the U.S.  just successfully raised money using Screen Shot 2013-06-07 at 11.29.52 AMcrowdfunding platform Indiegogo to take out an ad in the New York Times to draw yet more international attention to this issue. The campaign raised over $100,000 in an extremely short period of time. This action demonstrates how traditional media still has immense value when it comes to serious engagement with global affairs – and it also shows that the Internet’s social networking tools provide assistance where conventional methods fail. And the success of the campaign suggests that this movement is gaining more widespread support. 

Of course, each time a major event has found its roots or development in social media, we hear the same critiques, and the Turkish protests are no exception. 

The first centers on the unreliability of the crowdsourced narrative. The Boston bombings showed us how news makers and regular citizens alike can royally fail at trying to insta-report thanks to the churn of social updates. We plainly saw how Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms can encourage the spread of misinformation, and how giving Reddit credence can sometimes result in unconfirmed (and ultimately false) theories floating into the mainstream media.

The crux of Ergodan’s argument against the protests parallels arguments used against Twitter as a communication tool: That the information going around is not accurate. While some of the photos that initially spread around were inaccurate (one of the pictures that was supposed to be the Turkish protests turned out to be of a marathon), there are many more accurate snapshots and videos captured of the events. Yes, social media can spread misinformation – but in this case, there is plenty of verifiable on-the-ground intel being disseminated that makes dismissing social media entirely impossible.

The second critique centers on how easy it is to post about an issue versus how much effort it takes to get involved in other ways. This critique derides social media updates on social issues as slacktivism, something that makes users feel good but doesn’t achieve practicable goals. 

While both of these arguments are valid, the fact remains that the Turkish protesters are relying on their virtual voice – and given the rise in government media censorship during times of unrest, all of us watching from the outside might have to as well.

[Photo credit: Tyra Deckard]

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Kate Knibbs
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