By Shawn Gakhal
Turkey’s telecommunication authority (TIB) unbanned Twitter last Thursday, just days after local elections took place in the country.
TIB banned Twitter more than two weeks ago when phone calls between senior officials leaked to the site. The audio recordings were originally posted to YouTube, which was also recently blocked in the country.
Another video was recently posted on YouTube that depicted high-ranking officials talking about possible military conflict with Syria, which led to the website’s banning on March 27.
A source within the Turkish Prime Minister’s office told Reuters that the leaked audio recordings pose an issue to national security.
This isn’t the first time Turkey has had issues with social media.
Turkey banned YouTube back in 2007, even though the site was still accessible through other channels. Turkey officially lifted the YouTube ban in 2010.
David Faris, assistant professor of political science at Roosevelt University, is an expert on the Middle East and digital media.
The Torch landed an exclusive interview with Faris, who is currently vacationing in Turkey, and he talked about the ban of Twitter and YouTube, local elections and the political atmosphere in Turkey.
Q: What kind of effects did the banning of Twitter and YouTube have on the Turkish voting electorate regarding the flow of information? What’s being done to free up those websites?
A: The effects of these bans are difficult to discern. Twitter and YouTube are not news sites per se, but rather conduits for sharing information. Not being able to access Twitter was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived here, and the blockage of these sites is very real.
However, there are quite simple workarounds, and the most popular one here seems to be the VPN — the Virtual Private Network. …Twitter itself also provided very simple instructions on how to Tweet using SMS. On one reading, all the government is doing is teaching people how to circumvent online censorship. It’s one thing to block opposition websites, but to take down these two incredibly popular platforms means that even casual, non-political Internet users are probably going to try to circumvent. This is not to say that they had no effect. If nothing else, it meant people were talking more about Internet censorship than they were about corruption.
Q: Did the move to ban these two, highly popular social media sites have anything to do with the charges of corruption leveled against Prime Minister Erdogan?
A: The blocking of Twitter and YouTube was suspiciously timed and seemed to happen in response to allegations of corruption at the very top of the Erdogan regime. While it’s impossible to say for sure, I’d say it was less to do with the corruption per se and more about establishing control of the narrative prior to the elections.
Q: With local elections taking place and anti-government protests, seemingly, widespread, what is the general feel and mood of the Turkish people? Is it positive or negative?
A: To be clear, Erdogan’s party has not been re-elected yet. These were local, mayoral elections across the country and had no bearing on the balance of power in parliament. Like with 24/7 media everywhere, I would argue that the results of this election are being blown a bit out of proportion, since it is possible that local factors may have outweighed any frustration with Erdogan at the top. But it is evidence that we have to be careful about assuming that protests in capital cities led by young people are indicative of wider frustrations.
Assuming these elections were free and fair, the dissatisfaction felt by the opposition is not necessarily shared by the broader public. While things felt a bit tense on election night, the mood here seems just fine and not at all like Egypt did on the verge of the 2011 uprising.
Q: Is there a risk of a polarization of the Turkish people if Erdogan stays in power? If so, is this a similar situation to Mubarak in Egypt back in 2008?
A: Certainly, many of Erdogan’s moves are worrisome, and look like what we in political science call “democratic backsliding.” In this case, as in Venezuela, you have a legitimately elected leader using all kinds of tools — media control, censorship, corruption — to enhance his own power and his party’s power at the expense of the opposition and at the expense of democratic legitimacy.
However, Turkey is no Egypt. This is a much more prosperous, modern society and I would expect that any further moves toward centralizing power or censoring media will be met with a harsh and vigorous reaction from the opposition. The only way I see a Tahrir scenario unfolding here is if Erdogan alters his party’s rules and runs for a fourth term, or if he runs for president, as expected, and changes the office from a largely ceremonial one to a stronger, more imperial institution.