After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Thursday that he would “eradicate” Twitter and proceeded to (attempt to) block the social media service throughout the country, Twitter use in Turkey shot up 138 percent.
Erdogan has been criticized in recent weeks for his ham-fisted handling of protests in Turkey as persistent allegations of corruption against him and associates circulate widely on social media. The embarrassment and pressure have apparently fostered a siege mentality, prompting Erdogan to launch a misguided campaign against freedom of expression in his country.
More than 2.4 million messages were tweeted from the country within three hours of the blackout taking effect, according to the Turkish news site Zete.com, and some Turkish users even claimed that the number of Twitter users in the country had jumped from 7 million to 10 million. (VICE News repeatedly requested confirmation or correction of this traffic and user data from Twitter's corporate headquarters, but did not receive a reply.)
Trending hashtags included #OccupyTwitter, #ErdoganBlock, and #DictatorErdogan, and their Turkish-language equivalents.
The upshot? Erdogan's Twitter ban backfired, big time.
Even Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, defied the ban by tweeting repeatedly on Friday.
./. kullan?lan platformlara eri?imin topyekün engellenmesi teknik olarak zaten mümkün degil.
— Abdullah Gül (@cbabdullahgul)March 21, 2014
Sosyal medya platformlar?n?n tamamen kapat?lmas? tasvip edilemez.
— Abdullah Gül (@cbabdullahgul)March 21, 2014
“The major newspapers are broadcasting how to get around the twitter ban,” Deniz Agah, a Turkish freelance journalist, told VICE News. “Even the president of Turkey is saying, ‘look, I found a way.’ Technically, he’s doing something criminal too.”
At a campaign rally on Thursday, Erdogan claimed that the Twitter ban followed a court order to the Turkish telecom regulator BTK, after users filed legal complaints alleging violations of privacy on the site. The company said the ban was meant to prevent the “victimization of citizens.”
But Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily, reported on Friday that the order did not actually come from a court and had been the result of “an executive decision, not a judicial verdict.”
Within minutes of the ban, internet-savvy Turks — 40 percent of whom are also active on Facebook — found several ways to get around it. They used alternative domain name systems, anonymous virtual private networks, and text messaging services set up with the help of Twitter’s global public policy team.
Posters and graffiti have appeared throughout the country instructing people how to use these methods.
A poster in Istanbul instructed pedestrians how to use alternative domain name systems. It read, "Don't only change your DNS, changes your government too."
People shared DNS numbers that allow Twitter users to circumvent the ban.
Turkish users are evidently unfazed by the government's attempt to stop them.
“Everyone figured out how to use VPNs,” Agah said, referring to virtual private networks. “Turkish people are used to this. We had no YouTube for three years.”
YouTube was one of the most visited sites in Turkey before a series of court orders banned it from 2007 to 2010 for hosting content that "insulted Turkishness," which is illegal. Erdogan's next move may be to reinstitute the ban.
“We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook," he remarked earlier this month, complaining that his enemies were spreading lies about him online.
The Twitter ban elicited strong criticism from around the world.
“The decision to block Twitter is an unprecedented attack on internet freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey,” Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's researcher on Turkey, said in a statement. “The draconian measure, brought under Turkey's restrictive internet law, shows the lengths the government is prepared to go to prevent anti-government criticism."
Turks are scheduled to go to the polls at the end of the month in an election that is widely seen as a major test of Erdogan’s tumbling popularity, against a backdrop where press freedom has been yielding to government pressure.
“Twitter has become extremely important because mainstream media in Turkey has long failed its mission to inform the public. Many TV channels and newspapers that are owned by corporations have succumbed to government pressure and censored crucial news over the years,” Elif Ince, a reporter with the liberal newspaper Radikal, told VICE News. “Mainstream media fails to report the police violence that is taking place during recent anti-corruption protests as well. Because mainstream media has failed, people have increasingly turned to Twitter to get their news.”
Ince added that Twitter is also a way for Turkish reporters to get around censorship.
“Many journalists who work in mainstream media also use Twitter to spread news or views that their employer censors, and some have lost their jobs because of such tweets,” she said. “We're really angry about this ban.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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