Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on TV. Photo by Ekin Özbiçer
It was 11P M on a Thursday night in Yeniköy, a neighborhood in the northern part of Istanbul. My wife and I sat in our living room, watching Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, address his followers at a pre-election rally in the city of Bursa. The rant was about Twitter. “Twitter, shwitter!” he yelled at an ecstatic crowd. “We’re going to uproot it! I don’t care what the international community says. We’re dealing with an international conspiracy here!”
I switched the channel, and there it was again: Erdogan's face, contorted and angry. Another channel, the same face—neatly trimmed, Islam-approved mustache bobbing up and down as he continued to shout about the evils of social media, threatening to shut down Twitter and other social networking sites.
This scapegoating wasn't anything particularly new, either; it's just that the target had changed. Previously, he's blamed an elusive “interest rate lobby,” the US,Israel, "the atheists," and even topless men dressed in leather for the violence and economic losses that came out of the massive Gezi protests last summer. Now Twitter is the guilty party. “Twitter and all [the other social media outlets]—none of them are bigger than our nation," he proclaimed. The following day, authorities blocked access to Twitter—a move that was denounced by President Abdullah Gül.
Given that a leaked wiretap revealing the illicit goings-on of his government has been released in segments on Twitter every day for the past month, Erdogan’s beef with the micro-messaging site isn't exactly surprising. The government is attributing these leaks to a mysterious “parallel state” (a former suspect was the "robot lobby"), implying that the secretive Fethullah Gülen—a past ally of Erdogan's, but now a rival Islamist leader living in exile in Pennsylvania—is responsible.
The leaks started surfacing right after some 1,700 police officers were reassigned and roughly 120 judges and prosecutors were implicated in the "December 17 Operation"—a criminal investigation into government corruption. A number of high profile personalities (including the sons of some of Erdogan’s closest associates) have already been arrested on charges of embezzlement, bribery, smuggling, and international money laundering. Inquiries are ongoing.
The source of the leaks are two suggestively named Twitter accounts—Haramzadeler (“Sons of sinners”) and Baş Çalan (“Prime Thief”)—which have outed Erdogan and his closest stooges’ private conversations. The (unproven) leaks have implied that there are no limits to the prime minister’s reach, suggesting he single-handedly micro-managed the fate of controversial real estate development projects and handpicked university deans (a role reserved for the president),supreme court judges (a role reserved for the High Commission of Judges and Prosecutors, a supposedly independent body), and even popular football chairmen.
The public believed it to be a case of self-censorship when privately owned national news channels decided to broadcast cooking shows and documentaries about penguins during the massive Gezi protests, but it appears that nearly all of those decisions had been down to Erdogan. He reportedly watched every single TV show—even following the news tickers along the bottom of the screen—and read every piece of news he could.
He allegedly instructed his allies on the editorial boards to interfere with the content he disliked, pulled newscasters off the air, and fired voices too critical for his taste. The illicit—and yet to be verified—leaks give the impression of a media system where all the main players, thanks to their interest in maintaining government contracts, had been not only complying but actively cooperating with the government and its demands.
Photo by Çağlar Kanzık
Back to that ordinary Thursday night. A few hours after Erdogan’s rant about Twitter, we switched the channel to CNN Türk. On screen was the journalist Abdulkadir Selvi, a known government apologist, who was commenting on the speech we'd just watched:
[Forces] are trying to redesign Turkey through publishing illegal recordings on this internet [sic]. Unlike how it would play out in the US, UK, or France, the court orders are not fulfilled by Twitter or Facebook. If someone listened to President Obama’s private calls illegally and leaked them on Twitter, we know they would be promptly packed away to Guantánamo. When it comes to Turkey, though, nobody cares about court orders or protection of the private lives of its citizens. They have to come open their offices here and respect the Turkish law—that’s what the PM meant. Otherwise he neither has [the] will nor the power to shut Twitter down, and I would be the first to oppose if he did.
It seemed that Selvi was totally oblivious to the events that followed the rise of WikiLeaks and its massive campaign against America's military and government, in that all the subpoenas, take-down notices, and identity requests they sent to Twitter admins achieved absolutely nothing.
In fact, Erdogan and his co-conspirators are much luckier than their Western counterparts in many ways. As the leaks show, their focus has been largely local or, at most, regional—an illegal shipment of gold to Iran here, a bribe from Dubai there, a little power mongering and corruption on the side. This stuff is nowhere near as controversial as Edward Snowden’s NSA/GCHQ/PRISM leaks, which exposed outrageous misconduct on a global scale.
And what happened there? Well, Snowden won't be going back to Virginia any time soon, but he isn't exactly locked up in Guantánamo, either. And despite all the uproar, it seems that operations at the British and American intelligence agencies are continuing as normal.
Erdogan and his allies need to understand what their Western counterparts have already grasped—that without citizens being able to vent through social media, you run the risk of them taking their frustrations to the street. And as the governments of Turkey’s surrounding countries saw during the Arab Spring, Molotov cocktails and braying mobs are much better at toppling rulers than angry tweets and Facebook updates.
Instead of turning to violence, we spend every day waiting for the next leak, like our parents spent every week waiting for a new episode of Dallas. And like J. R. Ewing, Erdogan has become a baddy of light entertainment—someone we love to hate, just another player in a society obsessed with spectacle.
That's why all the leaks in the world ultimately won't make any difference to Erdogan or his government. Accepting the social media response to a government scandal has the power to prevent legitimate physical action—it turns the outrage into another storyline within the grand spectacle, morphing Erdogan from a tyrant into a TV villain. Which is exactly why he needs to drop his assault on Twitter, because, in the end, people will naturally lose interest in the drama. Just like Berlusconi, Bush, and Sarkozy, the ratings will drop, and Erdogan will fade away into obscurity.