Immediately after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered that Twitter be blocked in Turkey at the end of last week, many users of the micro-blogging service made fun of Erdoğan’s decision by showing how easy it was to get around the ban.
The overall feeling was that Erdoğan and his advisers must be technological illiterates to think they could seal Turkey off in an age of global digital connectivity. After a new round of censorship over the weekend that closed off the easiest alternative routes, statistics in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review showed that the number of Turkish language tweets has gone down substantially. I am not surprised, because not each and every one of the approximately 10 million Turkish Twitter users will be willing to go the extra mile and pay, albeit little, for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) subscription, apparently the only effective way left to defy the official embargo. According to some optimists, the national university entrance exam is to blame for the temporary decrease and after 2 million students return to Twitter, Turkey’s tweeters will once again show that they can beat the ban. Whatever the numbers are and will be, a few days after the first introduction of a Twitter ban in a country pretending to be a democracy, we can safely conclude that, thanks to resilience and creativity, tweets in Turkish may be down, but not out.
That’s great. But does it mean that Erdoğan’s policies failed? A growing number of analysts agree that looking at the ongoing use of Twitter in Turkey is not the best yardstick to measure the success of the ban. They stress that, paradoxically, the target audience of the censorship measures is not the Twitter community, most of whom would never vote for the ruling party anyway, but it is the traditional voter base of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations, the Twitter ban is part of a strategy to convince the electoral base of the ruling party that there is a plot among various external and internal forces to bring Turkey to its knees. By slamming Twitter as a tool in the hands of those anti-Turkish powers, Erdoğan is cynically exploiting a deeply rooted fear among many Turks. Shadi Hamid, author of the recently published “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East,” underlined the same point and put it in a bigger framework: “When leaders in young democracies (and even in old ones) face growing opposition and struggle to deliver on their promises, falling back on populism and ideology becomes one way to close the gap and shore up the support of those you know you can count on -- your base.”
The most stimulating explanation of Erdoğan’s strategy has been provided by Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor of sociology and an expert on social media. Tufekci claims the Turkish prime minister knows very well that blocking social media is “a game with no end.” But that is not the point. Listening to Erdoğan’s speeches at recent elections rallies and his frequent misuse of a recent incident of a Twitter account being manipulated for the distribution of pornography, Tufekci is convinced that his aim is to demonize all social media and present it as a threat to family values: “It is a strategy of placing social media outside the sacred sphere, as a disruption of family, as a threat to unity, as an outside blade tearing at the fabric of society. … Erdoğan likely still has enough supporters to win elections, but to continue to win, he needs to keep them off social media. His game is to scare them about all that comes from social media. He knows they’ll hear of the corruption tapes. But they are now associated with the same source that maligns housewives as porn-stars,” she wrote.
If Tufekci is right, the key question becomes whether or not Erdoğan can win that battle for the hearts and minds of his own supporters. Most probably, he will manage to convince around 30 percent of the electorate, at least in the short run. Much, if not all, will depend on the other 20 percent that voted for the AKP in 2011. How long will they buy into Erdoğan’s fear mongering? When will they recognize that the current, deliberate policy of extreme polarization sends a message to the rest of society, more than half of the Turkish population, that the government basically does not give a damn about what they feel, think or want? Are they willing to switch parties this Sunday, if only for tactical reasons?