Erdogan Takes on 21st Century

Supporters hold a poster of Turkish PM Erdogan during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul

Just a week before hotly anticipated municipal elections, Twitter has been banned in Turkey by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.

Or has it? Three hours after access to the site was blocked at midnight on Thursday Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, tweeted a smiley face. Five hours later Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, was tweeting about his upcoming rally.

And most surprisingly of all Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, broke a month-long Twitter absence to denounce the ban. Far from being silenced, tweets from Turkish accounts rose significantly over the weekend, making a mockery of attempts to block the site’s users.

Officially, the ban is a response to Twitter’s refusal to comply with Turkish court orders requesting the removal of unspecified illegal material.

“We will root out Twitter”, Mr Erdogan declared at a rally in Bursa, hours before the site was blocked. “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of Turkey.”

Instead, we have witnessed impressive technological prowess from the millions of Turkish Twitter users who have managed to avoid the block. So too, we have witnessed the fact that Mr Erdogan is willing to risk international condemnation by placing Turkey in the same camp as North Korea, China and Iran so far as internet freedom is concerned. We have also witnessed a lack of cohesion within the ruling party, in particular, the direct opposition of President Gul to Mr Erdogan’s ban, voiced, appropriately enough, on Twitter.

The strain of a recent scandal is beginning to show. On December 17 an investigation was opened into alleged corruption in the prime minister’s closest circles. News outlets were prevented from publishing some details, but there was frenzied discussion online as there was during the Gezi protests last June. Almost daily, taped phone calls are leaked and dissected on YouTube and Twitter. In one, which Mr Erdogan says is a fabrication, he appears to be telling his son how to hide a large amount of cash. Two weeks ago Mr Erdogan threatened to close YouTube and Facebook This was interpreted as pre-election bluster, designed to bolster the strongman reputation that plays well with the prime minister’s core constituency of conservative, working-class Turks.

When Twitter was blocked on Thursday, social media exploded. Turks are savvier than most when it comes to sidestepping internet restrictions because they have to be. In a country where the mainstream media is often shackled by censorship, the urban, secular politically minded youth use Twitter as a lifeline. Glued to their screens, supremely well informed and lightning-fingered, they were unfazed by the block, swiftly changing their internet provider settings to sidestep it.

Since Thursday, authorities have retaliated by blocking the most popular IP addresses, only for their Twitter-using adversaries to find new alternatives. Watching this is like watching a grandfather taking on his grandson at a computer game – an inevitably pathetic battle of unmatched expertise and agility. It is not so much a question of age but of energy and outlook; Twitter users are typically news-hungry Turks who seek to find out more about their environment, who are comfortable in a forum of opinion and discourse. They innovate and adapt as a matter of course. The AKP, on the other hand, hardly used social media before the Gezi protests last June. Then, at last, they realised the importance of Facebook and Twitter in reaching out to a population of 76 million, but by that time they were already woefully late to the party.

Mr Erdogan has spectacularly miscalculated this fight, succeeding only in fuelling rumour and rancour. Wild hypotheses are flourishing as to why the ban was carried out so suddenly, so close to elections, with no apparent court order – what is Mr Erdogan afraid of? Sex tapes and assassination plots are the favourite theories, but it is an online free-for-all. Ironically, the very gossip and ill-will that the prime minister presumably sought to suppress has multiplied as users delightedly share their speculations on what exactly is going to be leaked in the next week to embarrass the prime minister before the elections.

Desperate measures are a sign that Mr Erdogan faces desperate times. Banning a social media site on the grounds that it contains disputed material is a tinpot move, and most internet users are convinced that an important leak is coming. Whether it comes or not, the ban was an extreme move and it certainly does not look like a vote-winner, although Mr Erdogan has addressed vast rallies of party faithful in recent days and says he is confident of winning against a weak opposition. Turks who use Twitter are unlikely to vote for the AKP. However, the prime minister has alienated swing voters with an action that reeks of oppression.

Mr Erdogan would not have taken a step that spells serious trouble for himself and his party if he did not believe the stakes were high. We do not yet know why he took that view. But Twitter users across Turkey are united in a frenzy of anticipation.

A version of this piece appeared in the 24th March edition of the Financial Times. Photo of AKP rally above from Reuters, by Murad Sezer.