Social Media is the New Grassroots: Dispatch from Turkey

by Ken Mueller on July 2, 2013 · 3 comments

Social Media is the New Grassroots: Dispatch from TurkeyOver the past few years we added a new term to our lexicon: Arab Spring.

It’s a term for the demonstrations that have taken place in quite a few Arab countries, which in some cases have resulted in the ouster of political leaders. In Egypt, where a democratically elected leader was put into office just a year ago, citizens are protesting again, seeking new leadership, saying the current leadership hasn’t done enough, and that things are actually worse than before.

One of the stories that came out of the Arab Spring was the role that social media played in connecting those who felt disenfranchised and oppressed, and helping them to organize. While social media was not the cause, it was certainly a catalyst for those movements. I’ve been fascinated with how governments use the media since my days in graduate school. In terms of our own country, I’m particularly fond of Robert Brown’s book, Manipulating the Ether, and Howard Blue’s Words at War. Now, with social media, we’re getting to see that the media is not just in the hands of the government, but in the hands of the people as well.

In addition to the situation in Egypt, I’ve been following very closely what is going on in Turkey. I was able to connect with an individual living very near where things are boiling over. We began an email conversation about what was happening..

What follows are excerpts from our conversation from over the past few weeks. Also, I’m not naming this individual or giving any other specific details, for reasons of his safety, which will become apparent as you read through this. I’ve left some sentences intact while redacting specific information which could assist authorities in tracking my source down. While he isn’t overly concerned with his safety, we both felt it was best to do it this way to just be sure. Also, for context, check out this Digital Collection of Gezi Park articles which will bring you up to date.

I’ve written this up as a Q&A, with a minimal amount of editing and reordering  for the sake of context, clarity, and flow. Our conversation ran on and off from June 16 through July 1. You’ll notice some changes in his answers about things as the situation changed, and as the role of social media changed. Also, early on he told me that he was inclined to let me identify him by name, but that changed within the past week, and I’m glad we sat on this awhile, rather than rushing to publish it.


Me: When we look back at the Arab Spring, there was a lot of discussion about social media. My take on it is that what happened in those countries was not the result of social media, but that social media helped many of the participants understand that they weren’t alone; that others felt the same way, and helped them to organize and plan. I’m assuming much the same is going on there. When people feel alone, they don’t want to act, but when they realize that there are many more people who feel the same way, they suddenly feel empowered.

That’s what I thought too, and from everything I read, that seemed to be the case. Social media has played a huge role in this, but here I feel social media has played a bit of a different role. People have been grousing among each other about the creeping authoritarianism under Erdogan, but they needed a galvanizing moment. May 1st saw massive crackdowns on protesters trying to reach the square as they do every year. Tear gas was deployed in much the same way it has been over the past few weeks. The difference was that people didn’t care much about the communists or the socialists, or their right to gather in Taksim Square, which was and still is (I suppose) under construction. I remember thinking it was right of the government to prevent people from entering the square because having too many people there could end up being rather dangerous (not many exits from the square because of construction fences, primarily). I didn’t pay too much attention to what happened to protesters that night. There were some minor news reports. The conventional wisdom among my friends and coworkers was that it’s a bad thing to go out on May 1st. Schools even cancelled classes.

Another protest was held over the destruction of an old theater to make room for a new project (a hotel, a mall, a high-rise, I can’t remember…) Many famous actors and musicians attended the protest, which was also dispersed by tear gas. I remember seeing a few videos in my feed about that. People generally thought it was a terrible thing and tutted over it, but chalked it up to “the way things are now” and moved on.

When the students originally occupying Gezi Park were dealt with so roughly the first time, on Thursday May 30, not too many people paid attention. Some things were being shared on Facebook and Twitter, but it was thought to be a normal event.

When the police returned to the park on Friday morning (May 31) and doubled down on their rough handling of protesters, my Facebook feed exploded with videos and pictures of what had happened. This was being contrasted in some posts with media reports of what had happened. People seemed to get rather angry not only because of the brutal handling of what was obviously a peaceful protest (this was a normal thing in May, though having it happen so many times in such a short period likely alarmed citizens) but also because of the contrast between media reports and news coming from protesters in the park. Powerful images emerged. The students resolved to return to the park and called others to join them, using social media.

Rather than inspiring a mutual sharing of grievances, social media seemed to help people understand that there was a vast difference between what they were being fed on the television and what was actually occurring. People seemed to be becoming aware that the country they thought they lived in was a media-driven fantasy. People flocked to the square on Friday, not really knowing what to expect. I went to(redacted), but I was the only one to make it to (redacted) Street. I was sending messages to friends and sharing information. At the time, I was disappointed that two of my (friends) had decided not to come because of some tear gas nearer our neighborhood. I had walked down fine. Why couldn’t they?

The night of Friday May 31 was nightmarish.

That night, everything had changed. People became glued to their phones, sharing as much information as they could. Social media became a way to make sure the real story got out, rather than what was being broadcast. Huge masses took to the square on Saturday, especially after the police announced a withdrawal at 6 p.m. People were joking that evening about how CNN Turk was showing a documentary about penguins while what seemed like more than a million people gathered in protest. Penguins became the official symbol of media distrust. If you’re digging through pictures from the following days, you’ll see people Photoshopping penguins into protest scenes. People took stuffed penguins to the park. The humor with which the entire thing was handled was very reminiscent of meme-ish internet humor, and it was of course hilarious.

After that, social media has been used both to inject humor into the situation and to spread good information. People are posting about clashes in different parts of town, sometimes to help protesters, sometimes just to help friends of friends decide whether to venture from one part of town to another.

It has of course helped people also coalesce more quickly into a common identity, but this was a secondary result. If social media helped people do that so much, why did the Occupy Wall Street kids have such a hard time vocalizing their concerns?

I can write more later. I feel like I’m beginning to drivel a little. Another question would surely help me focus. I have been watching people run from the police beneath my apartment all day and my brain is a bit weary.

Social media has also of course helped people in Turkey spread the truth about what has happened here. That’s why the PM is so concerned about cracking down on people “spreading lies” via social media. In his speech today, he swore to find and arrest everyone doing so. Good luck with that.

Me: What social platforms are in use over there?

Social platforms in use seem to be mostly Facebook and Twitter. Smartphones have really taken off over the past few years. In 2010, maybe 10% of students in this area had smartphones. Now, more like 90% have them. This happened in the States too, but seemed to happen a bit earlier. I’m chalking this up to easy credit and affiliations between service providers and manufacturers, which were slower to arrive here. Smartphones are still rather expensive in Turkey compared to the States. An iPhone costs twice as much here, but people still want to have one.

Keep in mind that this is in Istanbul, which is vastly different from most of the country. The majority of Turkish citizens still consume their information via television or newspaper. This sort of generational divide (or paradigm adoption, if you want to call it that) is also evident in the States, though it is likely not as high a contrast.

Me: Is there any government control over access to social media or internet (as in China), or is it unrestricted?

It is mostly unrestricted. The government is largely concerned with censoring specific websites. There was a laughable bill introduced a few years ago which would ban all websites containing certain words in their titles. Most of the words were sexual in nature. It wasn’t passed, but an optional filter law was passed. You can find what information you need on that by searching Hurriyet Daily News from 2010. I have had the impression that the Turkish government really doesn’t understand the internet, and thinks of it as more of a toy and/or threat to moral standards than anything else.

Me:  In light of recent revelations here in the U.S. about the NSA and CIA reportedly “watching” us all online, is there the same concern over there?

People here are not afraid of their government, it seems. They eat tear gas, run away and then return when it clears. They chant in unison to the police, “Shoot your gas, shoot your gas, shoot your tear gas. Take off your helmet, throw away your baton, and then we’ll see who the real man is.” There are many other chants as well. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s a beautiful thing to see. I have seen a lot of protest over the past few weeks, and I have seen very little violence. I think people are much more interested in sharing information and keeping each other safe than censoring themselves or worrying about whether Uncle Sam can see pictures of their ex-girlfriends. They earnestly believe they are fighting a fascist state which is interested in controlling the media and suppressing their speech freedoms.

Me: This is fascinating. If Facebook and Twitter are being used, I would imagine that for all that is being shared publicly, there is also much more being shared privately via DM and private FB message…

I’m sure. People here use WhatsApp, MSN, iPhone messaging (can’t remember the name), etc. There are also a lot of regular cellphone calls, just asking people where they are and what the situation is, then sharing that information via SMS or another call. I don’t go to websites to find out what’s going on. I call my friends, who have talked with their friends. Of course people try to help with private messaging and status updates as well.

Me: Do you see it growing, as in people perhaps being hesitant to say stuff publicly, but then being a bit braver about what they post as they see others doing it? Kind of like a snowball effect?

Your first question is difficult to answer. Am I anxious? Yes. I won’t know until I see what happens tomorrow. Mondays have been quieter over the past few weeks. People go to work and then go protest in the park at night. The lack of a park to protest in now (it is fully occupied by police and military police at this point, and the government has announced that anyone approaching the park or square will be considered terrorists) will likely curb that rhythm some. Of course, people will try to find another way to congregate, but likely be met with fierce resistance.

Second: I think posting information is an act of courage. I am personally considering tempering my own posts. It depends on what steps the government takes over the next few days.

Third: The snowball effect was visible during the time I described earlier, though I’d characterize it as more of an avalanche. People understood the tools they had in hand and began using them as much as possible. There was less than a 24 hour shift in media consumption, according to what I saw among my friends and stories I’ve heard. Personal accounts (with accompanying photos) have become much, much more important. I see fewer status updates concerning emotional states and more strict sharing of good information. People are working together to discern fact from fiction, and helping each other edit what is being posted.

Me: As I use this in a blog post, I need to know what I can say and can’t say, so as not to put you in any danger of any sort, i.e. in how I identify you, etc.

Right. I’m inclined to say you can fully identify me, but I’d rather wait a couple of days at this point to see if they start rounding people up. I’ve already participated with my full name in another publication.

They’re more likely to round up people who are communicating in Turkish, because they are less likely to have English speakers combing through the news. It would be a massive task to identify me and then clamp down, especially when they have so many easier fish to fry.

But I’d still like to wait.


Throughout the process, my source used his Facebook page to continually post articles from around the world about the situation, so I was able to follow along in my newsfeed. The next day, June 17, my source messaged me with a link to an article.

A heck of a piece describing the same thing I’m talking about. It appears similar protests have spread to Brazil.

Turkish force, lies and videotape: repression on three fronts | openDemocracy

Over the next week and a half we didn’t chat much, but I continued to read his posts. Then he returned on June 29 in my inbox:

Hi Ken! Hope you are well. Not sure if you’re still doing the blog post, but I think it’s better if my name is not mentioned.

Me: OK, no problem. How are things?

Slower right now. Tactics have changed a bit. Not sure if you saw the posts today about the official announcement that Facebook was “cooperating” with the government. Facebook quickly issued a denial. The government seem to be doing their best to scare people into silence.

Me: Yeah, I think that’s a typical tactic.

Yes, unfortunately. They’ll probably arrest some people who have left everything publicly searchable. A few sacrificial lambs to scare everyone else into submission.

Then yesterday I got back with him to prep this post.

Me: Hey, I’m hoping to run a post this week with your comments, and I will keep your name out of it. Just curious if you have anything to add as to how folks are using social media now that we are a few weeks into this. Has anything changed?

Well, if you’ve looked at some of the articles from the last week, you know that there’s a bit of a witch hunt going on. The government demanded that Twitter and Facebook comply with information requests, even going so far as to announce that while Twitter was not compliant, Facebook was helping them identify protesters. Facebook issued a swift denial under the “Fact Check” portion of their news page.

The Communications minister is demanding that Twitter open an office in Turkey, and has said that Twitter will “receive the Ottoman slap” if they do not comply. It’s pretty hilarious stuff, actually.

From what I understand, there is a massive online investigation currently underway. I’m not sure how they’re doing this without compliance from Twitter and Facebook, other than to compile lists of potential targets and then try to discern their identities in other ways. The targets are, officially stated, people who helped organize the protests and abetted crimes against the government. People who insulted public officials are also included. I have seen a quote from the PM, though I can’t remember in which article, stating that he wanted foreigners who were “spreading lies” also brought to justice.

My Facebook page is friends only, and I’ve been pretty careful not to insult the government when re-posting things. I’m not really worried about myself, and the people I’ve been interviewing also do not seem very worried. The consensus seems to be that the government will probably round up some sacrificial lambs in order to scare the general population. There are way too many people using social media to get the word out. It would be impossible to round them all up.

We both then reiterated that I would be very careful in how I presented any information that could be used to identify him.

I don’t think I’ve said anything legally actionable anyway, but it helps to err on the side of caution

Me: I’ll look over it, but I’m betting in their case they aren’t worried about what is “legally actionable.”  They will have their own definition of that.

They have an incredibly broad definition. There haven’t been any publicly announced arrests recently. A few people were arrested for using Twitter a couple of weeks ago, but from what I understand many of them were released. The Turkish group Redhack encouraged people to state in court that their accounts were hacked by Redhack, since it was impossible for the state to legally prove otherwise.

Me: Interesting. So really, at the start of all this, the media says that it began when people were protesting the turning of a park into a shopping mall. In your mind, is that the cause, or merely the first real public manifestation of already existing unrest?

It’s definitely the latter. A lot of people have been increasingly frustrated over the past few years. Interestingly, a poll conducted in the park during the first days of the protests indicated that most of the people protesting were doing so because of perceived media control. Turkey has the most jailed journalists in the world. Everyone knew this before the protests happened. I think there was just some sort of critical moment reached where people would not accept police violence against peaceful protesters, and would certainly not accept a media that refused to report it.

So many people are talking about how Gezi Park showed them that they have much more in common with the various groups that comprise the Turkish population than they previously thought. Football supporters that were sworn enemies found themselves chanting and singing together. Different political parties found common ground. Kurdish people were included in the conversation, and many Turks began to question whether they’d been given false news about the Kurdish situation over the past years. Everyone I talk to says that for them, the coming together was the most amazing thing they’ve seen in Turkey. I often hear people talk about how frustrated they were with other Turks before the protests, but after these events, their entire outlook on their countrymen has changed.

It’s easy to forget the big issues when the conversation is directed at divisive details. Gezi pulled people together, and they found they could actually talk with people whom they had previously thought intractable. The States is in a similar situation.

After the government began threatening people using social media, a lot of the traffic even on my feed seemed to die a bit. Maybe you can get more information using Twitter data for the #occupygezi hashtag.


I suppose I could mention that the opposition has been trying to use social media to spread their own message. There was a photo of a crushed beer can in an empty mosque that was widely circulated among government supporters. It is the source of the PM’s claims that protesters drank and did other illicit activities in the Dolmabahce mosque. I have seen some sites set up (very poor websites) that show supposed photos of protesters behaving badly. I actually saw an image that claimed to be the “real story” behind the woman in the red dress. AKP supporters tried to claim that the red dress photo had been made in a studio, using a bad Photoshop job to “prove” their point. There are multiple videos and photos of the incident, but that didn’t stop them. I looked for a link to it, but can’t find it right now.

That brings you up to date. I’ll continue to follow my friend online to get the real story of what is happening. I’m sure there are other places you can go as well to keep up. This story is far from over, and with things bubbling up in Egypt and Brazil, I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and social media is playing a very important role in all of these movements.




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