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Turkey’s Erdogan takes on protesters… and Twitter

As protesters clashed with the police in several Turkish cities, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted Twitter, calling the social media site a "menace". But the Turkish leader may have to eat his words – on Twitter.


As tens of thousands of Turkish citizens took to Twitter over the past few days to find out what was going on in their cities, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was characteristically blunt about his opinion of the social networking site.

“There is now a menace which is called Twitter,'' said Erdogan in an interview with the Turkish daily, Haberturk. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.''

Embattled world leaders who voice their disdain for the micro-blogging site often do so at their own peril.

Within minutes, a collage titled, “Why they hate #twitter,” went viral on the web. The image featured Erdogan and some of the world’s most infamous political and religious leaders warning about the dangers of the social media site.

“It is time to stop the anarchy on the Internet,” Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is quoted as saying, while a 2009 quote by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad goes, “I don’t have a problem with it. But it should not be used for the wrong purposes”.

Getting the message right – or containing rumours

As a peaceful sit-in at an Istanbul park last week morphed into anti-government protests - fuelled by excessive police force – blogs and social networking sites began to comment on the mainstream Turkish media’s failure to cover the story.

“The whole country seemed to be experiencing a cognitive disconnect, with Twitter saying one thing, the government saying another, and the television off on another planet,” noted Istanbul-based American writer Elif Batuman in a blog posted on The New Yorker website on Saturday.

The disconnect was captured by an image juxtaposing the coverage on CNN International and CNN Turkey over the weekend. While the channel’s international audiences got a minute-by-minute account of the clashes, the domestic channel incongruously stuck with a cookery programme.

CNN International broadcasts live coverage of Istanbul clashes (above) while CNN Turkey airs a food show (below).
CNN International broadcasts live coverage of Istanbul clashes (above) while CNN Turkey airs a food show (below).

The regular programming run of cooking shows and wildlife documentaries got increasingly incongruous as images of police roughing up protesters began making the rounds on social networking sites.

An image of a young woman in a red dress with a white bag seemingly on a weekend walk bearing the brunt of a pressurised pepper canister on the streets of Istanbul came to epitomise the police’s disproportionate use of force in a city that’s no stranger to peaceful, contained demonstrations.

Images such as this one of a young woman in a red dress being pepper sprayed quickly went viral.
Images such as this one of a young woman in a red dress being pepper sprayed quickly went viral.

But if social media sites are long on getting out the message, they can be short on getting it right.

By Sunday, an image of journalists in gas masks pouring over their laptops went viral on the web. On Facebook, a few foreign correspondents, chastised by the flood of media criticism circulating on social media sites, heaved a sigh of relief: their Turkish comrades were finally, it seems, braving the odds to cover the story.

But social media users – not for the first time – apparently got that wrong. And it was corrected – not for the first time – by other social media users. As the popular site BuzzFeed noted, the image of reporters in gasmasks on the job was shot on May 1 and had nothing to do with the protests at Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Will the revolution be tweeted?

Over the past few years, experts have debated about whether the revolution will – or will not - be tweeted.

The 2011 Arab uprisings proved that while social media sites are effective at spreading the word, armies of well-meaning netizens may not be qualified to handle the hard business of playing the democratic game.

But when it comes to mobilizing and bypassing state propaganda, the latest Turkish protests have once again demonstrated that social media sites are a phenomenon that’s difficult to control.

Turkey in particular has a high rate of social media usage. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, 35% of Turks use social networking sites, not far below the U.S. with 50% and higher than Japan with 30%.

A report released Saturday by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation laboratory found 90% of tweets about the Turkish protests originated in Turkey. In contrast, only 30% of the tweets during the 2011 Egyptian revolution originated inside Egypt.

Erdogan would be well advised to take of note of his people’s penchant for Twitter before lambasting the site. The Turkish leader himself has a Twitter account with more 2.7 million followers. But at last count, Ergodan was not following anyone on Twitter, with his “Following” tally totalling a sobering zero. Critics who accuse the Turkish prime minister of not listening to their concerns might read something in this unidirectional use of Twitter.


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