On Thursday, three days before closely watched local elections, another "administrative measure" was taken: YouTube went offline.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not had kind words for social media in recent months, which was used to organize and bring attention to the internationally known protests in Gezi Park this summer. The protests were largely against corruption and mismanagement in the current government, and have brought attention to an opposition movement that could have legs in local elections happening this weekend. Mr. Erdogan threatened a ban of Facebook and YouTube last month, which some say is to prevent the spread of videos that could be evidence of corruption in his inner circle, saying, “We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook.”
The bans are still in effect, but on March 26, a court overturned the country's authority to instate the Twitter ban. The government now has 30 days to comply or appeal the ruling. The YouTube ban came only hours after a video reportedly of a secret meeting concerning Syria between Turkish officials was uploaded to the site.
Turkey is a complicated country, largely split between a secular, liberal youth and older, more religious conservatives. Overall, however, Turkey is a very digitally connected country: Pew Research found 80 percent of Turkey’s 34 million Internet users are on social networks. It remains to be seen whether banning social media weakens opposition or fuels the flame.
Let’s take a look at some social media numbers to measure the effect of the ban on social media use in Turkey so far.
Though first reports of YouTube being banned in Turkey only surfaced on Thursday morning, already by early Thursday afternoon the hashtag #YouTubeisblockedinTurkey was trending worldwide along with theTurkish phrase: "Elektriği Kes Taş Devrine Dönelim" (roughly translated: "Cut electricity let's go back to the Stone Age").
After the ban was put in place on March 20, Twitter offered a work-around for Turkish users that uses SMS messaging . During the night of March 20 and the morning of March 21, Twitter use in Turkey skyrocketed 138 percent, according to social media firms Brandwatch and WeAreSocial. According to Turkish research group Gonzo Insight, there were almost 2.5 million tweets from Turkey from when the ban was put in effect and the next morning, setting records for Twitter use in the country. #TwitterisblockedinTurkey also became a global Twitter trend.
Along with the Twitter SMS work-around, Google offered its own Twitter access backdoor: Domain Name System (DNS) addresses that went viral online and on the streets. If a Turkish citizen attempted to reach Twitter and came across a blocked page, he or she could type in the IP address 18.104.22.168 or 22.214.171.124 into the computer network settings to get around the block. Word quickly spread online: the Washington Post found that, immediately after the ban, searches for “DNS” in Turkey spiked – jumping well over searches for “Erdogan," and on March 21, "Twitter" was at the top of Google's Hot Searches. Aside from spreading the information online, some even spray-painted the DNS code along city streets. After a few days, the telecommunication department implemented a tougher IP-level block, and searches for DNS fell off.
VPN and Tor
That being said, a tougher IP-level block didn’t stop Turkish Twitter users from finding a way to access the social networking site. When online bans get tough, users can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or anonymous browsing tools, such as Tor. Internal metrics from Tor show that use of the software in Turkey doubled since the ban began, hitting more than 40,000 users.
Some see this social media ban creating what experts call “the Streisand effect,” which is the idea that when you try to control access to something you end up bringing more attention to it. (The effect is named for an incident when Barbara Streisand sued an environmentalists for taking a photo of an eroding beach that showed her house, causing thousands more people to see the photo than would have if she left the matter alone.)
But Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci sees the situation differently. “During [a] rally, Erdogan also talked about the threat social media, including Facebook and YouTube, poses to family values,” she writes on Medium. “He talked about its disruption of privacy, and how these foreign companies do not obey Turkish court orders but obey US and European courts. In other words, Erdogan’s strategy is to demonize social media. 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.”
Will that message resonate with a more conservative constituency, or those who are concerned with Turkey going down the route of Ukraine or Egypt? We’ll see after the local elections this weekend.
Editor's note: The original version of this article did not use Mr. Erdogan's full name. It is Recep Tayyip Erdogan.