Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement Thursday that he would ban the social media platform Twitter seems to be a #fail. Within hours, Turks and others had made #TwitterisblockedinTurkey trend worldwide, and the president condemned the move.
The move by Mr. Erdogan’s administration appears to be the latest attempt to stifle a damaging series of online leaks alleging widespread corruption in his inner circle, and came just 10 days before nationwide local elections. Yesterday, he vowed to “eradicate” Twitter, telling supporters at a rally in the city of Bursa, “I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Among those to condemn the move was Turkey’s own head of state, President Abdullah Gul. He broke a month-long silence on his own Twitter account to voice his opposition. “A complete ban on social media platforms cannot be approved,” he wrote.
Easier said than done. Turks swiftly circumvented the ban using software to mask domain names and IP addresses. The trending hashtag soon followed. According to Gonzo Insight, a local Internet research group, 2.5 million tweets were sent from Turkey within three hours of the ban coming into force.
Turkey has the eighth highest Twitter usage of any country in the world, and the highest penetration as a percentage of total internet users. More than 10 million use the social media platform, which has become a vital news source as the government exerts greater influence on mainstream media outlets.
Turks have been waiting avidly to hear recordings of alleged phone conversations between senior government figures, Erdogan, and his family and allies that have been leaked online. Among the leaks was a recording of a call allegedly between Erdogan and his son Bilal in which the pair discuss how to hide tens of millions of dollars from police investigators. Many expect the most scandalous revelations of all to emerge in the next few days, before municipal elections on March 30.
The recordings have all been posted on YouTube and disseminated using two Twitter accounts, Haramzadeler, meaning "sons of thieves," and Bascalan, a pun on the Turkish word for prime minister, meaning "prime thief." Both accounts have upwards of 300,000 followers.
“My expectation is that the Prime Minister wants this website to be blocked at least until the election. It implies that something even more serious will come out of these accounts that are releasing the leaks,” says Kerem Altiparmak a political science professor and specialist in Internet freedom at Ankara University.
The ban was put in place by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), a government body granted sweeping new Internet censorship powers last month. The BTK said in a statement on its website that it enacted the ban because Twitter ignored several Turkish court rulings. Twitter said it had hired lawyers to contest the decision.
Leaders of the European Union, with which Turkey is in membership negotiations, added their voices to a chorus of condemnation.
“The ban on the social platform Twitter.com in Turkey raises grave concerns and casts doubt on Turkey's stated commitment to European values and standards,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a statement.
Senior government figures stood by the decision, however. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek told Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT that the closure was an isolated case as a result of a court ruling, and “does not derive from a prohibition mentality.”