On the front lines of Turkey’s Twitter wars

On the front lines of Turkey’s Twitter wars

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared war on Twitter. The Turkish premier has laid blame for the protests currently rocking his country at the feet of the popular microblogging site, referring to it as a "menace" and a "scourge" that has spread lies about events in his country. And the Turkish police have followed his lead: Authorities have arrested dozens of social media users for spreading "false information" about the demonstrations, while the police are reportedly scrutinizing 200,000 "fake" Twitter accounts.

A crackdown on media is nothing new in Erdogan’s Turkey (or under previous Turkish governments, for that matter). Turkey is currently the world’s leading jailer of journalists, beating out such strong competition as Iran and China. Perhaps even more pernicious is the media’s financial dependence on political patrons: For example, the pro-government newspaper Sabah, which is owned by a holding company run by Erdogan’s son-in-law, ran a front page praising the prime minister for his anti-smoking campaign on the first, tumultuous day of protests.

An enterprising group of young university students have stepped in to fill this information gap — and disprove Erdogan’s dark warnings about social media. Under the moniker 140journos (for the number of characters in a tweet), they have long undermined the state’s tight grip on information — reporting on everything from Kurdish activism to gay rights issues. Since the beginning of the protests, the team told FP that they have been working 20 hours a day, creating a streaming timeline of the most important events in the country.

"Credible or not, social media has been the only [news] source until now," 140journos told FP. "Interaction has been immense…. One of the good aspects of the protests is that the news delivered on social media has been legitimized for many people. A lot of people have created Twitter accounts to get notified right away."

The team acknowledged that social media had been far from perfect. Twitter users, trying to incite outrage at the Turkish government response, have spread rumors that authorities were using the infamous Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange on protesters, and passed off videos of police brutality elsewhere as occurring in Turkey. 140journos sees its job as cutting through the disinformation, using a network of trusted volunteers on the ground to verify the information that comes their way.

The mainstream media’s failure has helped fuel the growth of Turkish citizen journalism. The 140journos team castigated the media’s "shameful silence" on the protests, saying that its corporate owners were skewing the coverage for political purposes. Twitter and Facebook have also proved more adept at capturing the spirit of the protests: "Social platforms carried the mutual sense of humor of the protesters," the team explained. "Humor has been a motivational reinforcement in spite of [protesters’] nervousness of the state and police."

In line with that spirit, 140journos’ most popular tweet since the beginning of the protests doesn’t show a massive protest or police brutality. Rather, the team said it was a viewpoint even less likely to appear in mainstream Turkish media: The image shows a television smashed on the street of the Istanbul neighborhood of Besiktas, which had been thrown by a Turkish man who shouted, "I’m sick of the lies of this!"

Read a transcript of the interview with the 140journos team after the break. It has been condensed and edited.

FP: How has social media affected the coverage of these protests?

140journos: Obviously, credible or not, social media has been the only source until now. Interaction has been immense.

While huge protests against police were going on in Taksim Square, news channels such as CNN Turk was broadcasting a short on penguins. This familiar silence really offended people. One of the good aspects of the protests is that the news delivery on social media has been legitimized for many people. A lot of people have created Twitter accounts to get notified right away.

Mainstream media is now covering what’s going on — yet its role is more like a verification to the unstoppable stream on social media. It can also be said that social platforms carry the sense of humor of the protesters.

FP: What has been your impression of the official Turkish media coverage?

140journos: Shameful silence, yet nothing new.

The coverage of the official Turkish media began three days after the protests first started. Before that time, when the public switched their TVs on to verify the rumors of street protests, NTV, one of the leading news channels, was broadcasting a Hitler documentary, and CNN Turk was broadcasting a documentary on penguins. This can’t explain any better about how bounded they are with financial concerns.

FP: Are there any downsides to social media? Has there been disinformation?

140journos: There’s no culture of management of social media content, and there won’t be. After the first days of the protest, photos and videos started to repeat with false titles, locations, and dates. 140journos has made a difference by filtering and verifying information, with the aim of preventing disinformation and provocation.

FP: What have you been doing since the protests broke out? How have you tried to cover them?

140journos: We are all university students with a concern about media, but without any political affiliation. Just like we have been doing for one and a half years, 140journos has started to broadcast from where the action happens and about what the public wants to know. 

We have been working 20 hours a day since the protests broke out. During the day, we follow the news in our hub — nothing big, just one of our tiny studio flats — and watch mainstream media’s live broadcasts, citizen journalists’ live broadcasts, and evaluate the incoming data.

FP: What have you tweeted that you think has gotten the most attention? Why do you think it spurred public interest?

140journos: The most retweeted and favorited content so far is not a proof of brutality, like you may guess. It’s a tweet with a photograph in Be?ikta?, Istanbul, where harsh street clashes between protesters and police have taken place for 2 nights in a row, showing a guy throwing his TV out of his balcony shouting "I’m sick of the lies of this! It doesn’t show the clash that happens right in front of my apartment in Istanbul’s center!"

The public is in a search of something like solidarity to hold on to, and this give them that. Citizen journalism seems to be the only way out in this corrupted media atmosphere.