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The Turkish Internet Is a Battleground, and Erdogan Is Winning

Turkey blocked access to WikiLeaks after the group released nearly 300,000 emails from the AKP party's servers.

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As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in recent days consolidated power after being nearly ousted in a coup, the internet has emerged as one of his primary weapons against political foes real and imagined.

Controlling internet traffic and the flow of information has served as a crucial tool since a dissident faction of military personnel attempted to oust Erdogan from power over the weekend. The coup leaders tried to block access to sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but factions loyal to the Turkish leader appear to have blocked the effort by maintaining control over the country’s internet authority.

Erdogan used the internet and social media tools to rally popular support against the coup, a move that may have helped him maintain his hold on power.

With Erdogan arresting or detaining tens of thousands of military personnel, police, academics, and government officials — moves that have alarmed the Obama administration and other foreign governments — the Turkish leader is turning a tool that helped him stay in power against his foes.

The latest move came Wednesday, after the transparency advocates at WikiLeaks published a trove of nearly 300,000 emails from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. The Turkish leader promptly blocked access to the site.

Turkish officials justified blocking WikiLeaks by arguing that the site had illegally obtained the emails and that publishing the searchable archive amounted to an invasion of privacy. WikiLeaks said it had obtained the material a week before the coup and advanced its publication schedule “in response to the government’s post-coup purges.”

“We have verified the material and the source, who is not connected, in any way, to the elements behind the attempted coup, or to a rival political party or state,” the group said on its website.

Journalists searching the archive have so far been underwhelmed by the email dump, finding mostly spam and personal appeals for help from Erdogan. Turkish officials are downplaying the leak. “The emails largely consist of spam, updates about various social activities, and April Fools’ Day jokes,” an official told Al Jazeera.

But the speed with which Turkey’s Telecommunications Directorate, the state internet watchdog, blocked access to the site raises questions about what will be found in the archive once researchers have had a chance to examine it more thoroughly.

More importantly, blocking WikiLeaks, which the watchdog called an “administrative measure,” speaks to the degree of control the Erdogan administration is seeking to exercise over Turkish society. The government has purged thousands of people from the army, judiciary, and universities. Academics have been banned from traveling outside the country.

Erdogan has called the coup a “gift from God” to eliminate from the bureaucracy those disloyal to him. In that campaign, information will be a weapon for the Turkish leader, and on Wednesday, Turks got a taste for how he will likely seek to weaponize the internet for his own gain.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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