The protests that began last week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have spread throughout Turkey, gripping the country’s politics and garnering international attention. With the excessive force used by the Turkish police against protestors, what began as a small sit-in against the government’s plan to demolish Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park has become a large-scale anti-government protest movement spanning over 60 cities. Amid this widespread unrest, social media has become a battleground.
Since the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated to the world that a new generation of popular movements had emerged, social media has become a focal point for organizing, supporting, and responding to popular movements. In Turkey, the role of social media has become paramount, particularly in the absence of traditional media coverage of the movement.
According to a study from a student at NYU, the role of social media in Turkey’s Taksim Square protest movement, has been “phenomenal:” at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest were sent between 4 pm and midnight last Friday, May 31st. After midnight, as the study shows, more than 3,000 tweets were published each minute. Unlike other recent uprisings, nearly 90% of all tweets are coming from within Turkey. By contrast, according to another study, only 30% of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were from within the country. Furthermore, the language of the tweets is primarily in Turkish, suggesting that the audience is other Turkish citizens rather than the international community. The high numbers are despite only intermittent 3G network access in parts of the country.
The NYU study also shows that a lack of coverage in the Turkish media of the protests has been a key element fueling the extraordinarily volume of tweets originating from Turkey. Protesters dissatisfied with mainstream media coverage have begun live-tweeting the protests and have been encouraging Turks to turn off their televisions by promoting the hashtag #BugünTelevizyonlarıKapat (“turn off the TVs today”), which according to the study has been used in more than 50,000 tweets. While traditional media has failed to document police abuses and capture the intensity of the movement in Turkey, social media has provided a mechanism for individuals and groups to organize, exchange information, and develop a common message. It has also provided a means for protestors to garner support from abroad.
With the extensive use of social media during the protests, its role has turned into political issue. As quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who (or whose staff) tweets daily to over 2.5 million followers, lashed out in an interview: “Right now, of course, there is this curse called Twitter, all forms of lies are there. This thing called social media is a curse on societies.”
At NDItech, we support the organization and advocacy efforts of groups worldwide using information and communication technologies. As the protests in Turkey gather steam and events unfold in the streets and online, we will watch how political protesters use social networks to overcome barriers to communication, hone collective and invidual messages, and make their voices heard.