Twitter has been crucial to disseminating information from the protests and violence in Turkey, with graffiti already showing up to match. Image via @teasy THFC
“There is now a scourge that is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
This is how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan characterized the protests throughout Istanbul over the last few days. Erdogan, a member of the Justice and Development party, also blamed the main opposition party, Republican People's Party (CHP), for stoking the flames of rebellion.
It's always a wonder to watch entrenched politicians dismiss any act of protest or rebellion as merely the expression of oppositional manipulation. It's a technique that was cynically used in Ancient Rome, when the republic began to crumble and give way to Caesarian dictatorship. Demagogues and would-be dictators constantly accused each other of inciting popular unrest with mobs. The Soviets were particularly adept at this practice as well.
We also hear these refrains in the US from the Republican and Democratic parties. Democrats simply refused to believe that the Tea Party had some legitimate thinkers, while Republicans believed Occupy was Obama's re-election street mob. People can't handle complex truths. They grasp for black and white unrealities.
What is particularly troubling with the Erdogan social media commentary isn't so much the characterization of Twitter, but his implicit rejection of democracy. Twitter is a medium for political unrest, not the source of it. When there was an absence of televised reporting within Turkey in the protest's early moments, Twitter becomes the protesters' best means of communicating to their fellow citizens and the wider world.
We know from New Yorker contributor Elif Batuman that Turkish television was “off on another planet” as the streets filled with protesters. So what Erdogan really means when he says “social media is the worst menace to society” is that without it, Turkish masses would simply have tuned out and accepted their place in “democracy.”
Erdogan also forgets that Twitter isn't the only means of organizing protest. People can and do plan direct actions outside of cyberspace. As we saw in Egypt when Hosni Mubarak shuttered the internet, people still organized. Muammar Gaddafi famously had Libya's internet connection shut down, which failed to cripple that nation's revolution. If anything, the blackout accelerated the revolt, giving it an adrenaline rush that ended in Gaddafi's death.
More recently, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) has tried to counteract the effects of social media in and outside of Syria. Working on behalf of the Syrian government's leader Bashar al-Assad, the SEA hacks Twitter and Facebook accounts, including those belonging to Reuters and the Associated Press. Even Syria's 19-hour internet blackout couldn't stop the rebels. Al-Assad's government claimed the black-out's cause was optical cable failure, but nobody believed that explanation.
In Saudi Arabia, blogger and journalist Hamza Kashgari tweeted a satirical conversation involving the prophet Mohammed—a big no-no in any Islamic state. Kashgari fled to Malaysia, but was brought back to Saudi Arabia, where he remains detained. The Islamist Saudi monarchy recognized the political and religious free speech threat enabled by Twitter, and responded as one might expect from an authoritarian regime.
With local media outlets staying quiet, social media has brought images out of Turkey. Image via @57UN
Apart from Saudi Arabia, which has maintained a firm grip on its population, it's fairly obvious that these authoritarian tactics aimed at crippling social media haven't had the intended effect. Citizen journalists, enabled by social media, are storming the gates of state propaganda machines. Even in this heavily media-saturated age, in which billions of people globally zone out on reality television programs and lose themselves to online cats (the best description here might be technologically drugged), social media like Twitter becomes a mainline, subversive virus to shock the system out of its simulated hallucination.
As someone in a position of power, Erdogan knows this. Many politicians rely on mass political withdrawal, or abdication of decision-making, in order to impose various types of order on populations. Everything from social to economic control is game. This is the true, terrifying beauty of representative democracy: it fools voters into believing they actually have power. And so it's much easier for Erdogan to raze Istanbul's Gezi Park to make room for a replica of a former sultan's several hundred-year old military barracks than it is for him to honestly and openly engage the public on the issue. Imagine how his administration must behave behind the scenes on more critical issues.
The same privileged decision-making processes proliferates almost everywhere. The US might be the best example of the collective, technologically-induced hallucination in action. You get caught in some reality TV drama and suddenly you don't care about civil liberties-stripping bills coming out every other month. You walk the street and sees ads everywhere, and you think about product instead of community. A political ad during an election paints a Democrat as a socialist or a Republican as a religious whacko, and it derails your ability to reason. You stare at an internet screen watching stupid videos, and you get some enjoyment out of this, but politics seems so far off and unimportant. Meanwhile, important decisions are being made without you.
It manifests economically as well. America's strength grew out of free market capitalism, which causes many people to believe, without much thought, that the system can be sustained forever. They walk through a grocery store in a stupor, ignorant of all of this shit that goes down in bringing those thousands of products to you. Convenient for us, but not for other people along the way, or the ecosystem-at-large.
Twitter occasionally upsets this carefully imposed order. That is not to say that Twitter cannot be manipulated by political opponents. But, to believe that every event and tweet is staged by opposition, is to descend into Nixonian and Stalin-esque paranoia; a land of conspiracies in which every individual is an enemy—even people who simply want a more open and responsive form of popular democracy.
Twitter is not a menace to society. Mindless TV habits and internet browsing, religious parties, political apathy, chauvinism, over-consumption, product everywhere, ubiquitous advertising, materialism, junk food, political spectacle, and allowing just a few privileged males to run the show, as we retreat from real, true democratic involvement, numbing our senses on titillation and all other forms of stimulation—these are the true menaces to society. When all this distraction is preferred to actively making society work, then society ceases to exist.
So when Erdogan calls Twitter a “scourge,” what he really means—if one peels away the layers of political programming—is that the Turks, and, by extension, all of us, should return to our collective hallucination. That we should revert to that state of mind that is like a lifelong drift through a dream world.
Erdogan and many other politicians across the globe would prefer a world that Aldous Huxley saw unfolding, which he transmuted into fiction with Brave New World. Our world's leaders want people to swallow Soma, that state-produced hallucinogenic drug, but to take it in multiple forms—the internet and television being the most powerful technological drugs.
But, the thing is: every once in awhile some people wake up to what's really going on.
And Twitter, along with Tumblr, LiveLeak, Facebook, and other social media, can help in this awakening.