Update, 8:42 a.m. (ET): Our correspondent in Istanbul reports, "Protesters formed a human chain in Taksim square on Tuesday morning as advancing police fired volleys of tear gas and a heavy police vehicle burned nearby. By noon, most of the demonstrators had retreated into the adjacent Gezi park and were nervously awaiting the next actions of the government. Near the square, police were taking down the flags and barricades that had been erected to prevent their entrance. A big demonstration is expected at 7 p.m. local time."
A popular cartoon making the rounds in Turkey these days shows viewers watching a documentary on penguins on CNN Turk (which is, literally, what the channel broadcast during the uprising). Meanwhile, the other frame shows penguins watching CNN International with live coverage of protests in Istanbul.
So much so that citizens have, via social networks, shamed traditional media into covering a human rights crisis: Twitter hashtags such as #occupygezi and its Turkish counterpart, #direngezi, generated millions of hits and directed protesters to converge--sometimes violently--outside the offices of mainstream Turkish media outlets.
The Ugly Truth In Turkey
Amnesty International has called the situation in Turkey “an ongoing and serious human rights crisis” and issued an urgent appeal for action. At least three people have died--not counting six policemen who reportedly committed suicide--and about 5,000 people have been wounded, according to data released by the Turkish Doctors’ Union. Thousands of others have been arrested.
Dozens, if not hundreds, have been injured by projectiles of tear gas canisters and overwhelming eyewitness accounts, including by a BBC journalist, indicate that police may have deliberately fired those at protesters:
That is what the doctor was wearing when I interviewed him at the Taksim Emergency Hospital: a white doctor's coat and a white bandage on his head.
He had been hit on the head while treating somebody who had been hit on the head with a CS canister. I had been hit on the head while filming somebody getting hit with one.
In all, the casualties from tear gas canister strikes over the period of a few days in Turkey came close to those in all of Israel and the West Bank in some seven years. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s alleged love for tear gas has earned him the nickname “Gazman” (i.e., "Gas Man") in a pamphlet published by a top opposition member.
Government: Social Media A “Menace”
When the democratically elected Erdogan slammed social media as “the worst menace to society” last week, many people thought he was joking--or at least using a metaphor. Turkey has been long touted as a bastion of stability and democracy in the Middle East, and Erdogan’s literary inclinations are widely known--after all, they landed him in jail once upon a time, for reciting a poem.
Not to mention that the prime minister himself is an avid Twitter user with over 2.8 million followers.
But mere days after his speech, more than 25 bloggers were arrested and charged with sedition. Suddenly it seemed that the prime minister had meant it literally: Social media was a menace and had to be restrained.
Turkish Media Censored
What explains his rage is that, had it not been for social media, the government would likely have succeeded in hiding the protests from many Turks. Turkey is a country that jails more journalists than Iran, and it is hardly surprising that the mainstream Turkish media, which has been additionally co-opted by the authorities through financial measures, broadcast pictures of beauty contests and cooking shows for several days while parts of Istanbul and other cities were blanketed with tear gas.
“On Friday [May 31] I saw on Facebook that there were riots, and I came here [to the center of Istanbul],” a 29-year-old teacher named Ulas told me in a bar near Taksim Square. “There were many people and we fought them [the police] all night. But on Saturday I spoke to some of my friends here in Istanbul, and they had no idea what was going on. One, a leftist, was at the zoo. This is because they were watching penguin documentaries on the mainstream channels.”
Social Media Breaks The Silence
While international news organizations and some alternative outlets in Turkey played a role in breaking the media’s silence, social media took the lead.
Over 2 million tweets generated in just 8 hours on May 31--as well as countless Tumblr and YouTube uploads--went viral. News of police brutalities could no longer be concealed, nor could the demonstrations be contained. Protesters shared news of police assaults and pictures of casualties, and discussed everything from personal protection measures to the location and timing of marches. Just like during the Arab Spring uprisings, thousands of people were able to communicate in real time and to mount an effective opposition against a well-organized police organization willing to use massive force.
“Social media is a bliss,” said 25-year-old Esin, who has been active both in Gezi park and online. “I even tweeted to Jack Dorsey, thanking him for inventing such a big thing that gives all information to people who want to stay impartial and get to the real knowledge through checking through all this information and using their minds,” she added.
Apart from using social media in conventional ways, protesters found more creative ways of adapting these platforms to their cause. For example, activists used social channels to promote new protest slang. After Erdogan branded protesters as alcoholics and looters (or “chapulju”), activists started adding the derisive word for looters to their Facebook profiles. “We are shifting this word to our benefit by embracing it,” said a 26-year-old activist, who insisted on being identified as Chapulju Melih.
Turkey Tries To Silence Social Media
Besides arresting and intimidating bloggers, the authorities made several attempts to choke access to Facebook and Twitter, as well as blocking cell phone communications (which your correspondent experienced on June 1 in Istanbul). The deputy prime minister ominously cautioned that “It's possible to shut it [Internet] all down," much in the same manner as the Egyptian government had done two years earlier.
But even the extreme tactics used by the Egyptian government failed to stop the flow of information, and the use of social media in Turkey in some ways surpassed that in Egypt. The most tweets that were generated in a single day with the #Jan25 hashtag, the most widely used in the Egyptian demonstrations, came on January 28, 2011, and numbered a little over 400,000. By contrast, over 600,000 messages bore the tag #occupygezi on June 1, 2013, and a large percentage of them were in Turkish.
Neither the technological interference nor the arrests succeeded in censoring the crowdsourced tidal wave of information, and a few days later Turkish media were finally forced to acknowledge reality. “The pursuit of balance within the imbalanced environment affected us, as it did the other media outlets,” said a media executive in a speech to employees June 3 . “We owe you and our audience an apology.”
“People of Turkey are not afraid anymore,” said Esin. “They know they've got each other.”
“We will keep tweeting!”
[Photos by Victor Kotsev for Fast Company]