(This originally appeared as “Why Governments Use Broadcast TV and Dissidents Use Twitter” on The Atlantic.com)
Last March I was walking past Gezi Park with a Turkish friend at dusk. He had just joined me from prayers and I asked him what he thought about the brewing debate over the park’s future. Like most Turkish voters, he is a fan of the country’s prime minister, Erdogan. Like most of the country’s voters, my friend easily integrates his faith with his daily routines. But he said simply “Istanbul doesn’t need another Mosque.” He started pointing off in different directions. “There’s one there, there and there. And there and there and there. Istanbul needs a park.”
There’s a common misconception that Turkey’s current crisis is about a resurgence in political Islam. Some commentators fear that Turkey’s leadership trying assert to Islamize a country that has been proudly secular for a long time. Some argue that the #occupygezi crisis is about Islam and the survival of the republic. But the crisis isn’t about an elected leader trying to inject religion into public policy by building a mosque over the park where people go for political rallies and romantic strolls.
Erdogan and his leadership had little public engagement on Gezi Park development, so people used social media to have their own conversations, develop their sense of collective opposition, and then organize their protests.
The country-wide protests are actually the result of how Turkish politicians and citizens use media. The country’s political elites have been trying to dominate public life through broadcast media, by controlling state-owned newspapers and television stations. But like most people, Turks like to manage their own communication networks. They prefer mobile phones and the internet as sources of news and information. And in times of crisis, they trust the information that comes from their own friends and family. The result is a kind of media cold war that pits politicians, political parties and broadcasters against civic groups, citizens, and social media.
This is not to say that Erdogan hasn’t pushed a religiously conservative agenda. He has tried to curb drinking and outlaw adultery. But he has a history of reading public opinion well, learning from popular protest, and reigning in the conservatives in his party. He scrapped the law defining men as the head of household. For the 2007 elections, all of 62 female candidates running for election discarded their headscarves. He prevented 150 incumbent deputies from running again, either because of their conservative Islamic views or because they voted against letting U.S. troops pass through on the way to Iraq. So sharia law is not really on the national agenda, the ruling AK Party has done a good job, and Erdogan has been an effective leader. The economy is booming, many parts of the country are developing well, and government is not crippled by corruption.
Everyone in Turkey can tell a story about how they turned on the TV hoping for news about current events, but found game shows, beauty pageants, and nature documentaries. Even Erdogan’s devotees know that the state-run news programs are grindingly uncritical. The pall of media control even has an impact on foreign broadcasters like CNN, which aired a penguin documentary within Turkey while its international broadcasters covered the clashes. Even when the country’s newspapers and broadcasters began reporting on the crisis, they spun the story as being violent and local to Istanbul. Another friend, who attended the protests on Saturday, said “you see misinformation on Twitter. But social media has played a corrective role to faults in the other available media.” On the days he joined in, he was part of peaceful demonstrations, and he found the Twitter streams telling stories about how the protests were country-wide and mostly nonviolent.
These days, Turks find themselves caught in the crossfire between highly politicized media organizations, so it is not surprising that when people want news they trust their own networks. The country has a dedicated community of startups designing apps, building games and generating content for the country’s rapidly growing population of internet and mobile phone users. Half of the country’s 75 million people are under 30. Half of Turkish citizens are online, and they are Facebook’s seventh largest national audience. Government ministers and strategists do have Twitter accounts, but they still tend to treat social media as a broadcast tool, a way of pushing their perspectives out to followers. Erdogan has a twitter account with more than 2.5 million followers, but recently opined that “This thing called social media is a curse on societies.”
The government has a bad reputation for persecuting journalists, especially those who have given up on working for state-run media and publish their investigative work online. Yet Erdogan’s government has chased them down there too. In early 2011, police raided the offices and homes of staff working for the dissident website odatv.com. After the raids, an even larger dragnet of journalists was charged with coup plotting. Many of these journalists had never worked for odatv.com, but mainstream television broadcasters and newspapers pushed out the story that online radicals were threatening the country’s political stability. When it came time for the trials, other journalists covered this story by live tweeting from the courtroom, and they successfully swung public opinion against further prosecution of odatv.com’s staff.
Indeed, several of the country’s national crises in recent years have emerged after difficult political conversations have been driven off the airwaves. Turkey’s generals have long considered themselves the protectors of the country’s secular values. In 2007, only a few months before a national election, a press release on the general staff’s website warned the public about the Islamist rhetoric among the country’s political leaders. With a sensitive history of military coups, this triggered a political crisis and was labeled a “coup-attempt-by-website” or “e-coup.” Erdogan’s government has made it clear that there will be no apology or reparations for Armenians, and the mainstream media seems more interested in music contests and game shows than such sensitive discussions. So thousands of Turks have been going online to sign declarations of apology and organize community memorials, triggering a new round of court challenges, police investigations, and accusations of disloyalty.
This isn’t just happening in Turkey: In moments of political and military crisis, people want to control their media and connect with family and friends. And ruling elites respond by investing in broadcast media and censoring and surveilling digital networks. So the battles between political elites who use broadcast media and the activists who use digital media are raging in other parts of the world, as well.
Last month, Malaysia’s opposition won the popular vote through effective digital campaigning. Tech-savvy activists have turned political communication in that country upside down, and the traditional governing party barely got a Parliamentary majority. In newly opening Myanmar, the first really big social movement is simply demanding cheaper mobile phone calling plans. Syria has been locked in civil war, but only in its most desperate moments has the embattled regime dared shut down the country’s information infrastructure. Doing so hobbles their economy, constrains security services, and removes a key means of propagandizing. And because of the intense civil strife, mobile phone subscriptions and internet use is rapidly growing. These days, “going dark” — geek parlance for the moment an entire country disappears from global digital networks — is a key indicator of a regime in crisis.
Ruling elites in countries like Russia and Venezuela have also established an alliance of broadcasters and funded them directly from state coffers. Modern authoritarian governments build legal regimes that protect established media properties and brands, and layer on the rules for how journalists and civil society groups can use the Internet. They install sympathetic managers and push out investigative journalists. They put state resources into censorship and surveillance applications, but it is more and more common simply to hire out pro-regime bloggers and tweeters. Modern authoritarian governments don’t need to rig elections when media control guarantees 60 percent of the popular vote on election day.
In most developing countries, established politicians are armed with broadcast media that are either personal assets or owned by their government. Meanwhile, civil society upstarts tend to use technology that comes from outside the country. So clear alignments form when it comes to who should control the development of these new information technologies.
Russia and China are still Western adversaries, each using their information, media, and technology policy to maintain social control and discourage open conversations about public policy. They support their state-run broadcasters. Within these tough authoritarian countries, the media cold war plays out in battles between broadcast outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership, and censorship. The Russian government toughens its information policies, beats up its journalists, dominates broadcast media, and encourages its nationalists to use social media. Yet online, Russian civil society is in bloom. China built its own information infrastructure from the ground up, with code that leaves plenty of backdoors for its security services to track people online. Venezuela and Iran have sided with Russia and China to share censorship strategies and try to build their own private Internets. They don’t abide by Western intellectual property law and don’t respect patents. They don’t really want to be part of the open Internet that the West has built, but they want similar tools available to serve their political elites. And for good reason, because PRISM demonstrates how the Internet is put into the service of U.S. security services.
Allies are defined by the fact that they share information policy, telecommunications standards, approaches to media management, and internet protocols. They harmonize intellectual property law, respect each other’s patents, and support their major technology and media corporations. The parallels don’t end there. The war is cold because most the most enduring conflicts over technology standards and media control are relatively low-intensity disagreements. Yet every once in a while, a new international crisis emerges or gets greatly exacerbated through digital media. As with the first Cold War, now that we are in the midst of it, it is hard to imagine the resolution. This week Erdogan sent in the water cannon to clear out the park, but it is hard to imagine that this will clear away the issue.
The nature of social movement organizing has changed radically in the last few years, and Turkey’s #occupygezi movement is an example of this. Like many of the Arab Spring movements, the protests are relatively leaderless, and not tied to the official opposition parties, labor unions, or political ideologies. They draw in people who don’t usually protest, usually because of some powerful photos and videos of abusive security services. Tunisians were disgusted by the image of Ben Ali visiting Bouazizi in the hospital, Egyptians were rallied by the “We Are All Khaled Siad” Facebook page, and Turks are livid about the image of a woman in a red dress being pepper sprayed. Turkey’s latest crisis is the result of how the country’s leaders have neutered the state broadcasters, persecuted journalists, and driven conversations about public life into digital media.
The lesson from #occupygezi is that Turks want to do more than vote in elections, they want to participate in democratic processes on key issues. But pushing political debate from the TV onto the mobile phone doesn’t make it easier to control.