Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the social media platform Twitter a “menace” and added that “social media is the worst menace to society.” Protests in Istanbul began as a reaction to the planned destruction of a park to clear room for commercial development. The protests have expanded to represent large groups of people disenfranchised by Erdogan’s authoritarian policies. Erdogan went on to call the protesters “drunks,” “extremists,” “looters,” and “bums” as crowds grew to over 100,000 in Taksim Square.
Protests in the Turkish capital, Ankara, also turned violent on Sunday and it is estimated that over one thousand injuries have been caused as a result of the protests. Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler reported over 1,750 people have been detained thus far, but that most had been released. Saturday, Twitter users claimed that leading cellular provider TurkCell had throttled connections to Twitter, which the company has since denied. These recent protests are the biggest anti-government demonstrations since Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2003.
There is no question the protests have been driven by social media participation from protesters. Thousands of tweets have been made using protest hashtags such as #TaksimSquare and #OccupyGezi. Social media networks may have helped protesters organize, but they are hardly at the root of protests against Erdogan. He could possibly blame recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol or ongoing accusations of journalist intimidation. Solidarity protests have been reported in Greece and Germany while the Turkish stock exchange dropped 10.5%.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s remarks represent those of a leader that is out of touch with the youth of his country. The youth demographics typically associated with Arab Spring protests have been participating in the protests while Prime Minister Erdogan has suggested that his election represented the will of the people. The remarks represent a view that regards the internet as a passing fad, the type of view you wouldn’t expect of a prime minister who ushered in an era of economic development partially due to a blossoming technology industry.
Erdogan’s democratic Islamist administration was seen by some as a model that developing democracies in the Middle East may want to follow. Erdogan, who recently criticized neighboring Syria, is now somewhat hypocritically sitting at the head of a government while protesters call for his resignation. So far, Erdogan has shown no signs of backing down, saying plans are still in place to raze the park to build a shopping mall and mosque. Protests are set to escalate with the 240,000 member Turkish Public Workers Unions Confederation pledging to a “warning strike” on June 4 and 5 as a result of the Turkish government’s reaction to the protests.