On Monday, the Turkish government announced a push to severely restrict the use and content of social media in Turkey. Interior Minister Muammer Guler called the move essential to prevent the influx of "provocative material" from sites like Twitter and Facebook since the two-week long protests began.
"We have a study on those who provoke the public via manipulations with false news and lead them to actions that would threaten the security of life and property by using Twitter, Facebook, or other tools of the social media (sic)," said Guler, claiming that protesters and activists were posting fabrications meant to incite public outrage and draw in more demonstrators. Mr. Guler also added that citizens would not be allowed to carry out "witch hunts" over social media, while Hurriyet announced that the Turkish state department is closely examining over 5 million protest-related tweets.
Turkish officials believe they can restrict free speech when, in this case, social media is used to incite the public to protests that are dangerous to citizens and property. This is similar to U.S. law, specifically legal restrictions to the First Amendment allowed in the case of obscenity, fighting words, plagiarism, defamation (including slander and libel), child pornography, perjury, solicitation to commit crimes, blackmail, true threats, or incitement to imminent lawless action.
The Turkish government is making the public safety argument after they have proven a willingness to silence political dissidents and block simple freedom of speech. The ruling Justice and Development Party has jailed numerous journalists for crimes like "inciting terrorism" or "insulting Turkishness," making Turkey one of the world's most onerous countries to operate in for the news media.
To apply a term from military phraseology, social media is a force multiplier for the commoner. It enables planners to increase awareness for their cause and ratchet up community involvement and social participation.
Many Arab governments also restricted social media while their Arab Spring protests were at their height. Activists throughout the Middle East successfully leveraged the power of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites to spread their message, expose government violence, and organize protests. The results were successful, and the Turkish government knows this. But hampering social media will be ineffective in quelling the resistance in Turkey — it simply reinforces Erdogan's oversimplification of the situation, one he mistakenly thinks is about protecting a park and criminals rioting. Government efforts to suppress protesters will be futile until Erdogan begins to take serious steps towards reforming his Ottoman-obsessed, Islamic, and authoritarian tact with Turkish society.
Where there is internet access, there is no limit to the sharing of knowledge and diffusion of ideas. With the internet, countries cannot keep ideas out, nor can they blind the world to what happens within their borders. During the recent period of time when YouTube was banned in Turkey one could easily access all of its content by entering YouTube's URL into a workaround website. The site allowed citizens to circumvent the firewalls and reproduce YouTube on its own pages.
There is always a way for smart people to organize and stay informed, especially in a developing cosmopolitan country like Turkey. Technology outpaces everything, especially authoritarian government tactics. Erdogan should recognize this before he makes a move that merely fans the flames of freedom.