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When Turkey Banned Twitter and All Hell Broke Lose

April 11, 2014 by Mainak Biswas under Social Networking Strategy445 views
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Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter and vowed to “wipe out Twitter”; and he did for 2 weeks. The country’s Constitutional Court ruled the ban illegal saying that it infringed upon freedom of expression. The court did not stop at that. It also said that the ban was “illegal, arbitrary and a serious restriction on the right to obtain information”.

The last part of the ruling, which states that Twitter is fundamental for Turkish people’s right to obtain information, speaks much about Twitter and its importance when it comes to today’s world. Important publications like BBC News online, The Guardian and The New York Times have all run stories about the saga.

Banning Twitter shows that it is very important

When authoritarian rulers and dictators are scared of a tool, it speaks volumes about its importance. Telephones were widely tapped in East Germany and Soviet Russia. The Stasi of East Germany listened to telephone conversations of normal folk (not in way NSA collects metadata, but in a way far more invasive). Telephones scared them. Their fear spoke of the importance that telephones had as tools of communication. Similarly, when satellite television is banned in certain countries, it reveals the importance of television as a tool to change people’s opinions and provide them with new knowledge.

Today, Twitter seems to be that tool which gives authoritarian leaders and dictators sleepless nights. It allows people to instantly broadcast what is happening, contact people across the world and that too, contact people with influence. If there were ever a truly democratic tool, it had to be Twitter. It lets anybody contact anyone else who is on it, as long as they are literate.

In countries like Turkey, where literacy is not as big an issue as it is probably in Afghanistan, Twitter certainly seems like a threat to authoritarian regimes; and when the Constitutional Court lifted the ban, it again spoke volumes about the importance of Twitter in our society.

Google’s YouTube has helped sustain democracy too

Though Erdogan won local elections and it seemed like a period of victory for him, the Twitter case proved to be a bit too much for him. Google too has appealed to the Constitutional Court so that its YouTube service can be restored in Turkey. YouTube has often been banned in many countries too as it allows people to post videos that might not be pleasant for the ruling groups. It has often been accused of inciting people to protest. On the other hand, YouTube is yet another social networking tool that has helped millions to learn truths that have been hidden away by way of censorship.

Banning tools like Twitter in democratic countries foments resentment and anger

In a country where democracy and freedom of speech is respected, tools like Twitter cannot be banned or restricted. It will backfire and that too, very badly. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not initially care about the outburst within and outside Turkey. His political support comes from the working classes of Turkey who do not use the social networking site much.

Erdogan knew that his votes came from people who probably never got online, leave alone Twitter. Yet, the venerable Turkish court ruled the ban illegal and brought an end to the 2 week ban. However, YouTube continues to be banned and Erdogan continues to restrict the freedom of Internet users and has tried to block websites that cast him in poor light. The damage seems to be done by now are Turkish people who never used Twitter have begun to register en masse and have begun to criticize the single-handedness with which it was banned.

That change of mind occured even among the conservatives when the Constitutional Court ruled the action illegal. Turkish intellectuals, activists and common people now have an uphill battle to fight against Internet censorship and arbitrary banning of websites like YouTube (it is still banned) ahead of them.

The fact that the constitutional court ruled in favor of Twitter shows that it is neutral in nature, respects freedom of speech and information and is not biased by political motives. Surely, YouTube’s ban will be removed too, though it might take a little while.

Twitter’s place in democracy

Twitter, as we all know, is a social broadcasting tool that lets people share text, media and links in just 140 characters. It can be used from the browsers on your computer and mobile devices, Twitter applications on mobile devices and also through text messaging. In short, anyone with or without an internet connection can use Twitter as long as they have a device connected to the Internet or just a cell phone without a data plan.

Whatever we call Twitter and whatever role we assign to it, its importance in our societies cannot be understated. More than Facebook or LinkedIn, Twitter has the ability to let people connect, no matter whether they know each other or they are complete strangers. With respect to broadcasting being available to common people, Twitter is the closest that we can get to. Not surprisingly, marketers and managers and SMEs have understood the power of Twitter in terms of connecting with people.

Billions of people across the world could possibly use Twitter, if they wanted to; and they do. When revolutions took place across the Middle East, people used Twitter to connect with each other. Some governments were repressive enough to ban it entirely and some, like Turkey, followed legal and constitutional obligations and reversed the bans.

Twitter has also helped people in times of disasters. Each one of us can remember searching through Twitter feeds furiously when a tremor struck nearby. Grabbing one’s cell phone, we probably ran downstairs and assembled in the garden nearby and found out that though the neighborhood was still sleeping, though no news channel had yet reported those earthquake jolts, people on Twitter were already talking about it. Twitter proved that you weren’t hallucinating an earthquake. It really did happen.

There are dozens of examples like these which show us that Twitter is so much more than a marketing or broadcasting tool. It connects people in a way that we still do not understand or grasp. This powerful tool probably is still used by the privileged group like cell phones were once the domain of the privileged ones. In just a few years, we expect Twitter to be used by many more people who probably will discover the Internet through Twitter.

Twitter’s ability to connect people without having to spend money or invest in expensive tools makes it one of the most democratic means of communication that has ever existed. Certainly, dictators and those who want to hide information and restrict communication have much to fear, when it comes to Twitter-usage. Instances like the Twitter ban saga in Turkey help us to understand that if Twitter’s use is restricted, it only attracts even more people who probably weren’t using it before it was restricted.

Respect for Twitter-usage translates to respect for freedom of expression and democracy

Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Bilgi University, Istanbul, expressed his joy when he learned that Twitter was available for use again in Turkey. He declared that it was a major victory for democracy and freedom of expression in Turkey. Turkey has taught us that in democratic and modern societies, repression of information only leads to a Twitter-backlash that can hardly be contained.

Thankfully, most of our Constitutional Courts respect democratic needs of freedom of expression and right to information. Thus, it can be reduced to something as simple as “if Twitter can be used by common people without having to fear authorities, that society is relatively free”; and those are the societies in which people like to invest, create jobs and prosper. Free societies encourage investment and bring foreign capital, which creates jobs.

If free speech, freedom of expression and right to information are thwarted, directly or indirectly, global capital and investment is turned away. Twitter is good for democracy and it is good for sustainable capitalism. It is also good for social justice and keeping things transparent. With so many issues connected to a simple social networking tool in a 140-character format, can it really be called just a ‘social networking tool’? Or is it something more than that; a beacon of freedom of expression, modern society and technology adoption?

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