The decision by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ban the popular social networking platform Twitter ahead of fraught local polls on March 30 is much more serious than it first appears.
Initial reactions to the announcement have been that Erdogan, once such a mighty force in Turkish politics, is lashing out in an autocratic fashion because he feels threatened by the clear weakening of his grip on the country.
Of course it is not just the commentators and regular people who post their ideas and opinions on Twitter that represent the biggest threat to the Turkish prime minister’s perceived omnipotence, even though they are very numerous – some estimates suggest that Turkey has over 10 million Twitter users. Erdogan’s grip is most seriously being undermined by strong spheres of influence within the country and most notably from the camp of his former ally, neo-Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen.
The push against Erdogan and his style of governance peaked with the violent protests in and around Taksim Square.
The events at Taksim signaled the failure of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman strategy. They exposed the Turkish boom for the ersatz progress that it was and triggered a flight of capital from the country. Mainly, however, they revealed that the political and cultural designs of a secular, though domineering, style of Islamic governance cannot be in harmony with the profile of a rapidly developing middle class and the country’s increasingly educated and urbanized youth. The modernization of communications and the country’s universities came in direct opposition to the paternalistic style of neo-Ottoman governance – further complicated by scandals of nepotism – espoused by Erdogan.
This is not the first time that an international social media platform has been banned in Turkey. In 2007 a court banned the popular blogging platform WordPress in response to a suit by Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar, and before that it had blocked YouTube over a video that was perceived to be insulting to the Turkish Republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk.
The sudden ban on Twitter in Turkey reveals one of the paradoxes of global digital culture: on the one hand, an unprecedented level of global communication and, on the other, the constant and rabid fight of governments and states to control the flow of information or to manipulate its content. Internet restrictions imposed in China and the revelations about the US made by Edward Snowden are part of the debate that arises from Erdogan’s recent decision.