The Uptake: Citizen Journalism as Public Access Broadcasting Across Broadband
Social Media Use and Political Activism in Turkey: 140journos, the Post of Others, and Vote and Beyond
During the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013, social media use in Turkey increased sharply portending the affordances of the Internet for horizontal communication, activist organization and political participation. This upsurge was not an ahistorical, apolitical development, but a product of Turkey’s thriving Internet culture as well as the absence of journalistic coverage and ubiquitous government propaganda regarding the protests. The Internet had first become commercially available in Turkey in the late 1990s, and since then the number of users has been growing steadily. According to the latest available data, Internet penetration is 45%, with approximately 35 million users, and 70% of them under the age of 35. Users are especially active on social media: 93% have a Facebook account, and 72% have a Twitter account. YouTube, Instagram, Vine, LinkedIn, Tumblr are among other popular platforms, and blogs, news sites and online forums herald diversity and vibrancy. The Gezi protests started on May 28 as a sit-in against the AKP government’s (Justice and Development Party) plans to commercialize the Gezi Park in central Istanbul, and quickly transformed into a nationwide movement with 3.5 million citizens participating in thousands of events across the country to express their dissatisfaction with the AKP and demands for pluralism and democratic rights. Yet the protests were either ignored by mainstream media out of fear of upsetting the government or characterized by partisan outlets as the work of a Western conspiracy. In response, protestors (mostly young and urban) leaned on social media, especially Twitter to fill the information void left by mass media, to counter government propaganda and to compile evidence of police brutality.
MEDIA #1, Caption: Tweet with video of police gassing the protestors on the day of the sit-in
Twitter served as the most prominent tool for protestors and information-seekers alike. In the first two days of the protests, at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags #direngeziparkı, #resistgezi, #geziparki, #occupygezi had been sent out, in coordination with postings on several Facebook pages possessing similar names. Not only did the number of tweets increase; the number of users did as well—from 1.8 million on May 29 to more than 9.5 million on June 10.
One particular Twitter account, @140journos stood out as the go-to citizen journalism platform. Named after Twitter’s character limit for messages, 140journos was launched earlier in January 2012 in response to the media blackout concerning the killing of 34 Kurdish villagers by Turkish air force.
MEDIA #2 CAPTION: “140journos, people's news agency”
Until the Gezi protests, 140journos’ core team, consisting of seven individuals, primarily tweeted from protest rallies and court hearings in an attempt to inform the public about political events that remained invisible in mass media. When the Gezi protests erupted, 140journos began to re-tweet messages sent in by protestors from all over the country.
MEDIA #3 CAPTION: “Taksim Square under tear gas. Police reportedly attacking the human chain.”
Indeed, 140journos’ tweets increased from 401 in May 2013 to 2,218 in June, and the number of its followers from 8,000 to 45,000. As of this writing, it has close to 52,000 followers, and the number of volunteers is around 300. The core team remains in charge of aggregating, verifying and categorizing the content generated by these volunteers.
In the aftermath of Gezi protests, 140journos’ founders decided to develop a mobile application for Twitter in order to counter the widespread misinformation on mass media. The application, currently in beta version, is named Journos and aims to geo-tag the user-generated content and embed it with background information.
Another platform that rose to prominence during the Gezi protests was Otekilerin Postasi (“the Post of Others”). The OP was originally launched in late 2012 as a Facebook page under a different name to express solidarity with Kurdish political prisoners, and at one point was shut down by the Facebook administration for having allegedly published pornographic content. The page later re-opened under its current name and now serves as a hub for user-generated content on sensitive social and political issues. During and in the aftermath of Gezi protests, the OP’s Facebook page was closed twice, and had to re-open under a different name on each occasion. Responding to accusations of censorship, the Director of Facebook Policy in Europe claimed the pages had been shut down not because of their pro-Kurdish opinion but because they had been posting content praising the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU, and featuring its logo, flag, and colors.
MEDIA #4 CAPTION: Facebook page of Otekilerin Postasi
MEDIA #5 CAPTION: Twitter account of Otekilerin Postasi
After the Gezi protests waned, the affordances of social media came into view once again during the local elections of March 2014. In the period leading up to the elections, a number of civic initiatives emerged to increase voter turnout, monitor polling stations and prevent electoral fraud. They were mainly driven by the AKP’s authoritarian predilections in the post-Gezi period and widespread rumors about the party’s attempts to rig the elections and defuse the corruption scandal that had erupted three months earlier. Among these initiatives 140journos and Oy ve Otesi (“Vote and Beyond”) particularly stood out. Oy ve Otesi was launched by eight volunteers to recruit, train and organize election monitors in Istanbul. Reaching out to the public via Twitter and Facebook, the initiative managed to enlist close to 30,000 volunteers who monitored 95% of polling stations in Istanbul on election day. Oy ve Otesi is now officially registered as a civil society organization, and is planning to monitor the August 2014 presidential elections in six major cities across the country.
MEDIA #6 CAPTION: Oy ve Otesi's first Facebook post: “Istanbul counts its own votes! Looking for 33,000 volunteers for our 33,000 ballot boxes in March elections”
MEDIA #7 CAPTION: Facebook page of Oy ve Otesi announcing preparations for presidential elections
The other prominent actor in the coordination of monitoring and verification of ballot box tabulations was 140journos. On election day, 140journos urged citizens to send photographs of ballot box tabulations under #tutanak hashtag. The team of volunteers aggregated nearly 6,000 photos that they had received; compared them to official results published by the Election Board, and reported 250 irregularities.
MEDIA #8 CAPTION: Using hashtags #tutanakNO and #tutanak, citizens announced which ballot box tabulations had been missing
140journos has also developed a new web-based application to detect and report tabulation irregularities. Named Saydirac (“The Counter”), the application aims to enable citizens to enter data into the system themselves which will then be compared to official results. 140journos launched Saydirac on June 1, 2014—the day of repeat elections which were held in three provinces, and plans to use it again in the August 2014 presidential elections.
MEDIA #9 CAPTION: Tweet from Saydirac on the day of repeat elections
One of 140journos’ co-founders, Cem Aydogdu notes that they hope Saydirac will facilitate active participation of citizens: “This is a tool designed to prevent a handful of individuals from shouldering the burden, a tool to prevent citizens from remaining on the sidelines and instead take responsibility for their own votes.”
As this brief case study shows there has been a noteworthy expansion of civic initiatives in Turkey that use social media in resourceful ways. Undoubtedly, social media plays a crucial role in facilitating horizontal communication and organization. However, one should remain cautious towards overestimating its part in the transformation of hierarchies of power and/or the fall of authoritarian regimes. During the Iranian protests in 2009 and the Arab uprisings in 2011, social media has been characterized as a revolutionary medium that makes possible democratization and political change. Social media can create meaningful social organization, but its construction as a “liberation technology” must be tempered with the fact that in particular national contexts users operate within the boundaries set by the state. Indeed, in Turkey, social media stands as a field of struggle between users and the state, and the forces of decentralization and centralization. The increasing use of online communications since the mid-2000s have been coupled with the government’s amplified efforts to confine the burgeoning networked public sphere. Among them are the filtering and blocking of thousands of websites, the removal of certain content, the construction of a strict legal framework, the demonization and banning of social media platforms (as seen in the 2014 Twitter and YouTube bans) and the passing of a new Internet Law that legitimizes unwarranted user data collection. For that reason, the burgeoning social media initiatives and their potential for political change must be gauged against the wider context of social, political landscape and the strong state tradition that constrains the networked public sphere.