Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has many foes, but his greatest nemesis is not his freshly minted American counterpart Joseph Biden, his country's historic rival and neighbour Greece, or some meddling activist, journalist or opposition politician.
"This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society," he said in 2013, as the Gezi Park protests raged across Turkey. The next year, he compared social media to "a murderer's knife".
Since the 2016 failed coup, Turkish authorities have all but eliminated independent voices from the media landscape. More than 250,000 websites have been blocked and 200 news outlets have been shuttered, including one that had been in business for less than a month. In the past five years, more than 3,400 journalists have been dismissed and 430 detained, according to a new report.
Social media has emerged as the primary remaining space for dissent, which explains why nearly 60 per cent of Turkish citizens get their news via social media and messaging apps and why such platforms – Twitter, in particular – are the bane of Mr Erdogan’s existence.
“We’ll eradicate Twitter,” the Turkish leader vowed in 2014, as reports of a massive corruption scandal shot around social media. “Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Mr Erdogan's government has moved to muzzle discussions online almost since he came to power in 2003. Four years later, Turkish parliament passed a law regulating internet publications and an Ankara court blocked YouTube for criminal activity. Repeated blocks against Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram and Wikipedia have followed.
As of early 2020, Turkish authorities had launched nearly 130,000 probes into insults against the president, most of them in response to social media posts. These investigations led to nearly 10,000 prison sentences, including 3,800 in 2019, an 87 per cent increase from the previous year. Turkey again led the world in Twitter censorship last year, with the most takedown requests, court orders and withheld tweets, according to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report, released earlier this month.
Yet despite all of this, the platforms have remained available in Turkey, enabling a new wave of critics to emerge after every crackdown. Until now.
Last July, Turkey passed a law requiring social media platforms with more than 1 million users to open an office within the country and be able to respond to Turkish government requests and court orders within 48 hours. Platforms that fail to establish a Turkish presence would face sizable fines followed by further government pressures.
Authorities levied 10m lira ($1.35m) fines against a swathe of platforms in November, spurring LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok, Google and Dailymotion to follow the Russian site VKontakte in setting up an office in Turkey. A week ago, Facebook announced it would do the same, narrowly avoiding the advertising ban that went into effect the next day against Twitter, its video-streaming app Periscope and the image-sharing platform Pinterest.
Twitter is the most popular of these platforms, the most politically oriented and the one most used by activists and journalists driven out of more traditional channels. Thus, it is now the primary online battleground between the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish government and those who seek to expose its violations.
A fight for free speech online is also being waged in the US, where tech firms have moved to curb right-wing incitement in the wake of the Capitol siege. Within days of the attack, Facebook and Twitter locked then-president Donald Trump's accounts, followed by Snapchat and other platforms. Google, Apple and Amazon then moved to muzzle Parler, the chat app favoured by many of America's extreme right-wing voices. The EU has also begun enacting new policies to curb and control online content, particularly extremist views that could incite violence.
Prominent critics have argued in response that government-backed Big Tech should not be able to control free speech, and indeed these efforts could provide Mr Erdogan with ammunition. Turkey’s leader could argue that if the US and Europe can take steps to stifle anti-democratic or anti-government voices, there should be no reason Turkey cannot do the same. Just as some have described the Capitol assault as a coup attempt, he might add, the Turkish government weathered a violent failed coup of its own and must ensure its own national security.
In fact, since the coup attempt Turkish officials and pro-government media have repeatedly suggested that the US was somehow behind the putsch, or at least supported it. Thus, any whiff of a link to the US puts one in bed with coup plotters and terrorists. The biggest social media platforms are, of course, American firms, and thus beyond the pale.
Earlier this month, after opposition Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu secured a traffic congestion grant from the US Trade and Development Agency, pro-government Sabah newspaper denounced the move with the headline “Istanbul’s data sold to the USA”. It’s all part of a narrative that portrays western governments and tech firms in cahoots to harness the world’s data for nefarious ends.
“The digital age has begun,” Mr Erdogan said last week. “Those who control data can establish their digital dictatorships by disregarding democracy, the law, rights and freedoms.”
The legal entities established in Turkey by social media platforms should expect to see a significant number of removal requests and court orders in the days ahead. Should they fail to comply, they are likely to be assessed significant fines and the possible shuttering of their Turkey office, which would leave them on the outside looking in.
That’s where Twitter is today, holding out in the face of a $1.17m fine, with more on the way, as well as the ad ban. If it continues to refuse to open a Turkey office, its bandwidth in Turkey will be reduced by 50 per cent in April, then by 95 per cent in May, essentially rendering its platform useless.
In a statement last week, Milena Buyum, Turkey Campaigner for rights watchdog Amnesty International, said the platforms that have complied with Turkey’s new regulations are “in serious danger of becoming an instrument of state censorship”.
The choice, then, is between accepting the Turkish government’s position and bowing to pressure to curtail free speech, or being forced out of Turkey, taking from Turks a crucial outlet for freedom of expression.
Turkish internet users have long been ahead of the curve, and may find ways to cope. They established one of the world’s first online dictionaries in 1999, a year and a half before Wikipedia. Today, Eksi Sozluk, as it is called, has over 2.8 million Twitter followers. They are known for finding ways around censorship, such as opening a new social media account, slightly tweaking the website URL or turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which disguise location and enable access to blocked platforms or websites.
But Turkish authorities have cracked down on VPNs, many of which are no longer accessible from Turkey, and now they are taking away social media, one by one. Will Twitter cave, like the others?
If it does, Mr Erdogan will have eliminated the primary remaining sanctuary for government critics, an invaluable achievement as he faces sagging support amid economic hardship. If Twitter holds its ground, the moment of truth will come in a few months, when the Turkish government will seek to squeeze the life out of its leader’s most troublesome foe.
David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National