President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s disdain for social media is no secret. He blocks Twitter regularly in order to prevent the spread of information he doesn’t like. He has openly railed against Facebook and YouTube, accusing them of misrepresenting Turkish family values. And after the Gezi Park protests of 2013 he vowed to control social media. Finally, in July, he made good on his promise when parliament passed a bill that further chokes free speech in Turkey.
The new law, which goes into effect at the beginning of October, was passed only 16 hours after it came before parliament and is aimed at the only public domain of free speech left in Turkey: the internet.
Modeled after Germany’s Network Enforcement Act to combat hate speech, the Turkish law proposes to regulate social media by giving authorities even more power. The law stipulates that all social media providers must have a representative based in Turkey, all data must be stored in Turkey and all complaints must be addressed within 48 hours. Failure to comply will incur steep fines of up to $700,000.
The Turkish government already controls 90 percent of conventional media, so social media is now the only forum for public opinion. The new law changes that. Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber-rights expert and law professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, has dubbed it “the law of self-censorship,” saying “many will hesitate to express themselves, making it more dangerous than censorship.”
Ifade Ozgurlugu Platformu, a Turkish internet-freedom watchdog, reports that at the end of 2019, Turks were denied access to more than 408,000 websites. Twitter’s “transparency report” for the first half of 2019 ranked Turkey in second place globally for taking legal action to remove content. An astonishing 20,000 Turkish citizens have been prosecuted for “insulting” the president since he took office in 2014 and many were accused of doing so on social-media platforms.
To insist that the new law is designed to protect Turkish citizens is naïve, to say the least. Yet that is exactly the claim made by Mahir Unal, deputy chair of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who said the law “is aimed at protecting the basic rights and freedoms of its citizens” and to shield Turkey’s 54 million active social-media users from disinformation. But the ruling party’s understanding of disinformation can tend toward paranoia. Between April 2017 and January 2020, Turkish authorities blocked access to Wikipedia, the multi-language online encyclopedia, on the grounds that it was leading “a smear campaign against Turkey.”
The most worrying aspect of the new social-media law is not just that it strengthens censorship, but that it gives the government control over content removal. Faruk Cayir, a lawyer and chair of the Alternative Informatics Association, a civil-society organization that focuses on issues of media literacy, internet censorship and mass surveillance, says the new law violates existing regulations on personal data protection and international agreements maintaining the internet as a free, neutral space accessible to all. Like Akdeniz, he has urged social-media platforms not to accept the new legislation.
The fifth clause of the law on “the right to be forgotten” is particularly disturbing because it means that content from the past will not only be blocked but deleted forever from every source, including news archives.
The real reason for drafting and passing the new law with such haste perhaps is best explained by what occurred on one day this year, July 26. On that day, the president addressed this year’s high school graduates via YouTube. Within minutes, thousands responded with the “thumbs down” emoji. As of early this month, the video has been “disliked” more than half a million times. The hashtag #OyMoyYok – “No Votes for You” – was posted repeatedly in the comments section before it was disabled. The new law on social media was passed three days after Erdogan’s address.
The president will continue to demonize social media as “a place where bad things come from” and his traditional voter base – the poorer, less educated, religiously conservative population of rural Turkey – will probably believe him. But in the end the president is fighting a losing battle.
Half of Turkey’s population is under 32 years of age. They have grown up during the two decades of AKP rule. These are the young people Erdogan has pledged to groom into the “pious generation.” But they are also tech-savvy and do not consume government-controlled mass media. They do not see social media as a threat to national unity. And in the 2023 election, five million of them will be voters.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.