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Social Media Illuminates Turkish Protest

Last Friday I sat down to check my Facebook feed and noticed that my Turkish friends were feverishly posting about something called #direngeziparki. I turned to Twitter and gleaned that Turkey’s heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protests in Gezi Park, Istanbul’s last piece of green space, turned into a remarkable protest against several increasingly authoritarian policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What started out as a 50-person protest to save a park turned into a massive wave of discontent that rocked the entire country.

Of interest to Universal Information Services is the fact that the Turkish mainstream media didn’t cover the protests – most likely due to state pressure. While cannons shot gas and water at protesters, Turkish media was showing soap operas and cooking shows. The censorship increased the rage of the protestors, who soon turned to social media to chronicle events on the ground in real-time on Facebook and Twitter. Hashtags became symbols of the protest and of free speech – #direngezipark and #occupygezi generated over two million tweets within 24 hours.(1)

My friends joined thousands of other Turks posting pictures of themselves wearing goggles and improvised gas masks made from plastic soda bottles. They tweeted about “agent orange” and “chemicals from the American-Vietnam War” being used against them. Turning to Twitter, I was shocked at some of the photos coming out of #direngezipark – chemicals being sprayed directly into the faces of teenagers, blood on the streets, policemen beating civilians.
Social Media reports what the media can't.

Social media has played a large part in protests throughout the last few years. It was used extensively during the Arab Spring, and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has referred to its use by female Saudi bloggers, who continue to outwit Saudi authorities in speaking their opinions online – a process he referred to as “electronic unveiling.” Yet something about this particular protest feels different. Part of the reason for the explosion in tweets about Gezi Park has to do with the fact that the mainstream media failed to cover the event, so ordinary Turks set to cover it themselves. They used Twitter to inform one another and coordinate activities. Over the next few days, weeks and months we will see the extent to which they have succeeded – but one victory is certain: with the advent of social media, no message can be suppressed for too long. Even if you control the newspapers and TV stations of an entire country, people will persist in being heard.

Ironically, Prime Minister Erdogan, who himself has over 2.5 million followers on Twitter, said in an interview “Right now, of course, there is this curse called Twitter, all forms of lies are there.” (2) Indeed, social media can be used to spread fallacy and disinformation (just like traditional forms of media can). But when entire populations tweet in unison, it commands attention and respect – 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. In yet another example of how the #samerules of discourse prevail and are enforced through #newtools, the protests demonstrates that social media will be there to help concerned citizens perform the responsibilities when mainstream journalists either cannot or will not.

(1) http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/02/erdogans_newest_dilemma
(2) http://blogs.wsj.com/middleeast/2013/06/03/amid-turkey-unrest-social-media-becomes-a-battleground/


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