In the absence of mainstream media coverage, protesters in Turkey have overwhelmingly turned to Twitter to report, spread, and organize civil demonstrations across the country.
Responding to the eviction of a civil protest against the demolition of Instanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, political unrest erupted on May 28, 2013. In just one day, the number of tweets including hashtags associated with the protests, like #OccupyGezi and #DirenGeziParki, reached over 2 million. Around 90 percent of all geolocated tweets came from within Turkey, indicating the widespread use of social media to share information within the country.
Empirically, Twitter has been instrumental in advancing political movements in societies where mainstream media is lacking. Recognizing this, Turkish authorities immediately sought to limit the use of Twitter and prosecute those using the social network to orchestrate political unrest.
Twitter, however, made clear their commitment to freedom of speech on Wednesday and refused to share user data with Turkish authorities.
In January 2011, Twitter wrote:
“The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact…almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right.”
Over two years later, Twitter’s chief executive, Dick Costolo, emphatically reaffirms the platform’s respect for free speech in describing the company’s “hands-off” role in the political debate in Turkey.
“You can use our platform to say what you believe, and that’s what the people of Turkey … are using the platform for. The platform itself doesn’t have any perspective on these things.”
The right to free speech does not just endow citizens the right to express their beliefs, but it grants citizens the power to express them without retribution, or fear of punishment. The free flow of political speech should be treated no differently, for it’s the very speech the First Amendment was created to protect.
The emphasis placed on freedom of political speech in the United States, however, is not mirrored around the world. This inherent difference will continue to cause tension between American-owned social media companies and national authorities.
In response to Twitter’s refusal to cooperate in their efforts to mute political unrest in the country, Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters “We have told all social media that … if you operate in Turkey you must comply with Turkish law.”
While Turkish authorities have not censored the social media site completely, they already taken measures to limit speech on Twitter. By preventing the opening of “fake” accounts, Turkish authorities hope to hold users accountable and criminalize their actions on the social network.
Furthermore, Turkey officials have arrested dozens of protesters for spreading “false” information. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag clarifies:
“Slander is a crime under law whether it comes from Twitter, Facebook, news websites, television or from the squares.”
Uncertainty arises from the lack of legal precedent when dealing with free speech on social media sites, further complicated by the wide array of laws varying from country to country.
While the future of Twitter’s involvement in the Turkish protests remains unclear, the resounding role of Twitter as an avenue for political protest has been affirmed once more, as visualized in this video:
Amidst obstacles set in place by the Turkish authorities and the lack of media coverage, protestors have made it resoundingly clear: The revolution may not be televised, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be tweeted.