What triggered the young Turks’ political awakening? menac invited PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations, Billur Aslan, to discuss the role of social media in this analysis of the recent Gezi Park protests in Turkey.
The seven roles of social media in the #Geziparki protests
Of my generation in Turkey, born after 1980, most have never participated and not even seen any large and widespread protest in our lives. Our parents have always told us to stay away from politics and particularly from social activism since they witnessed the most bloody era of Turkey, through the 1970s period, which came to a halt with the military coup in 1980. This coup ensured prolonged de-politicisation of the Turkish society by banning political activists from engaging in political activities for 15 years. Moreover, 30,000 political activists had to leave the country and about 500 death sentences were pronounced (Pfannkuch, 2013). Therefore, the generation born after 1980, were educated to be reticent when it came to politics. Due to this long-standing reluctance of the young Turks to be involved in politics, the Gezi Park protests of May and June 2013 appeared as an unexpected and extraordinary face of Turkey. Even the young Turks themselves were surprised about the commitment and the active presence of their peers in the protests. From a small group of 50 people who claimed their public park, the rally grew into wider anti-government protests. What made the non-political and non-activist young people of Turkey start organising spontaneous and widespread protests?
The provocative acts and messages of the government
Turkey has experienced the growing strength of the moderately Islamic government in recent years. While the confidence of the government has been rising, it has gradually wiped its rivals off the political map (Amani, 2012). Particularly with the last election in 2011, the votes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased to nearly 50% of the electorate. With these political gains, the tone of the government turned more authoritarian (for example: its attacks on the women’s reproductive rights and its imposition of the alcohol-free zones). This authoritarian tone was one of the most provocative factors that increased the social tension in the Gezi Park protests. Prime Minister R. Tayyip Erdogan’s speech regarding the government decision on the cutting of the trees in Gezi Park was an explicit example of this. Erdogan said to the protesters that “Whatever you do, we have made our decision and we will implement it“. This statement could be perceived as an indicator of the diminishing level of tolerance to alternative voices. Another significant cause that gave way to the protests was the boost in the repression level. The disproportional use of force by the police against the protesters on Worker’s Day (1 May 2013 demonstrations) had been repeated during the Gezi Park protests as well. Police repression triggered the events and stimulated participation. Young people who saw their peers resisting against water cannons and tear gas took the streets.
Undeniably, these factors verify the theories of social movement scholars who would emphasise the changing state structure and the high level of repression to be the generating factors of the protests. Yet, what particularly differentiated the Gezi Park uprisings and mobilised the young dissidents was the silence of the conventional media and as a motivational source, the presence of the new technologies.
The influence of social media in the absence of conventional media
1. Growing political awareness among youth
While the conventional media in Turkey lost its critical and objective standing, social media have become a crucial source from which young Turks learn about breaking and unreported news. This informative role of the social media was particularly noticeable when the Gezi Park protests began to enlarge on Friday, 31st of May. While the TV channels opted to remain silent on the growing protests and showed cooking or competitive reality shows instead, social media was full of shared images and posts from the Gezi Park protests (Occupy Gezi page in Facebook and #direngezi in Twitter was the main information channels of the protesters). I personally have never seen my friends talk about a political event to that extent. As people could not watch the protests on their TVs, they became excessively active on social platforms. They tweeted, posted images on Facebook or shared their videos on Youtube in order to inform others and ask for help.
Similarly to other networked movements such as the Tahrir protests of 2011, the photos of graffiti spread all over the social media, Source: tumblr: http://duvardakisesler.tumblr.com/
2. Motivating people to participate
What particularly made the social media significant for the Gezi Park protests was also the huge presence of Turkish people on these new platforms. Given that 70 percent of the population is under 35, Turkey ranked the 4th largest in global usage of Facebook and 8th largest on Twitter (Voice of America, 2011). Thanks to the “personalised communication” that brought a “connective power” to the movement (Bennett et al., 2011), young people influenced and motivated each other to join the demonstrations.
3. Increasing the number of citizen journalists
Social media, once more, reminded us of how many journalists are among us. As everyone turned their attention to social media, users competed with each other to post their comments and to determine the narrative of the protests.
Unlike conventional movements, the dissidents do not have to get the attention of the media in the Gezi Park protests. Thanks to social media, they became journalists themselves and expressed their grievances on these new platforms. For instance, OccupyGezi Facebook page criticized the mainstream media which blank out all and any news about the protesters.
4. Social media as organiser of the protests
Like the Arab Spring protests that spread over the Middle Eastern countries and the Occupy protests all over the world, the Gezi Park uprising was organised and mobilised via the help of the internet. Most people who joined the Gezi Park demonstrations were not members of any political or social organisation, they were part of the generation who avoided participation in political discussions. Thanks to the speed and easy connection facilities of social media, these non-activist young people have easily learnt to organise an uprising. The Occupy Gezi Protest in London, which was organized by few young Turkish people, was a great example of these connection facilities offered by social media. In one day, the group’s Facebook page reached 3,653 members who came to the protests in London for supporting the protesters in Turkey (https://www.facebook.com/events/597999976911525/?fref=ts).
5. Rising anger and activating non-activist youth
The photos in the social media which demonstrated the disproportional use of force by the police was very effective to mobilise young people. They felt the responsibility to say “I was also there”. Similarly to Egyptian bloggers who used Twitter to report news but also their own whereabouts (Papacharissi, 2011), young Turks frequently shared their locations and reported breaking news from there. A blog opened for protesters also enabled them to report any excessive use of force by polices towards protesters. (http://delilimvar.tumblr.com/).
6. Spreading instructions for protesters
If the dissidents planned to protest in specific parts of the city, they have logged into their social media accounts for information about the current situation in that area. A discourse spreading over Facebook was also containing the phone numbers of lawyers and doctors for the protesters. In this way, social media has taken a significant role to ensure the safety of the protesters.
7. Bringing world solidarity
Probably one of the most important impacts of social media was to inform international society about the protests in Turkey and to activate them against the Turkish government. While the Turkish media turned its attention in other directions, Turkish people who live abroad felt the duty to organise events in their countries and showed their support to the protesters in Turkey. I should also add that contrary to silent Turkish media, the international channels have played a crucial role in the spread of news. One of the most popular videos, for instance, was a BBC video about the protests in Turkey (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x10fa2s_bbc-in-az-onceki-yayinindan-01-06-2013-04-00-tsi_news#.UaveatKc_tc).
The combination of international media, Turkish citizens and social media together provokes a platform for the process of assembly.
To conclude, it would be a mistake to claim that social media have replaced conventional media during the uprisings. In the absence of conventional media, a lot of false information was spread among the people and created panic and anxiety (i.e. the police is using real bullets, the chemicals inside the cannon water caused to faint ). Yet, the Gezi Park protests remembered us once more of the growing importance of social media in politics and its huge influence in the awakening and unification of a young population. In a speech on the Gezi Parkı protests, Erdogan said: “Social media is the worst menace to society”. As networked movements spread all around the world and topple governments, I wonder whether it is a menace to society or to authorities.
Amani, A, 2012, “Turkey’s Democratic Short Fall: Is Prime Minister Erdoğan the Main Problem?”, OpenDemocracy, viewed in: 02.06.2013, Available at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/aslan-amani/turkeys-democratic-shortfall-is-prime-minister-erdogan-main-problem
Bennet, L, Segerberg, A, 2013, The Logic of Connective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jones, D, 2012, Turkey Embraces Social Media, Voice of America, 26 April, viewed in: 02.03.2012, Available at: http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-embraces-social-media-149236475/370184.html
Pfannkuch, K, 2013, “Turkey’s Apolitical Generation”, Your Middle East, 29 April, viewed in:02.06.2013, Available at: http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/features/turkeys-apolitical-generation_13834
Papacharissi, Z, Oliveira, M, 2011, The Rythme of News Storytelling on Twitter, World Association for Public Opinion Research Conference, September, Amsterdam