Since Twitter began offering its services in Turkish on April 26th 2011, it has become a major social media instrument reaching the masses in Turkey. However it is nowhere near the immense movement that is ‘Facebook’ , as Turkey has one of the largest communities of Facebook users globally. Twitter, on the other hand plays a leading role, in that many tweeps are influential figures like artists, journalists and even some politicians who tweet their views, initiate discussions and interact with followers. Last year 16.6% off all Turkish Internet users were on Twitter. Turkey’s conventional media has also begun to refer to Twitter’s Trending Topics to reshape their daily news coverage, so that Twitter hashtags of these ‘Trending Topics’ can create a greater opportunity to reach a wider Turkish audience via the conventional media. This obviously lends political value to this platform for anyone trying to amplify a voice for their causes.
However, since Twitter’s announcement that it may censor tweets on local networks according to demands from goverments, suspicions have emerged as to whether the government of Turkey is merely making use of Twitter’s new “feature” or if Twitter actively intervenes the Turkish trending topic list.
On February 8th, during a session of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM), opposition MPs occupied the parliamentary speech podium to protest a government proposal on shortening the permitted speech durations for opposition deputies during discussions on legislation. Turkish social media users, led by opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP and active tweep Melda Onur, started the #occupyTBMM hashtag to build support for the protest in the Assembly. Government friendly tweeps answered with their own hashtag, #isgaleson (End the Occupation). The opposition’s hashtag first appeared in the Trending Topics list but vanished after half an hour and only the pro-government hashtag remained in the list.
The Anarschi blog published a post about this situation. It wrote: “Some sort of censorship drew my attention. On Twitter, thousands of people tweeted using the #occupytbmm hashtag. It became the second most discussed topic within 10 minutes, then it instantly vanished. Apparently, there was a direct intervention on Twitter and it was blocked from being a trending topic. I don’t know what really happened but there was a filtering in Turkey. The funny thing is, it’s the MPs who started this hashtag.”
Also, a graph comparing the two rival hashtags circulated on Twitter by pro-occupation tweeps. The graph showed the #occupytbmm hashtag had more volume than its rival.
Similarly, on night of February 15th, Kurdish users initiated the #freedomforocalan hashtag, demanding the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish nationalists responded by creating the #babykillerocalan hashtag. The first hashtag easily made the Trending Topics list as the third most-shared hashtag, while the latter did not appear. However, within a minute, the #freedomforocalan hashtag was dropped from the list and replaced by another hashtag that was not previously mentioned on the list and thereafter moved into third place. Kurdish users considered this to be an obvious act of censorship.
Pro-PKK news agency ANF mentioned the possibility of a filtering, saying: “The campaigners asked social media users to make the #freedomforocalan hashtag a worldwide trending topic, in case of censorship for the Turkish TT list.”
Kurdish socia media users also circulated a graph comparing the hashtag with a non-political TV-related hashtag which made the TT list.
Furthermore, Turkish nationalists claimed their #babykillerocalan hashtag did not remain in the Trending list, despite having more volume than the #freedomforocalan hashtag.
In Turkey, Facebook has an office and its Turkish team has been the source of controversy for acts like censoring the accounts of gay activists groups and individuals, such as the gay Kurdish journalist Bawer Çakır’s, even though there was no violation of Turkish laws. After these attempts at censorship were taken to the mainstream media, Facebook Turkey reopened the accounts.
In a similar case, Facebook Turkey first refused to close the fan pages praising Armenian journalist Hrant Dink’s murderer, Ogun Samast, but after a campaign (led by Bawer Çakır), they agreed to close all accounts lauding the Dink murder and propagating hate speech.
These examples, combined with Twitter’s recent “selective content blocking policy” announcement and its topsy-turvy Trending Topics, created speculation and concerns about censorship among Turkish social media users – a predicatable reaction for a country, in which governmental pressure on conventional media has grown in recent years.
However, the problems social media users report do not really overlap with Twitter’s new policy. The social media company made no announcements about tweaking the Trending Topics list; moreover it promised not to clear out content invisibly, and to leave a “tweet witheld” sign whenever a tweet is blocked in a region. Therefore, the sudden fluctuations in the trending topic list do not seem related to this new policy, unless some other unannounced filtering practice is in place.
Whereas the concerns of Turkish social media users may not be well-founded, these incidents point to another problem about Twitter. It is not completely known how Twitter’s algorithms work and whether they work as planned. Especially since the transition to the “New Twitter”, users complain about seeing the users they blocked in their “following” list, their number of followers bounce back and forth. So, what Turkish users perceive as censorship, may well be another eccentricity of the new kid on the block.
Twitter’s mysterious ways of working lead to a critical question. Is the ultimate social tool – through which the people of the Middle East have raised democratic demands, among them transparent government and free and independent media – transparent enough itself? In the Turkish example, Twitter does not even have an office in Turkey to which social media can address their concerns. An environment with an apparently unstable way of working and not so much explanation about it, evidently has potential to provoke concern and speculation. If these issues are not resolved, the next call for transparency on Twitter may put the micro-blogging site itself under the microscope for scrutiny.
The Buzz Report monitors trends and themes that recently buzzed on various Social Media platforms. This explicit search was conducted only on Twitter about the latest developments of Turkey censoring Twitter.
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