Turkey’s practice of censoring the Internet and the social media channels it facilitates is an ongoing issue in the country, one that came to a head once again on Tuesday in the wake of the terrorist bombing attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
The latest reports put the number of fatalities at 41, with a number of others injured. Video of the attack as it happened, as well as images of the aftermath have been shared around the world on social media as news of the major incident spread.
However, soon after the news began to spread, the Turkish government’s censorship machine revved into action. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were blocked just a couple of hours after the attack according to Alp Toker, a tech analyst who regularly tracks censorship in Turkey.
The history of how the Turkish government censors the Internet is long and complicated enough to fill a book. And the bans don’t adhere to a particular pattern. They are sudden, swift and often come off as reactionary.
A closer look at the government’s censorship practices reveals just how aggressive it is when it comes to controlling the flow of online information delivered to its population of roughly 78 million, 60% percent of whom are online, according to a Reuters study.
Some of the most popular local news portals in the country are Mynet, InternetHaber, EnSonHaber and Haber7, but those news sources pale in comparison to local user interest in global social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. These more well known Internet brands are frequent targets of the Turkish government’s censorship efforts. And the local usage numbers help to explain why.
According to the 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, 64% of Turkish Internet users use Facebook to discuss local political issues, with Twitter (30%) and Instagram (12%) trailing not far behind.
To combat this local desire to obtain and share information with the rest of the world, the Turkish government has over the years distinguished itself as a leading Internet censor.
In a Twitter transparency report detailing activity from July 2015 to December 2015, it was revealed that Turkey filed the most government-initiated tweet removal requests of any country, with 1,761 requests. That number was followed by Russia at 1,729, with the third most requests coming from France, at just 150 requests. In the U.S. and the UK, the requests were 3 and 1, respectively.
Similarly, Turkish authorities monitored local Facebook usage extremely closely, making numerous requests for data from the company and getting 2,078 pieces of content restricted. That number stands in stark contrast to the number of Facebook content restrictions from other countries, with Russia at 56, and the UK at 97.
But while those figures are chilling when considering free speech, they’re hardly unusual when it comes to Turkey’s long history of information clampdowns.
In 2011, Turkish citizens took to the streets to protest a new Internet filtering system being imposed by the government’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority.
In 2014, authorities shut down access to Twitter and YouTube following leaked audio recordings of government officials discussing Syria.
In January of this year, the government blocked Facebook over content deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.
In April, the government blocked YouTube, Twitter and Facebook over photographs involving a hostage situation that resulted in the death of an Istanbul prosecutor. In that case, the authorities also made efforts to prevent the images from being printed in local newspapers, once again proving that Turkey’s censorship isn’t limited to the Internet, but extends to all media.
And that general approach to the Internet isn’t likely to change anytime soon, based on the frequent anti-social media comments from Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the past, Erdoğan summed up his attitude by saying, “There is now a scourge that is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
Currently, as the death toll from this week’s Istanbul attack mounts, Turkey Blocks, a Twitter account that tracks censorship in the country, reports that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all remain inaccessible from within the country.
But while the government’s aggressive actions have stifled some of the voices coming out of the country, such moves haven’t silenced outlets like the award winning Medyascope.tv, which uses both YouTube and Twitter’s Periscope to transmit video reports about the Turkish news that might otherwise be censored.
Additionally, tech savvy users in the country are using VPNs to get around the official blocks, but the tension around the official censorship moves continue to be a sore point for many.
But a quick search on services like Twitter proves that, even in the would-be information bubble of Turkey, social media-powered information will still find its way to the people.
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