The Power of Social Media - The Helplesness of Traditional Media and #direngeziparki #direnankara, #direnizmir: An analysis of the Alternative Informatics Association (Alternatif Bilisim)
Residents of Istanbul started a peaceful sit-in as a reaction to the city governments plans to demolish Taksim Square's Gezi Park on the May 29th 2013. The demolition was part of the plan to replace the park and construct a shopping mall on one of the only green areas left in the central cross road of Istanbul. The reaction was sparked by a decision making process that lacked any consultation with citizens. Inhabitants of the city initiated this on-site protest to raise their voices against the demolition plans, but also to exercise their right to freedom of speech and to freedom of assembly in a democratic society.
The first assault on the peaceful sit-in on May 30th was followed by a brutal police intervention on May 31st, during which protesters were exposed to disproportionate and excessive force. News of the events and police brutality found national and international support in social media as hashtags appeared in Twitter's trending topics, such as #direngeziparki (resist gezi park) and #occupygezi. Shortly after, several Facebook groups attracted thousands of supporters. As the news of increasing police brutality trickled in, protests spilled into public squares across the country and around the world.
Meanwhile the traditional media kept silent. They muted their microphones, turned the cameras elsewhere and ignored the unfolding events at Gezi Park and around the country. This has been due to the almost monopolistic, concentrated ownership of media channels; the dependence of the local media moguls on the government; and, fears of retaliation from AKP (the ruling political party) which has proven to be intolerant of any social, cultural or economic criticism. If the media covered the protests, then it was only to re-utter the official line stated by the government, turning the private media to the communicator of the provocative language used by the government officials.
These developments led people to rely more on the Internet and especially on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Vine). Masses have since turned to these outlets in order to get informed about the latest developments, and also to act in solidarity with the initial protesters. On May 31st, Twitter and Facebook were used to organize further gatherings in prominent public spots in Istanbul to protest the police brutality in Taksim. Similar initiatives brought people together at Ankara's Kugulu Park and Guven Park and in Izmir. These protests were again met with excessive and disproportionate police force.
Throughout the last days, social media has been used to report the police brutality occurring in every city and to demand support for the ever popular public protests. Citizens of all walks of life have joined ranks in squares and streets; they have used social media to defy the silence of the mainstream Turkish media. In fact, Gezi Park protests are an exemplary moment in which social media has connected the squares across the country, surpassing any dichotomous reading of "social media vs. the streets."
Why Citizen Reporting Via Social Media is Gaining Force and How? #korkakmedya (coward media) and #buguntelevizyonuacmiyoruz (we will not turn on the tv today)
Following the events on May 31st, the protests and the violent assaults of the police upon its citizens started to spread into other municipalities and cities. Ever since, people of all ages, professions and political perspectives have been gathering spontaneously in public spaces to protest the police brutality and the (lack of) political consciousness that the current government has been displaying. People have created hashtags specific to each city in order to help thousands to coordinate help and urgent needs, document police brutality and inform the public. People have been using Twitter, Vine, Facebook and Tumble to share videos, document evidence of police brutality, and provide instructions for getting medical help and finding safe zones. As such, citizen journalism performed using social media has been playing an instrumental role in filling the gap left wide open by traditional media over the course of the protests.
For the first time in Turkey, mass self-communication has been happening on such a large scale. This self mass-communication, based on the use of mobile applications and social media platforms, has once again emphasized how important citizen journalism has become. This is especially true in environments where political parties like the AKP may come to dominate the political sphere and apply censorship to traditional media.
In response, the government has shown its willingness to turn its heavy hand to social media. On June 1st Facebook and Twitter were unreachable for TTNet users, the largest Turkish ISP serving the majority of the population. As a response new hashtags such as VPN and DNS have been created and instructions have been provided on ways to bypass technical obstructions, such as Deep Packet Inspection and filtering, that can be used by ISPs, i.e., TTnet.
On the Benefits and Limitations of Social Media for Organizing
In this historic moment, which we can call the "Gezi Park movement," several dynamics are at place with respect to mass political organization. Specifically various parts of the society that could no longer raise their voices due to current government's hegemonic practices have turned to social media in the following ways: In response to traditional media's acceptance of the hegemony of the current government, citizens have not only come to use these alternative communication channels, but to celebrate them as well. Mainly using Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Vine, people have given pluralist accounts of the events using creative slogans. Databases have been created to collect evidence of police brutality and the compiled documents have been distributed via blogs, open folksonomies (such as Eksisozluk) and other mass communication platforms.
Free/Open Source software has been developed and used to distribute information in the case of emergencies and requests for aid. The source code of these programs has also been distributed in social media. In case of potential blockage of social media tools, open DNS and VPN information have been communicated: technical solutions to technical barricades. Despite the severity of the situation, social media has been used to amplify the the carnivalesque tone of the public actions. People who were exposed to excessive violence, who were injured, who were taken into custody, those who lost their relatives turned the Internet and social media into a machine to expose the irony at the core of the events. The protestors comical accounts of their acts of resistance, their injuries and their successes created minor myths in which irony and humor came to overturn the government symbolically. There are many examples of this, including calling Gezi Park the BeatingPark, a dog with a sign saying "If there are no parks, I will shit in a shopping mall," "If there is so much gas, the shit will be dumped soon," "Hilmi from Toma," (replacing Roma (Rome) with Toma the water canon), and sound recordings of police-radio conversations with ultras after the latter hijacked Tomas, and the list goes on.
Citizens also turned to poke fun at the outlets that were stifled by the governments rough practices: some citizens called 911 and ordered tear gas while others called the Turkish CNN to request a re-run of a documentary about penguins (CNN Turk, as almost all the other TV channels, ignored the protests and instead showed a documentary about penguins - by now its own minor myth). All of these acts helped create a media language that helped people surpass their fear threshold some of which can be found under the following urls: https://duvardageziparki.tumblr.com/
These developments in citizen journalism and participation in social media had their own complexity. Although social media provided a discussion platform and a medium for simultaneous communication, several political groups have tried to benefit from the "stand-up for Gezi Park" civilian movement and have also behaved unethically in social media. Further, when social movements are organized over decentralized or distributed information flows, sometimes there can be an overload of information from the various perspectives, leading to mis-representations or biased reporting. The explosion of information aggregators, not all of which have been well kept, sometimes have given rise to distrust in the given sources or to statements made on social media. Moreover, the freedom in creating your own hashtags, the numerous possibilities for feedback, the creation and spread of radical thought have also not been free of hate speech. This has also been reflected on some posters and graffiti that contained sexist, discriminatory and insulting material.
Social media use has also not been limited only to those who are in support of the "Stand up for Gezi Park" movement. During the last weeks, those who align themselves with the current government have taken to intervening in social media by obstructing information flows or through censorship. Especially on Twitter, we observed the introduction of false news that have been manipulated to become "Trending Topics." On a related note, some people went as far as using hashtags to disinform the public. This occurred especially with respect to news about severe injuries and deaths, which due to their emotional hook were quickly spread by social media users. Yellow journalism hit a turning point when some claimed that police officers had resigned from their posts following the violent interventions. Disinformation had especially dangerous consequences when it turned out that instructions for safe zones, lawyers and medical help were actually run by police forces themselves.
We fear that such interventions are likely to cause social panic and distrust in citizen journalism. Further, these complexities make it evident that the failure of mainstream media to fulfill its duties has played an important role in propelling disinformation. In response to such unethical uses of social media, it has become the responsibility of the populace to remain calm and take steps to confirm the trustworthiness of the source, especially prior to distributing information.
An important response to social media "trolling" has come from opinion leaders. These included journalists of mainstream media, who, due to censorship in their usual outlets, have had to reposition themselves in social media; as well as the artists, politicians (especially Sirri Sureyya Onder of BDP) and other prominent supporters of the "Stand up for Gezi Park" platform. Once more, this has shown the crucial role that opinion leaders have in developing good information disclosure practices.
Despite these challenges, it is important to mention the hard work of those people who have successfully used social media to report on the disproportionate use of violence, those who have gone to great lengths to gather reliable evidence, those who have upheld hashtags which allowed the linking of these sources (#direngeziparkı, #direnankara #direnizmir), and those who were committed to disseminating trustworthy news (and warnings against disinformation) to all citizens. In all these media practices, especially through the use of mobile services, we observe the development of a healthy reflex and intuition against trolls and disinformation.
For examples of some of these noteworthy initiatives, please use the links below:
Evidence gathering on disproportionate and excessive police violence:
Bogazici Radio (Bosphorus Radio)
Mobile Reporting in Ankara:
Real time access has received a special role in the reporting of the events. Specifically, the use of platforms like Ustream that enable mobile broadband internet access by allowing people to report in real time, also makes it possible to mitigate the spread of disinformation in social media. When real time broadcasting is not an option, then there is still the alternative process of documenting the events through on-site recordings, e.g., photos, videos and sound bites. Especially when violence is asserted and people are in commotion, it is not trivial to record these interventions. The precondition for documenting such moments is the presence of multiple recordings from various angles which eventually need to be pieced together. The challenge here has been to ensure that when these recordings are pieced together, they will be reliable sources of evidence of what has taken place. As the traditional media continues to turn a blind eye (and ear) to the events and does not take any conscious steps to challenge what seems to be a prime case of a chilling effect, more people in Turkey are more likely to contribute to the production of content to report on the events. We can call the production of all this material a sign of the prosumer revolution.
The Role Social Media Plays in Overcoming Information Asymmetry
An ultimate advantage governments have over peaceful protests is information asymmetry. That is, in the course of mass protests during which people demonstrate their discontent about the actions of the government, the latter may have access to macro or micro level information about the protests whereas the prior may be situated in an information vacuum. By macro level information we refer to nationwide or international analysis of the protests or information about the nature of the protests in different geographical locations. On the other hand, micro information refers to information about the whereabouts of law-enforcement officers, the injured, safe-zones, etc.
The government may put macro and micro information to use when strategically deploying law enforcement. This information can increase the efficiency of the government to suppress the protests -- in some cases using violence or using the threat of violence. This sort of information is usually not accessible to protestors, especially during the kind of spontaneous protests that we are seeing in Taksim. Most people that have joined the protests in Istanbul and elsewhere have neither met each other previously, nor do they have experience in organizing public protests. In a democratic society, the mainstream press may play an important role in informing the citizens on at least the macro level analysis of the events. However, as we discussed earlier, the mainstream press in Turkey has simply vanished or has been providing reporting that is to the detriment of the people on the streets. It is exactly under these conditions that social media provides its users with the ability to instantaneously broadcast micro and macro level information to wider audiences. Consequently, although the reach of the social media channels is only limited to "users," leaving a good portion of the population dependent on mainstream media and their information policies, its impact on the protests has been substantial.
The instrumental role that social media has played in the protests that quickly spread across the country has also been recognized by the government, albeit rather negatively. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Twitter and social media are a "menace to society." In so doing, the Prime Minister treated social media platforms as the scape goats of the protests. Shortly after his announcement a number of tweets and status updates that had no confirmed sources started trending in social media. These were later used in government campaigns to underline the unreliability of social media platforms as information outlets. In a democratic society, we would expect social media to be hailed as mitigating information asymmetry. The Turkish government has decidedly seen it as the source of the problems it is experiencing.
In this landscape, we have concerns that arise both from the use of social media in organizing the protests and the governments' associated position. It is imminent to think of the causes of these concerns and how these concerns can be addressed. Most importantly, concerns can be raised with respect to any limitations on the use of social media that can be imposed through the combined use of filtering and DPIs. The public is not well informed about the abuse of net neutrality and the associated use of DPI by the ISP monopoly TTNET. Government officials have also boldly announced that they could have imposed even stricter measures, claiming that they could have "shut down the Internet".
Further, we are observing a reduction of social media use to mainly Twitter and Facebook (and to some extent tumblr and vine). Activists have limited access to Free/Open Source software tools and to web applications outside of the integrated services like Facebook. Most of the population have never received training on how to use secure communication channels and encryption. This coupled with the increased national and international surveillance of social media poses potential risks of harassment, profiling, and targeting to those who are active online.
Given the way hashtags are mediated algorithmically or through collective sharing practices, we are also concerned with respect to possible limitations on media pluralism and the representation of minority positions while using social media. If what emerges are closed conversations, and that coupled with hate speech (especially among younger users), social media is likely to get critical attention. It is exactly these weaknesses of social media and information sharing practices that are invoked when the government wants to give social media a bad rep and dismiss it as a public outlet. These matters need to be countered both among social media users and when these matters are manipulated by the government to dismiss the importance of social media for a democratic and just society.
The Necessity of Developing Online Tools for the Activists
Twitter, which served as the main communication platform during the Gezi Park protests, announced that it would not apply any form of censorship towards its Turkish users. While service interruptions occurred occasionally, there was no proof that this was caused by Twitter. Furthermore, the Turkish state, other than the few interventions discussed above, have so far not taken any draconian measures on limiting access to the Internet. Nevertheless, online tools which are used to organize and communicate have become so essential to the protest movement that we cannot leave it solely to the discretion of commercial parties, such as Twitter. Therefore, it is imminent that we recognize the need for alternative platforms, create new tools and develop plans to guarantee the availability and resilience of a diverse set of communication networks. We know from the "Arab Spring" how interruptions and surveillance can be damaging to protests and post-revolutionary struggles. Authoritarian governments have a track record of cutting down communication channels with the outer world, before brutal interventions and, at times, before committing massacres. In order to avoid a black out, we can develop back up methods like dial up connections, and design robust anonymous and decentralized subnetworks. Having fast and reliable hubs that could relay between the protestors and the rest of the world would also help protesters to reach the outer world in face of black outs. identi.ca comes to mind as a microblog alternative. Next to blog/photoblog sites such as Wordpress and tumblr, developing e-mail/tweet/sms tools that are easy to install, use, and secure, could also play an important role in resisting mass censorship. sms2tweet services provided by the Chamber of Electrical Engineers (EMO) is also something that we should mention. Twitter SMS services, which are currently provided by all the GSM operators in Turkey, also provides an opportunity to tweet when the Internet is unavailable. How this service can be used is explained on the websites of the operators.
In spite of the many tools available and in use, centralized and corporate technical infrastructures can be vulnerable to state controls and censorship that are counter to the interests of citizens. The events show that in Turkey, but also around the world, there is a need for communication tools that are not totally dependent on such fragile technologies and companies that are susceptible to government surveillance plans . It is more necessary than ever to develop such tools and infrastructures to keep the citizen's voice in the public.
The following are instructions on how to reach the internet and social media services in case of a black out:
Dial Up Numbers: Tel. No: 0046850009990 User: telecomix Password: telecomix Tel. No: 00492317299993 User: telecomixPassword: telecomix Tel. No: 004953160941030 User: telecomix Password: telecomix Tel. No: 0033172890150 User: toto Password: toto Tel. No: 0046708671911 User: toto Password: toto Tel. No: 0031205350535 User: xs4all Password: xs4all
Tweets via SMS send an ams to 4730 the sms should start with EMO + empty space + your tweet
Username: vpnbook Password: rac3vat9
Server #1: euro1.vpnbook.com (Anonymous VPN) Server #2: euro2.vpnbook.com (Anonymous VPN) Server #3: uk1.vpnbook.com (UK VPN – optimized for fast web surfing; no p2p downloading) Server #4: us1.vpnbook.com (US VPN – optimized for fast web surfing; no p2p downloading)
Alternatif Bilişim Derneği
5 June 2013