The impact of social media on political change: Gezi protests in Turkey

The impact of social media on political change:
Gezi protests in Turkey

Abstract:

How effective is social media in politics? In recent years, there emerged a growing literature on the possible effects of social media on politics and regime change. Some scholars believe that social media has an important potential to contribute to political change- including regime change, through its unprecedented capability of organizing political networks in literally minutes. On the other hand, some others believe that the impact of social media on politics is doomed to fail because even though the social networks can be organized quickly, their decentralized and leaderless nature will not allow for an effective pressure. In recent years, the world has witnessed many social movements organized through social media. In Philippines, Moldova, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and recently in Turkey through social media, millions of demonstrators asked for the resignation of their governments. Can we say that the world is witnessing a new type of political organization through facebook and twitter? Can they be effective tools in changing authoritarian regimes? This paper will analyze the protests and demonstrations organized through social media in Turkey starting from May 2013.  Using the theoretical framework proposed by Lynch (2011) and other scholars, I analyze the complex and diverse impacts of new social media on Turkish politics, and argue that these new media have shaped the structure of politics through promoting “contentious collective action” and affecting international support for the government. However, social media did not produce radical outcomes such as a government change.

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I-Social Media and Political Change

Impact of Social Media on Politics

Recent years have witnessed many protest movements against oppressive governments. Social media have been an important tool to organize and express anti-government protests all around the world. However, the possibility of social media protests to turn into long lasting oppositions have been a topic of debate. There are different theories and viewpoints that view the impact of social media and its effectiveness. Some argue that social media is a new tool that will organize democratic movements, however some argue that these tools are not capable of turning protests into long lasting oppositions.

In his seminal 1973 study entitled “The Strength of Weak Ties”, Granovetter (1973) analyzed the link between micro-level interactions and macro-level patterns in social networks. He argued that weak ties have strong potential for diffusion, social mobility and political organization across different networks. The advantages of weak ties over strong ties lie in their ability to diffuse information and ideas across social groups.

The first time internet based social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were linked to a political movement was in the spring of 2009 when activists in Moldova used Twitter to organize large protests against the governing Communist party. Since then it has become clear that social media can be a powerful tool for political struggle.

In December 2010, in Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire which was posted on Youtube. On January 11th, protests reached the center of the capital city where tens of thousands took the streets. These events resulted in Ben Ali fleeing the country on January 14th.  Although the Ben Ali regime blocked Youtube during the month of unrest, it did not entirely block internet access. During these times, internet activists played important roles, re-posting videos and Facebook content about protests and carrying the protests from closed loops of private networks to Twitter and online news portals. Tunisia witnessed a sudden 8 percent increase in the number of Facebook users during the first weeks of January 2011 (Safranek, 2012). The protests, nicknamed the “Jasmine revolution”, led to the installation of a coalition government following elections. While new technology helped opposition leaders organize protests and easily communicate with followers, experts also commented that it would be simplistic to say social media “caused” Jasmine revolution, that the underlying economic and political causes were decades in the making, and that it would be unlikely that Facebook and Twitter would fill the leadership vacuum that existed in the country (Rash, 2012).

The most significant impact of social media on politics probably was seen in Egypt Revolution which was also named by some as “Facebook Revolution”. Egypt protests that led to the revolution started after the death of Khaled Said, a young blogger, who was brutally beaten and killed after allegedly posting an incriminating video of police officers (Bhuiyan, 2011). In reaction to his murder, Wael Ghonim, the Middle East marketing director for Google, set up the Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said”, and publicized the gruesome photos of Said’s corpse. The page quickly attracted 500, 000 members and soon became a platform for online discussion and dialogue of shared grievances against the Mubarak regime. Wael Ghonim was soon after arrested by Egyptian state police.

The first large scale protest took place on 25 January 2011, when protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the thousands and Mubarak stepped down from power on 11 February 2011. According to Al Jazeera’s coverage of 18-day uprising, protest organizers relied heavily on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to organize initial protest. The Egyptian government blocked Facebook in the first act of what would eventually become a full internet blockade. However, despite the Internet blockade, protesters were able to continue organizing demonstrations due to the organizational infrastructure that had already been established. A facebook event set up in advance received tens of thousands of attendance confirmations and a Google document posted to a Facebook group collected e-mails of the group members in case of a blockade (Chebib & Sohail, 2011).

Today, social media have become  a fact of life for civil society worldwide, involving many actors-regular citizens, activists, NGOs and even governments. However, anti-government protests organized by social media sometimes produce unintended consequences. For example, in Belarus in March 2006, anti-government protests resulted in even more control on social media. Similarly, in June 2009 uprising in Iran, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Hossein Mousavi but they were ultimately turned off  by the government (Shirky, 2011). The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010 followed a similar path. Protesters used social media to occupy Bangkok, but the Thai government dispersed the protesters, killing dozens.

These various cases show that social media has an important potential to contribute to political change but at the same time, does not have a single preordinated outcome. Recently, lines have been drawn between “cyber utopians”-those who view social media as a primary cause of recent political, economic, and social events, and “cyber-realists” who argue that social media is simply one in a long series of communication technologies which operate in a subservient role to larger political forces (Swenson, 2011).

One of the optimist articles that started the debate was Andrew Sullivan’s “The Revolution Will be Twittered” in theatlantic.com. In his article Sullivan argued that new information technology can bypass established media and can organize as “never before”.  He argued Ahmadinejad and the old guard mullahs were caught off-guard by this technology and that new generation with their new tools of media would wipe out the old regime. However, as a response Morozov (2011) and other cyber-realists have argued that in most of these cases social media had been much more successful in publicizing political events than it has been in organizing the events.  Morozov (2011) argued that social media was simply tools and social change continued to involve many painstaking, longer-term efforts to engage with political institutions and reform movements.

Similarly, Gladwell (2010) took a strong stand against the role of social media in recent political events. He argued that social media could not provide what social change always required, which is a “strong tie” between participants engaged in high risk activism which can not be replicated in the cyber world.  According to Gladwell (2010), personal ties between participants are essential for “real” political activism and that social media can not replace this form of direct engagement between participants. To support this claim, he cites a sociological study of activists in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, the result of which showed that those who stayed after three of the volunteers were kidnapped and killed, were those who had closer personal ties with others in the group. Gladwell (2010) concludes that “real” political actions occur as the result of direct, face to face interactions that are combined with emotional, interpersonal investment. While Gladwell (2010) acknowledges that social media can be powerful and effective, “strength in weak ties” occurs primarily in situations where access to new information is essential as in fashion, matching up buyers and sellers, and dating world. Social media, then is capable of expanding markets, however, when one’s life is on the line, direct material connections we have with real life family and friends determine our level of political engagement.

However, Gladwell (2010)’s arguments were refuted in a recent empirical study by Starbird and Palen (2012) that examined microblogging information diffusion activity during the 2011 Egyptian political uprisings. Starbird and Palen (2012) analyzed the widespread contagion of a popular meme and found interaction between those who were “on the ground” in Cairo and those who were not. Through both qualitative and statistical description, they showed how the crowd expresses solidarity and does the work of information processing through recommendation and filtering. Starbird and Palen (2012) report that 30% of the 1000 mostly highly retweeted Twitterers who were using popular hashtags related to the protests were “on the ground” in street protests. Tweets from these users contained information such as meeting times, injuries and supplies needed. In the research Starbird and Palen (2012) conclude that protesters were actually using social media services to coordinate their actions and garner support. According to Starbird and Palen (2012), low-risk activism enabled by social media may indeed have been a productive component of the Egyptian revolution.

In their research, Starbird and Palen (2012) theorize that the social media was effective in at least two ways. First, interaction between real time protesters and online protesters showed increasing solidarity with the cause. Second, online protesters did the “work” of information processing through retweeting. According to the authors, expressions of social solidarity are the kinds of activities that draw and sustain attention on the cause, which in turn may sustain the cause itself.

II-Theoretical Framework

These different empirical and theoretical arguments may necessitate more nuanced theoretical explanations rather than black and white descriptions on the effectiveness of social media. In this paper, using the theoretical framework by Lynch and resource mobilization theory, I argue that effectiveness of social media might be limited however it should not be ignored.

Numerous scholars, in fact, have pointed to new communication technologies as an important new resource for the successful organization and implementation of social movements (Della Porta & Mosca, 2005; Langman, 2005; O’Lear, 1999). According to Eltantawy & Wiest (2011), “social media technologies have been used especially in organizing and implementing collective activities, promoting a sense of community and collective identity among marginalized group members, creating less-confined political spaces, establishing connections with other social movements, and publicizing causes to gain support from the global community” (p.1207). In this respect, Resource Mobilization Theory might be a useful theoretical framework to explain the impact of social media on political change. According to this theory, resources-such as time, money, organizational skills, and certain social or political opportunities- are critical to the success of social movements. Although types of resources vary among social movements, the availability of applicable resources, and of actors’ abilities to use them effectively, are critical. Resource mobilization theory was the first to recognize the importance of influences outside the social movement under study and it correctly emphasized the importance of resources (Eltantawy & Wiest, 2011, p. 1209).

However, later more nuanced contributions were added to Resource Mobilization theory. Lynch (2011) for example, argues that while social media “offer powerful tools to protest organizers, reducing transaction costs for organization and presenting rapid and powerful channels for the dissemination of messages, images, and frames” as well as offering transmission routes for reaching international audiences, “they do not necessarily translate into enduring movements or into robust political parties capable of mounting a sustained challenge to entrenched regimes or to transforming themselves into governing parties” (Lynch, 2011:p. 302). Therefore while social media can be an important resource, it may not be as influential as real time organizational framework.

According to Lynch (2011), “social media can lead to political change in mainly four ways: 1) promoting contentious collective action; (2) limiting or enhancing the mechanisms of state repression; (3) affecting international support for the regime; and (4) affecting the overall control of the public sphere” (p. 304). Contentious collective action could be affected by social media through “reduced transaction costs, informational cascades, increased costs of repression, and scale and diffusion effects” (p.304). According to Lynch (2011) , social media may facilitate protest by lowering the barriers to communication. In addition, “the increased public incidence of oppositional views online helps to encourage others who privately hold such views to express them in public” (p.304). The new media “may also increase the prospects of collective action by raising the costs to authoritarian regimes of repression, especially by documenting atrocities and increasing international attention” (p.305).

However, for Lynch, social media may not be an effective tool because of its leaderless nature. Social media “can hold together a disparate coalition of millions of protestors around a single, simple demand” such as “Mubarak must go” but may be “less effective at articulating specific, nuanced demands in the negotiation process which follows success”(p.305). The Internet may also prove to be poor at building warm social networks and trust that are the heart of civil society. Lynch argues that “it could even be depoliticizing, as people remain at home with their computers rather than getting out into the streets or doing the hard work of political organization. Or, it could degenerate into constant mobilization against the status quo, remaining outside of political institutions and unable to project pragmatic agendas” (p.305).  Social media also has the potential to create new resources available to authoritarian states such as use of Facebook and Twitter pages to identify regime opponents.

III-Gezi Protests and Social Media

Timeline of Events

On October 31, 2012, the Turkish government headed by Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, introduced the controversial renovation plan for the Istanbul city center, widely known as the “Taksim pedestrianization project”. The project started with the closure of roads leading to the heart of the city. Later, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş announced that a shopping mall could be built in place of Gezi Park, which was one of the few green spaces at the center of Istanbul.  As a response, a group of activists from Taksim Solidarity, a civil group that had opposed to the renovation plans, gathered in Gezi Park when bulldozers came to the area to cut down the trees in the park. On May 28, 2013, Sırrı Süreyya Önder-Istanbul Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy, used his parliamentary immunity and blocked the bulldozers having police remove their barricades surrounding Gezi Park. He said they did not have legal permission to cut down the trees. However, later in the day, police moved in and attacked the peaceful sit-in protesters. During police intervention an image of police spraying tear gas at a woman in a red dress was captured and spread around the world. The “woman in red” would later become the symbol of  the Gezi opposition, picturing the excessive use of police force.

On 30 May 2013, police cleared Gezi Park  with the denial of people’s right to protest. The violence used by the police started a wave of anti-government demonstrations swept across Turkey. Within days, tens of thousands of protestors had taken to the streets across the main cities of Turkey. By the middle of June hundreds of thousands had taken part in “Gezi Park protests” that spanned almost every one of Turkey’s 81 provinces. The authorities’ reaction was brutal and unequivocal. Over the next few months, police repeatedly used unnecessary and abusive force, including tear gas, water cannons and beatings, to prevent and disperse peaceful demonstrations. By early July over 8,000 people had been injured.

According to Amnesty International October 2013 Report, there is strong evidence linking the deaths of three protestors to the abusive use of force by police. “While little progress has been made in investigating and bringing police officers responsible for abuses to justice, thousands of demonstrators have been detained; hundreds risk prosecution simply for organizing or attending the protests. Journalists, doctors and lawyers who documented the events, supported the protestors or defended their rights have been arrested, beaten, threatened and harassed, as the government has sought to silence and smear those speaking out against it” (Amnesty International, October 2013 Report). Amnesty International, October 2013 Report documents the human rights violations that have accompanied the crushing crackdown on the Gezi Park protest movement and calls on the Turkish authorities to respect the right to freedom of assembly, stop police abuses and end unfair prosecutions against peaceful protestors.

Use of Social Media in Gezi Protests

There is strong evidence that supports that social media was influential in Gezi Protests both as an organizational tool and as an alternative press. When mainstream media, mostly controlled by the government, was silent about police brutality and the scale of protests going on across Turkey, Facebook and Twitter “broadcasted” what was happening in the actual streets. As Starbird and Palen (2012) noted, online protesters also did the “work” of information processing through retweeting. During Gezi Protests, expressions of social solidarity drew and sustained attention on the cause.

According to a research conducted in the past 24 hours before 1 June 2013 by NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, the role of social media in the protests has been phenomenal. On 31 May 2013, since 4pm local time, at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest, such as #direngeziparkı (950,000 tweets), #occupygezi (170,000 tweets) or #geziparki (50,000 tweets) have been sent. As shown in the plot below, the activity on Twitter was constant throughout the day (Friday, May 31). Even after midnight local time, more than 3,000 tweets about the protest were published every minute.

tr1

*Source: NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, Report Turkey-Gezi ©

According to the report from NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, what is unique about this particular case was how Twitter was being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground. This way, Twitter played the role of an alternative media while mainstream media did not broadcast the events. Protesters have encouraged people to turn off their televisions in protest over the lack of coverage of the mainstream media by promoting the hashtag #BugunTelevizyonlarıKapat (literally, “turn off the TVs today”), which had been used in more than 50,000 tweets in one day.

The report from NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory also states that unlike some other recent uprisings, around 90% of all geolocated tweets were coming from within Turkey, and 50% from within Istanbul (see map below). In comparison, Starbird (2012) estimated that only 30% of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country. Additionally, approximately 88% of the tweets were in Turkish, which suggests the audience of the tweets is other Turkish citizens and not so much the international community.

tr2

*Source: NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, Report Turkey-Gezi ©

During the events the hashtag #direngezipark was the most popular and was used in more than 1.8 million tweets. In comparison, the hashtag #jan25 was used in less than one million tweets during the entire Egyptian revolution.

During the events prime minister Erdogan called twitter a “menace to society” and he closed Twitter. Twitter remained inaccessible for two weeks until the Turkish government unblocked it after the country’s highest court ruled that the two-week ban on the social media site violated freedom of expression. Similarly, Youtube was blocked for two months.

IV- Conclusion/Analysis

The end of Gezi: Did the protests achieve their goal?

Eventually, Turkish government consented not to build the planned shopping mall, but swiftly proceeded to crush most dissent. Many of those who had supported, reported on, or even tweeted the protests lost their jobs. Some faced criminal charges; hundreds are still on trial. The protesters and the slogans chanted resignation of Prime Minister Erdogan, however this did not happen. On the contrary Erdogan employed polarizing speeches and defined protesters as a group of marginals.

It was also believed that Gezi Protests would negatively affect AKP’s support base in March 2014 local elections. This did not happen either. Despite allegations of fraud in the local elections, AKP came out as the first party in most provinces of Turkey. In fact, based on a survey conducted few days after the protests,  , 49.6 % people said that they would still vote for Justice & Development Party, 23.3 Republican People’s Party, 15% Nationalist Party.[1]

The aftermath of Gezi Protests in fact shows that Revolution is not just one tweet away, nor it will be tweeted. As Gladwell (2010)  argues, more foundational and established “real life” organizations are necessary to throw away an established political organization or a party. AKP’s strong local organizational framework and real time party structure seem to win the fight between social media activism and real time political activism.

As stated in Resource Mobilization theory, social media introduced speed and interactivity that were lacking in traditional mobilization techniques, which would include use of posters and leaflets. Social media activists used cyberspace to disseminate information on the latest actions of the police or the government against protesters. Protesters used social media to give detailed instructions on how to reduce the impact of tear gas such as using antacids, making gas masks, using googles to prevent eyes from tear gas. They also shared the names of coffee shops/restaurants which hosted the protestors and protected them from police attack. Twitter and Facebook was also used to give information on volunteer urgent care stations established by protestors that had emergency medical supplies and volunteer doctors who give urgent care for those who were injured during protests. Activists also used Facebook and Twitter to generate international attention. They posted minute by minute updates on the events and police brutality. They started petitions to generate attention of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

New social media offered powerful tools to protest organizers, reducing transaction costs and presenting channels for the dissemination of messages, images and frames. However, they did not necessarily translate into enduring movements or into robust political parties capable of mounting a sustainable change since they were not backed by mainstream media.  As argued by Lynch (2011), social media was adequate to hold together a disparate coalition of millions of Gezi protestors around a single, simple demand such as “Erdogan must go” , but again since this demand was too broad it could not translate into specific, nuanced demands in the negotiation process which followed success. It was not successful at producing a new party or a new political organization which could have sustained the demands of the Gezi protesters in an established organizational framework. In addition, as Lynch (2011) argued, social media became counter-productive when state authorities used Facebook and Twitter to identify and prosecute protesters.

Even though Gezi protests showed a big resentment against the government, it seems like traditional organized oppositional movements are still considered as more effective. However, this is not to say that Gezi protests were inconsequential. In this third year of Gezi’s anniversary, we still observe and hear many referrals to this movement from social media. It seems like even though it did not produce short-term results, Gezi protests planted the seeds of some longer term consequences.

Associate Professor Selin Ece Güner, St Edwards University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Güner S.E. (June, 2016), “The impact of social media on political change: Gezi protests in Turkey”, Vol. V, Issue 6, pp.88 – 99, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=12181)

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[1] Andy Ar Social Research Institute (5-10 June 2013).

Retrieved from http://andy-ar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Gezi-Park

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