Turkey’s Internet Bans and the Vicious Circle of Techno-Optimism
Turkey’s Internet Bans and the Vicious Circle of Techno-Optimism
Turkish scholars’ addiction to techno-optimism stems from Turkish modernists’ habit of considering every innovation to be a magic solution to Turkey’s complicated problems, as well as intelligentsia’s need of ‘scholar lebensraum’ in order to endure the conversion from cultural to economic and social capital. Therefore, Turkish scholars studying new media were overwhelmingly blindsided by Twitter’s cooperation with the Turkish regime. Turkey, under the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) regime’s arbitrary laws restricting civil rights and liberties, needs carefully-crafted strategies based on public debate and critical thought, not on hypes and bandwagons.
Turkish people has a well-known interest in social-networking. According to the latest Internet World Stats data, 86% of Internet users in the country have a Facebook account. Twitter, mainly because of its hesitant localisation approach until 2011, had a slow start in Turkey, however in June 2013, with the Gezi protests gathering millions of dissent Turkish citizens in the streets, it has registered itself on the country’s social media map. According to the Insight Radar report, the number of tweets sent from Turkey skyrocketed from 6-8 million per day to 25 million on June 1, 2013, and the number of active users increased by 250%. This sudden interest in Twitter was evidently caused by the lack of media coverage on the events, as the mainstream media in Turkey has been under direct control and/or pressure of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) regime since the party won its second legislative elections in 2007 by a landslide victory with 46.6% of votes, with an increase from 35% comparing to the 2002 elections.
Under desperate conditions, Twitter turned out to be a handy way to establish communication between the households and streets, creating a link between two different types of know-how, street movements and online activism. The profile of protesters, the demands and the location of protests created a seamless fusion of cultural capital between street activists and online dissidents, to an extent which forced iron-hand Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to take measures against this “menace against society.” While the street movement was suppressed by extreme police violence costing eight lives, Twitter has remained to be the “agora” of anti-regime people. AKP and Erdoğan had first tried to “eradicate Twitter” by a Constitutional Court-vetoed ban attempt, then employed a 6,000-strong army of Twitter mouthpieces,  hopelessly trying to settle the score. Obviously what Erdoğan and his consultants did not realise was, unlike Facebook, Twitter, due to its non-localised interface and paradigm based on extensive reading-and-writing (not popular Turkish sports), appealed mostly to the highest cultural capital owners of Turkish society, among which traditionally the modern secularists have been in vast majority. Even before Gezi, in incidents such as government-imposed alcohol ban and the Roboski massacre (where Turkish fighter jets killed 34 Kurdish civilians), Turkish secularists and Kurdish intellectuals led by opinion leaders took the floor on Twitter and even forced the media and the government to respond. The New York University Social Media Lab report on Gezi also showed that the Twitter activity during Gezi was also triggered by opinion leaders from similar layers of society. Hence, briefly, the ‘Kulturkampf’ on Twitter was quite a lost cause for the populist AKP regime.
Twitter becoming a democratic channel for dissident views in Turkey, perceptibly created a hype of ‘Twitter revolution.’ Explaining social movements by the emergence of new media technologies is not new. On the contrary, it dates back to the liberal perception of glorifying satellite television’s impact on the fall of the Eastern bloc and the CNN effect in American wars. This approach was thoroughly dismantled by French media scholars such as Wolton and Ramonet in the 1990s, however with the emergence of Web 2.0 and the new social movements, it has –sadly– regenerated itself. Notably during the “Arab Spring” movements of 2010-2012, the participation to these events were enthusiastically attributed the use of social media by protesters disregarding other variables (such as local/global political conjuncture, rising precariousness of middle classes worldwide, politicisation of offline social networks), both in media and in the academic world such Tufekci and Wilson’s uni-dimensionally optimistic piece. The unquestionable belief in technology democratising people, mainly founded upon Daniel Bell’s theory of new technologies creating new needs, therefore regenerating social structures, was accurately nicknamed by scholars like Fuchs and Gerbaudo as “techno-optimism,” which is a form of technological determinism claiming technology auto-magically fixes the ailments of society, overestimating the role of technology over society due to lack of dialectics and social perspective.
In Turkey, techno-optimism has a huge cult of followers among scholars. I will try to explain the historical and social roots of this popularity. Turkey, the last and not-so-voluntarily separated piece of the Ottoman Empire, has always had a problematic and two-sided relationship with the modernity. Since the 17th century, when Ottoman Empire’s fate was about to be sealed and the state needed to be reformed, Western modernity has been perceived as a ‘saviour’ and a ‘threat.’ The deadlocks of Turkish society was attempted to be resolved by modern innovations, however the traditional social structure was not let go. Even the early Republicans, known to be avid modernists, could build the Turkish Republic upon the traditional social networks, promoting landowner ‘ağa’s to parliamentarians. As a result, Turkey has adopted almost any new gadget modernity has ever produced, however it has preserved its modus operandi based on pre-modern social networks. Therefore, it has frequently appeared, to most Westerners’ awe, as a traditionally-operated society with a modern look.
In this context, it is easier to understand Turkish scholars’ addiction to techno-optimism. Treating modern innovation as a magic solution to Turkey’s complicated problems is almost automatic among Turkish modernists. Meanwhile, even the modern academic scene in Turkey, notably in Istanbul where all the economic, social and cultural capital are accumulated, operates under the traditional network logic, which prioritises social networks and interpersonal relations over contractual relations. Therefore, each new phenomenon creates its own need of social networks, which is constituted by few ‘go-to people’ and their followers. These networks eventually establish bonds with people in private universities, NGOs, funding agencies etc. to convert their cultural capital (of knowing this new ‘magic’ stuff) into economic and social capital. If you take a brief look into the well-funded workshops, continuing education projects, civil society projects in Turkey, you would surely see these networks in action.
Therefore, creating hypes and bandwagon effects with the arrival of any innovation is not only instinctive, but also inevitable in Turkish scholar scene. Turkish academics and intellectuals need this ‘scholar lebensraum’ in order to endure the ongoing conversion from cultural to economic and social capital. This subject is ever changing, from blogs to Twitter, from citizen journalism to data-driven journalism, however the modus operandi remains the same. Obviously, creating bandwagon effects over any new phenomenon takes its toll. The scholars in Turkey generally remain deprived of any critical approach and open-minded debate. Every innovation becomes a revelation case for the ‘go-to guys’ so swiftly, they are almost never debated.
That is the reason why Turkish scholars working on new media were overwhelmingly blindsided by Twitter’s cooperation with the Turkish regime. The microblogging site willingly contributed to AKP’s censorship attempts, on the pretext of court order given by Turkish courts, under utter regime control and according to liberty-restraining laws, such as Erdoğan’s personal “insult to president” law. If Turkish scholars had debated over major Internet companies’ –such as Facebook and Twitter– business interests and their potential partnerships with governments, perhaps they could have foreseen Twitter’s willingness to cooperate with the Turkish regime in order to keep the site open to access, therefore generating terrabytes of Turkey-based data, which Twitter sells through companies such as DataSift and GNIP. Or if they had analysed how YouTube temporarily lost Turkish market to Dailymotion along with Turkish music company deals because of the bans in 2008 and 2010, they could have understood why Google kept erasing documents criminalising Turkish government on the illegal weapon trafficking to jihadists in Syria.
New media studies need a critical approach, as the modes of production are gradually being digitalised, if we borrow Castells’ terminology. Ballotised autocracies, such as Turkey, need this approach much more than others. Major Internet companies’ business interests or despotic governments’ agendas certainly would not provide democracy to these countries. If people would get hold of their own rights and liberties, they will owe this to carefully-crafted strategies based on public debate and critical thought, not on hypes and bandwagons.
Dağhan Irak, Author, PhD Candidate, University of Strasbourg, France
Please cite this publication as follows:
Irak, D. (May, 2015), “Turkey’s Internet Bans and the Vicious Circle of Techno-Optimism”, Vol. IV, Issue 5, pp.6-10, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8766)
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