Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: In Effort To Show How “Powerful” He Is, Erdogan Exudes Weakness

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Demonstrators, members of the Turkish Youth Union, shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara March 21, 2014. REUTERS-Stringer

CREDIT: REUTERS/STRINGER

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shut down Twitter, citing bias and vowing to show the world how “powerful” his administration is:

“It is difficult to comprehend Twitter’s indifference, and its biased and prejudiced stance. We believe that this attitude is damaging to the brand image of the company in question and creates an unfair and inaccurate impression of our country,” the statement from Erdogan’s office said.

“Twitter, mwitter!,” Erdogan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as “Twitter, schmitter!”

“We will wipe out all of these,” said Erdogan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies.

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Erdogan said.

The European Union Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes tweeted that the ban in Turkey “is groundless, pointless, cowardly.” She added that the “Turkish people and international community will see this as censorship. It is.”

It is laughable to call Twitter “biased”, as it is a social media platform for people to share what they think. If Twitter is “biased” against Erdogan’s administration, it is because it has lost the support of the Turkish people. If Twitter was creating fake accounts to post anti-Erdogan tweets, or censoring pro-Erdogan followers, that would indeed be biased; this is not the reality of the situation.

On one hand, Erdogan says “Twitter, schmitter”, as if he is indifferent to supposedly falsified accusations against him. On the other hand, he shows himself to be very concerned about what goes up on Twitter, enough so to shut the social media platform down. Erdogan is clearly afraid that Twitter will catalyze a revolution in Turkey, as it did in Egypt.

In an attempt to show his strength, Erdogan has instead shown just how concerned he is about his oppositions social media activities, lending credence to their claims. This action is likely to backfire, adding another grievance (alongside corruption, tightening control over the judicial branch, and firing hundreds of police officers and officials) to the opposition’s arsenal, while moving protest movements from social media back to the streets.

Michelle Obama, on a “non-political trip” to China, had a markedly political message for Chinese citizens; internet freedom is a human right:

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama told an audience of college students in the Chinese capital on Saturday that open access to information – especially online – is a universal right.

“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy,” she added. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Censorship in Chinese news media and online is widespread, and internet users in the country cannot access information about many controversial topics without special software to circumvent restrictions.

Turkey has modernized quickly over the past decades, and currently boasts a much stronger human rights record than China or Egypt. But sometimes taking away freedoms can cause a greater backlash than keeping them from people in the first place. When people have been empowered with certain rights and then see them taken away, it generally does not sit well.

It is not easy to take criticism, but as most people know, addressing a claim only makes it appear legitimate. In the age of social media, any position in the public eye requires “tough skin”.

While Erdogan has presided over a prosperous era in Turkish history, he now seems outdated and unfit to govern a country with “Western” aspirations (such as EU ascension). Erdogan sounds borderline crazy when he calls dissent a “conspiracy” or “bias” from an inherently neutral medium of expression.

In pluralistic democracy, political dissent is part of everyday life. It is up to the politician to make the call as to whether dissent is:

a) uninformed (in which case the government can inform the opposition as to why they should not be concerned), and/or;

b) comes from a vocal minority which can (but not necessarily should) be dismissed, or;

c) a legitimate grievance which must be addressed with policy changes.

When “c” is met with a dismissal (claims of conspiracy, bias, etc.) and tightening of power, it makes the situation worse. Erdogan still remains very popular in Turkey, but one has to question how many missteps his popularity can endure.

(Note: A government will almost always try “a” and claim “b” even if in reality the case is “c”. Furthermore, “b” can turn into “c” if not addressed. This list is supposing these alternatives are mutually exclusive and there is an objective truth, which is often not the case, at least until long after the fact.)

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