Social media: A new front in the “war on headlines”

Aug. 19, 2020

Another skirmish, which had been long going on in a separate area of the “war on headlines”, has today turned into a new battlefront in itself: the war on “social media”.

Sinan TARTANOĞLU

The AKP government’s attitude regarding news, comments and criticism may have found its sharpest expression in President Tayyip Erdoğan’s following statements from a few years ago:

“We reached where we are now by fighting against headlines. We nearly waged a war on headlines. We went through times where headlines became arrows to rain all over us. Every morning we woke up to lies, calumny and slanderous campaigns, before reaching these days.”

Repeated numerous times over the years and foreshadowing the steps to be taken in the future, these words were inspired by Ece Ayhan’s renowned poem:

“We grew up fighting regulations, my brother (…) in short, they hit us and we grew up, my brother.”

Though referencing Ayhan’s verses against “the prohibitive, limiting, repressive bureaucratic structure”, this new “war” meant detention cells, prosecutors’ interrogations, courtroom corridors and prison cells for the freedoms of press and expression. Journalism, in line with these words, was turned into a “major offense” by the judicial system, which couldn’t free itself from the influence of the government, and abused the power granted to it by laws.

Another skirmish, which had been long going on in a separate area of the “war on headlines”, has today turned into a new battlefront in itself: the war on “social media”.

“Social media terrorists…”

Weapons in this new front of “war”, where headlines are associated with “major offense” or terrorism, are the same as before. The term “social media terrorist” was used, maybe for the first time ever, in the “Social Media Usage Guide” issued by the Communications Office of the Turkish Presidency in June 2020:

“Information pollution worsens on the social media, especially in times of crisis. During such periods, social media terrorists use the social media very effectively to organize provocations.”

This guide apparently served as a signal. The new front of the “war” was launched after messages were posted insulting President Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter and son-in-law. Erdoğan said on July 1st, 2020, “We want to entirely wipe out or take under control these types of social media platforms”. The reasoning was similar to that he had presented years ago when saying, “We reached where we are now by fighting against headlines”. In fact his objective was the same:

“What we should focus on here is how the media and social media platforms become instruments of such perversion. It is necessary to bring order to these platforms where lies, slanders, attacks on personal rights and character assassinations abound.”

Following these remarks, “buttons were pushed”. A new regulation was passed by the Parliament on July 29th, 2020, introducing new obligations and sanctions for social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. It came into force upon the approval of President Tayyip Erdoğan on July 31st, 2020.

Erdoğan and AKP governments had not displayed their repressive attitude towards social media platforms for the first time in 2020. Social media bans became a hot topic in 2014 when access to YouTube was blocked. However, YouTube had already been blocked in March 2007, for a video which allegedly insulted Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. After YouTube deleted the video, the ban was lifted. Then in January 2008, YouTube was once again blocked, for videos including “insults towards the Turkish Nation and Atatürk”. This ban was lifted soon after, too. The grounds of the ban dated March 2008 was once again “footage with insults towards Atatürk”. Access to YouTube was blocked in May 2008, June 2010, October 2010 and November 2010. This attitude of imposing bans on social media platforms became more evident in 2014.

Access to YouTube became possible only after the Constitutional Court overruled the ban. The digital encyclopedia Wikipedia has been censored frequently since 2014, and these bans were lifted only in January 2020, after another ruling by the Constitutional Court. Twitter was banned in March 2014, and the ban was once again lifted by a ruling of the Constitutional Court. As all these were happening and Turkey “was followed abroad with concern” as regards universal human rights, Erdoğan was saying, “Twitter and whatnot, we will wipe them all out. The international community may say this or that -it is not my concern”.

In this period, the AKP government monitored social media meticulously. Buttons were pushed every time a signal of news, criticism and hard criticism was detected. After any social media post that included criticism, houses were raided, people were taken into custody and passed long periods of detainment. The “280-character mechanism” established against social media platforms, worked like a well-oiled machine against all freedoms on social platforms. Please click here, to read the Press in Arrest report on the background of this mechanism, and how it works.

This “war on headlines” and the “wiping out” of social media has paved the way to one last piece of legislation, which has helped the “censorship monster” grow larger.

The law in question has, first of all, introduced a new definition: “Social network”. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and WhatsApp have been included in this definition. Foreign-based social media platforms with over 1 million users per day are now obliged to have a representative in Turkey. In case the social media platform does not appoint such a representative, it may face sanctions such as “fines”, “advertising bans”, “restriction of broadband width by up to 90%”. Restriction of broadband with up to 90% is considered to be a “de facto” ban of access to the social media platform and of interactions over the platform.

One of the most controversial changes introduced by the law is the storage of users’ data in Turkey. According to the law, “local- or foreign-based social network providers with over one million users in Turkey are required to store the data of their Turkey-based users in Turkey”. This in turn has paved the way for user data to fall in the hands of the judiciary and bureaucracy controlled by the government.

Another controversial provision concerns “the exercise of the right to be forgotten on social media platforms”. This makes it possible for any individual who files an application for “violation of personal rights” to disassociate their names from web sites. This means that anyone, from a top-tier politician to a low-level bureaucrat, criticized for their previous statements and policies may “wipe their slate clean”, and swiftly remove thousands of critical news stories, comments and criticisms, even if these do not violate their rights in any way.

Social media as evidence in the trials of 93 journalists

In this process where AKP governments confront the freedom of press, social media posts are increasingly becoming grounds for arrest warrants, investigation files, indictments and prison verdicts against journalists.

According to data from the Press in Arrest study carried out by the Press Research Association, in the cases of at least 93 of the 321 journalists tried in the past two years, social media posts were presented as evidence in indictments.

Various pieces of evidence used in the indictments were “enhanced” with accusations regarding social media accounts. A large majority of the posts used as evidence for accusations against journalists were on Twitter. Some journalists were prosecuted for their Facebook posts, while one journalist faced a prison sentenced for his Instagram post. Journalists were accused not only for their individual social media posts, but also for those of their companies. On the other hand, some journalists were prosecuted for their social media posts, however, the indictments did not include the content of the said posts.

Extermination of public memory

The risks posed by the new law go further than the accusation and trial of journalists for their news stories and social media posts. The new regulation does not only penalize journalists who uphold the public’s right to receive and share news. First of all, it penalizes the social media platforms which lay the foundation for sharing news and critical ideas. Then, it poses a threat against public memory, which is forged by such news, comments and criticisms.

In the future, Turkey may face much harsher violations of the freedoms of press and expression. The social media is losing its function as a medium to receive and share news.

If a man sexually assaults a woman, she may still write about it on her social media account; however, that post may not become visible enough to discomfort the public or urge relevant institutions to take action. The president of a bar association may still be able to share the footage of his being manhandled and taken into custody by the police for refusing to show identification; however, this may not enter into wider circulation to reach the general public. A journalist may still be able to post that she was taken into custody while performing her job and harassed on the way to the police station.

However, it will be easier to censor all such posts, or impose administrative fines against them.

It will be necessary to think twice before sharing any social media post. More dangerously, people will think about what may happen to them and not share those posts at all.

In Turkey, journalism, news stories and critical opinions have already become “major offenses”, and now this crime will be aggravated. It will be even harder to access real news and sophisticated criticism. Journalism will continue to be criminalized! The horizon of the freedom of press and expression will darken further, together with universal human rights and freedoms.

Press in Arrest is a database, monitoring, documentation and collective memory study of Press Research Association.
+90 (312) 945 15 56 | pressinarrest@gmail.com

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