“Digitocide”: the new way to silence the masses

Twitter and YouTube were recently closed down in Turkey. Platforms for citizen journalism and websites of non-governmental organisations have fallen victim to the Turkish government’s attempts to shut down their user accounts. The author and political analyst, Gürkan Özturan, describes a new phenomenon in Turkey, “digitocide”—digital lynching and digital murder. 

May 6 2014 Text: Gürkan Özturan

In earlier times, when there was a social uprising, a government intolerant of critical voices would have banned tools of mass communication, forced people to refrain from expressing their opinions, and as a final solution, tried to “get rid of the people speaking up.”

Until recently social media platforms had not drawn the attention of the Turkish government for a long time. There had been interest from individual members of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), yet the top officials had not really shown much interest in the use of this means of communication. Although bill 5651, the “Internet regulations bill” (which restricts online freedom of speech and the right to access information) passed in the Turkish parliament, civil society has protested against it, defending their rights and freedoms. When the mass protests—the first in the history of Turkey—began last year at the now famous Gezi Park in Istanbul, it became obvious that social media platforms serve as tools of freedom.

As traditional media failed to acknowledge the mass protests, millions of people in Turkey turned to Facebook and Twitter to get their news and share information about protests. As certain people and groups emerged as sources of information, it attracted the attention of the government and pro-government groups, which led to a wave of digital lynching and digitocide. Citizen journalism platforms, NGO pages, football supporter groups and thousands of individuals' profiles have all been victims of this digitocide as part of the Turkish government's request to suspend profiles of those who spread information about protests.

The Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication, Binali Yıldırım, has criticized Twitter for failing to cooperate as Facebook did. In order to cope with the organic and polycentric structure of opposition, the government had to find new methods, as neither the opposition nor the media moguls bowed down to monopolization and univocalization of the whole media sector. The governing AKP therefore established a cyber army of 6,000 individuals, supported by tens of thousands of party volunteers who manipulate the trending topics, distribute “correct” version of events and organize spam attacks on critical individuals. As a result, digital lynching incidents started becoming more common among Turkish social media users, and the resulting mass bans could be described as digitocide.

Digital lynching existed in Turkey even before the Gezi Park protests. Someone would say something that would contradict or provoke the values/beliefs of a certain group. In response, members of that group would start a campaign to report the person as a spammer, resulting in the deletion or suspension of that first user's profile or bothering the user to the point where he or she deleted his or her profile.

Most such campaigns begin because of political polemics that quickly turn into an attack on or defense of a politician, policy or political party. While in many countries, heavily criticizing or even insulting a member of parliament it is considered part of freedom of speech, among Turkish users it can quickly turn into a digital lynching campaign.

During the Gezi Park protests when the hashtag #OccupyGezi remained a worldwide trending topic for weeks, several notable profiles suffered such attacks, dozens of people lost access to their profiles, and when all such efforts failed to put an end to the protests, 43 Twitter users were arrested for their online activities. These “spam attacks” turned into a war between pro-government and anti-government groups, and some people reported those who supported the other side.

Had this been a century ago, in case of social unrest, the government might order prominent members of society, artists, authors, journalists, and other outspoken people to be gathered in the “town square” and taken to some shady area to be “cleared from the public” and the physical remains of their thoughts—books, newspapers, pamphlets, and articles—would have been burned in those squares. Or if it was a few decades ago, perhaps these people would have been arrested in dawn raids and either suffer torture or disappear in police custody. Either way, that would be one of the first steps in keeping the masses from criticizing the government's policies. An unavoidable next step would be banning the means of communication, namely newspapers, books, television and radio channels. However, today all these means of communication are often united on the internet in the much more interactive Web 2.0.

It is no secret that social media platforms are companies and that they run on investment. However, their service as tools of freedom is what keeps them alive. While Twitter keeps resisting the Turkish government's requests to share information and officially debar users of opposition background, Facebook is known to cooperate with governments in limiting people's freedoms and rights. Pages with political motivations, NGO pages, citizen journalism platforms, and profiles of activists that had very critical views of the government were banned without any valid reason, and events created by these groups were removed by Facebook. In a way it can be said that Facebook is participating in this digitocide, and not only in Turkey. This kind of behavior, which violates not only individuals' privacy but also their rights and freedoms, should be considered similar to that of totalitarian regimes' banning of political speech and written material.

The age of information has caused this crime to evolve from its earlier focus on authors and journalists who addressed the masses to more of an individually targeted action. Not only does this government attitude cause further unrest in society, but it also contributes to a culture of citizens who spy on each other. When a user uploads or shares enough material that reveals that he or she has a critical opinion of the government, it is usually one of his or her “friends” that reveals this and puts the first person in the spotlight or directly takes that person to court for his or her thoughts.

Lately we have been suffering from a massive censorship trend in Turkey. Bill number 5651, initially passed in 2007, was revised in January to add a guideline to end all political discussion among Turkish internet users. Even that bill did not foreshadow blanket bans such as completely banning Twitter, YouTube or other platforms, yet this happened. The law regulating the secret service was reformed to enable government surveillance of individual users, which deepens the government tradition of profiling individuals on the basis of their ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, and political backgrounds, which has always caused problems for Turkish citizens in past decades.

While freedom-loving individuals had only asked for respect for basic rights and freedoms to begin with, we have not even received that. The government went beyond the restrictions set by the laws it made and did not respect these laws. Twitter was banned wholesale. This has been described as the equivalent of the events at the Berlinerplatz in 1933, when so many people's books were burned by the Nazis.

In the past year, the people of Turkey have suffered an extension of laws restricting freedom of speech and the right to access information, bills allowing further government surveillance on individuals, unlawful arrest of Twitter users and citizen journalists, online harassment directed by government-employed digital thugs, and disrespect of laws, all of which has proven yet again that the governing AKP is as far from the culture of democracy as possible. When asked, Prime Minister Erdoğan continues to point at the ballot box as a miraculous answer to everything, yet election fraud dominates that sphere as well.

It is obvious that “Big Brother” is escalating tension and keeps watching us. But we, the little siblings, now watch back, record and share what we see.