It’s not as though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in the habit of making wise, well-reasoned political moves lately but his newly-declared war against Twitter seems particularly ill-advised at the moment for the blustery leader. Erdogan’s threat to “rip out the roots” of the social media network on Thursday in response to tweets incriminating him and other Turkish officials in corruption hardly casts his crusade in the most flattering light. But the intensifying reaction to the government’s attempt to block the network on Friday is now threatening to eclipse the very scandal that prompted the ban in the first place.
Erdogan’s AKP government has had a troubled relationship with free expression on the internet in the past, having previously blocked access to Youtube while promoting legislation to allow telecommunications officials to mass-block websites or content on the web for any reason. Erdogan himself has previously gone on tirades against social media sites, particularly during last summer’s anti-government protests. But the release of leaked recordings allegedly of the Turkish leader instructing his son to hide tens of millions of dollars has put the prime minister on the warpath against one of Turkey’s most popular social media platforms (the country has the eighth highest Twitter usage in the world, with an estimated twelve million users).
Already in hot water in the form of a high profile graft investigation, Erdogan was evidently hoping to cut off the Twitter accounts disseminating the offending recordings ahead of the approaching municipal elections on March 30th. However, the display of blatant censorship has backfired here; rather than stifling the scandal, it has drawn more attention to it, while provoking outrage from both within Turkey and around the world. Condemnation has come pouring in from rights groups and the European Union. And, unfortunately for Erdogan, with one of the world’s top five highest rates of virtual private network (VPN) access, Turkey’s internet users are well-schooled in methods of circumventing governmental restrictions. Indeed, Turkish Twitter users have openly flouted the ban through a number of methods, calling into question the wisdom of this particular approach to heading off the corruption allegations.
VISUAL CONTEXT: TURKEY’S VPN USAGE
More troubling for Erdogan should be the clear rift this drive has exposed between himself and President Abdullah Gul, who, as an avid social media user himself, publicly condemned the move against Twitter on Friday, even tweeting “one cannot approve of the complete closure of social media platforms” in contravention of the ban. Gul has previously been cautious about setting himself apart from Erdogan, who has functioned as the AKP’s center of gravity for years. But the mounting scandals around the leader might just change the equation.
Thus, the upcoming election, which is widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan himself, will be an important marker for more than just the prime minister. It will offer a measure of how much (or whether at all) these scandals have damaged the leader’s standing among his typically stalwart base— and, in turn, whether there will be a rebalance of power within the AKP’s established order. In the meantime, with even more recordings set to be released, don’t look for the premier to temper his approach on this. After all, if there’s one leader that can be counted to double down on a strategy, it is Erdogan.