“Twitter…schmitter,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to have said a few hours before a Turkish court gave the government legal writ to ban the micro-blogging service partially. With Ankara’s actions came a torrent of Tweets from Turkish Tweeps in defiance of the prohibition, as well as an avalanche of commentary on the revolutionary nature of social media. Yawn. This just an extension of the “Twitter revolution” meme that was going around at the time the Zine al Abidine Ben Ali was dumped in Tunisia, which was just the next evolution of commentary that began (in the mainstream) with a January 2009 New York Times Magazine article about Egypt’s Facebook activists. There has been some good work out there on social media and some excellent analyses of what is happening in Turkey of course, but something is amiss. No one has offered a convincing account for Erdogan’s behavior. Why does he want to “eradicate Twitter” and what is he seeking to achieve by antagonizing a large portion of Turkey’s almost 6.1 million Twitter users (out of an estimated population of 81 million)?
Various media outlets report that Erdogan is incensed over corruption scandal-related leaks via Twitter. This is surely true, but it does not actually answer the questions raised above. Others have suggested that he is isolated, surrounded by yes-men (and women) and thus he is not aware of the consequences of his actions. It is clear that Erdogan is isolated, but that also is not the reason why he has taken action against Twitter. In casual conversation some folks have wondered whether the Turkish prime minister has “lost it”—that perhaps as a result of illness, he is not of right mind. This is the “out of explanations” explanation: when all else fails, speculate about psychological stability. Erdogan is paranoid, but all good politicians are and he actually is among the few who has reason to be. It strikes me that Erdogan has all of his faculties and despite living in a bubble where no one challenges him, he knows exactly what he is doing and he is pretty sure he understands the consequences.
The prime minister is a shrewd and cunning cat. His attack on Twitter is part of a political strategy that he has been pursuing since the Gezi Park protests shook Turkey last spring. Erdogan is a great politician, but his strategy is fairly conventional and straightforward. Here is how it goes: He plays to his base, frames the issue as a plot among various outside and inside forces to bring Turkey to its knees, declares that he will not allow that to happen, and then emphasizes everything he and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has done for Turkey in the last eleven years. Erdogan’s message in Turkey’s profoundly polarized political environment is a way to ensure that the bulk of his base never accepts his or the AKP’s culpability for anything. The fact that the prime minister is contributing to what seems to be a deep divide among Turks is all the better for Erdogan and his electoral prospects. He will not be the first or the last politician to do something that is good for his narrow interests but is bad for society more generally.
The prime minister’s adversaries cannot even count on international condemnation to shame Erdogan (he is shameless) or encourage him to rethink the proscription on Twitter. When the United States and the EU criticize Ankara, it helps Erdogan by giving his “interest-rate lobby-Zionist-U.S.-Ambassador Frank Ricciardone plot” a sense of plausibility among the people who love the prime minister. It is easy for outsiders to wave their hands and dismiss this as conspiracy theorizing, but it is rather more complicated than that for Turks who have been reared on the idea that foreign powers want to undermine their country based on WWI and post-WWI history, as well as a variety of real and perceived international slights since. Erdogan knows this, believes it, and thus cynically exploits it for his own political gain. Of course the United States, Europeans, and good democrats everywhere should condemn the Turkish government’s attack on freedom of speech and expression, but it is also important to recognize the limits of such a move.
Both the Gezi Park protests and the corruption scandal have weakened Erdogan. He is certainly acting that way. Lashing out, threatening, holding mass rallies and now going after Twitter are all things a politician who was feeling particularly weak might do. Yet, it is precisely because Erdogan is not the master of Turkish politics in the same way he was a year ago that making a ruckus over Twitter, and in the process helping to secure his base and further divide the public, is a pretty good move.