Turkey Embraces Social Media

Thousands of people march in central Istanbul to protest against the government's plan to filter the Internet, May 15, 2011.
Thousands of people march in central Istanbul to protest against the government's plan to filter the Internet, May 15, 2011.
Dorian Jones

Despite Turkey's poor record on press freedom, the country is witnessing an explosion in Internet-based social media, ranking the 4th largest in global usage on Facebook and 8th largest on Twitter. These rankings have made social media a powerful rival to Turkey's mainstream media. But concerns are growing that the development could further polarize Turkish society.

In a cafe in downtown Istanbul, Hale is catching up on the news, using Twitter and other social media, which she now relies on for finding out what's going on.

"I open Twitter and check the mails," said Hale. "I am trying to not to use the phone to check Twitter. I only check if there is hot news or something urgent to see. Mostly there is, in the case of Turkey. Now I am checking newspaper sites less because I get most of information from Twitter. You have blogs you have news sites. So I don't care what the mainstream media does."

According to  Professor Yaman Akdeniz, an expert on communications at Istanbul's Bilgi University, it was last year's third successive landslide election victory by the ruling AK party that helped increase the use of social media and turned up the pressure on the mainstream media.

"Since the elections, the current government came up with strong votes, as the result we can feel the media is not directly, but indirectly controlled by the government," said Akdeniz. "And we witness self-censorship and self-policing by television channels and also newspapers. This resulted with the society reacting to these examples, so turning to other forms of news gathering, and people started to act as journalists themselves."

Turkey has been in the forefront in Internet coverage and the use of mobile telephones. Coupled with an Internet savvy population, the result has been an explosion in social media: 30 million Facebook users and four million tweeters.

Now, more and more people in Turkey are turning to social media to get their news. This was evident last December.

On the night of December 29, on Turkey's border with Iraq, 35 Turkish-Kurdish smugglers, most of them teenagers, were killed in a botched Turkish airstrike aimed at the Kurdish rebel group the PKK.

Cigdem Mater, a political activist with about 16,000 Twitter followers, says in the past, incidents like that were invariably covered up. But this incident, she said, was tailor made for using Twitter as a news source.

"When I woke up I just checked Twitter. I saw people are speaking about something happened in Uludere," said Mater. "At 7:30, I saw the first pictures because some people in Uludere took pictures of the dead bodies shot by the Turkish planes. And even the families have started to speak about it and we know about it. Until 5 o'clock in the afternoon there was nothing on the Turkish media. It was one of the biggest examples of [how] the independent media and citizen journalism can work."

Analysts say polarization along both political and ethnic lines remains a pressing problem for Turkish society.

But it remains unclear whether social media widen or narrow these divisions in Turkey. What is clear is that social media are becoming a powerful tool for those who know how to use it.

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