ISTANBUL — Turkey's prime minister has condemned social media and promised a crackdown on it and its users. There have already been arrests, and new legislation is being drafted to curb its use. But observers claim social media will be increasingly used in the face of a growing police crackdown on protests.
Prime Minister Erdogan is on the stump rallying the party faithful against weeks of civil unrest against what protestors claim is his increasingly authoritarian rule. But addressing thousands of supporters Saturday, he dismissed fears of authoritarianism, claiming the unrest is part a grand international conspiracy that now includes Brazil.
"The game played on Brazil recently was the same game that was played on Turkey. The tweets and Facebook messages are the same. These protests [in Turkey] have from the beginning been carried out with grave misconduct, and with malicious intent. They constantly lied, engaged in constant manipulation, published fabricated news, hurled insults, and trampled on justice, " said Erdogan.
Erdogan has described social media as a great menace to society for spreading lies and half truths about his government. According to Erdogan's government, social media is a key element in the international plot against him. The government has already confirmed it’s trawling through five million tweets and considering new Internet legislation, as well as extending the powers of the country's spy agency.
Emma Sinclair Webb, researcher on Turkey for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, says there is a legal basis for controlling tweets. But she worries any new powers maybe abused.
"You can only restrict speech and tweets and writings if they present a direct and imminent threat. So the threshold has to be placed high on any restrictions. Unfortunately what we’ve seen in Turkey for years, whereby dissenting opinion becomes something that gets convicted in the courts, where it shouldn’t," said Webb.
A video clip of a demonstrator overwhelmed by a sea of tear gas in Taksim Square, the heart of the nationwide protests went viral in Turkey. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, are being used by protestors to expose police violence and, as in the Arab Spring, they provide a platform for demonstrators to organize.
Yaman Akdeniz is an expert on cyber freedom at Istanbul's Bilgi University. He says while the importance of social media is growing, he worries about a looming crackdown.
"People will now switch more to social media platforms because that is one area the government authorities have no control over. You cannot throw water cannon or tear gas on the social media platform. But I don't personally expect the government to control social media platforms; no other government managed to do this. So I think they are going to concentrate on prosecutions, on identification of people - and then everyone is concerned, because they don't know if they are going to be investigated or detained. A lot of people were detained in [the Turkish cities of] Izmir and Adana," said Akdeniz.
Turkish television Saturday showed video of police conducting dawn raids and arresting 22 people. Many people have already been arrested for tweeting.
In a trendy Istanbul downtown café, a group of protesters with laptops and tablets in hand are discussing what their next move will be. With some demonstrators charged under the country's anti-terror and organized crime laws, everyone is aware of the risks they are now taking, as this protester explains.
"I worry for my close friends that might be detained, and they [the authorities] might try to imprison some of these people for life. I fear for a lot of people. But that's just the personal aspect of it: when I look at the country, I am really not worried anymore, because I see the people. This is the first time in these lands (that) the people are truly revolting [rebelling] for democracy, for everyone," he said.
During the weeks of unrest, police have played cat and mouse with protestors on the streets of Turkey's cities. Now observers warn that the struggle is spreading to cyberspace.