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Protests in Turkey: Lies, Damn Lies, and Social Media

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, June 3 2013

Mapping tweets around Istanbul. Source: NYU SMaPP

If Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to be believed, ongoing protests in Istanbul are thanks in no small part to lies and exaggerations spreading online.

"There is now a menace which is called Twitter," Erdogan said on TV, according to the Guardian. "The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."

While some have suggested that Erdogan has cracked down on Internet access in response, there's no evidence his government has limited connectivity. In fact, initial research suggests that the Turkish protests have spawned a record number of Tweets compared with other protests, spreading not just real-time information about protests, but encouraging others to participate.

The uncomfortable truth is that while it's unsurprising to hear a government official denouncing his detractors as misinformed or dishonest, Erdogan isn't entirely wrong. Unverified and in some cases clearly inaccurate information about the protests is spreading fast, and in some cases too rapidly for reliable information to counteract.

Several of the social media posts over the weekend have suggested that the government has imposed some kind of block or throttling on access to the Internet There have also been Twitter posts like, "In Istanbul people and businesses are sharing WiFi passwords to thwart gov effort to shut down protest Tweets/pics."

TechCrunch reported Saturday, based on several anonymous sources, that it had "independently verified via a number of sources that both Facebook and Twitter have been almost impossible to access from inside Istanbul, and other parts of Turkey. There are also anecdotal reports of authorities switching off access in a localised manner around Taksim Square where thousands of people are demonstrating."

CNN has since removed an iReport submission, which has been shared or liked over 32,000 times on Facebook and over 3,000 times on Twitter, which suggested that the Turkcell mobile phone communications company had been under political pressure to block communications, replacing it with a quoted statement from Turkcell denying those allegations.

"We don't have any evidence that anything like [blocking of the Internet] is taking place," said Jim Cowie, CTO of Internet monitoring company Renesys, who wrote a blog post about the state of Turkish Internet connectivity on Saturday.

He said that in observing the global routing tables and the networks that run through Turkey, there has been no sign of impairment, no change in patterns and no extra delay. "It looks very much like a normal day in Turkey," he said. Renesys has also not been able to reproduce any problems in accessing social media sites, he said.

Cowie emphasized that unlike Syria or Libya, Turkey is a sophisticated Internet marketplace with over 20 competing Internet providers with low risk of disruption.

He noted that one issue Renesys might not able to pick up is congestion on 3G Networks during the "last mile transition from the tower to the phone ... We don't have measurements of the 3g experience in istanbul at the moment." He explained that if a lot of people are trying upload video in place, there could be "network congestion created by traffic demand."

To some degree, he said, the propagation of rumors around Internet connectivity is ironic given that they circulate on social media and people would not be able to tweet about them if they could not get online.

In fact, an initial study by two researchers at New York University found that of the two million tweets posted in connection with hashtags related to the Turkish protests by Saturday, over 90 percent of the posts with geolocation information originated from Turkey and over 88 percent of them were in Turkish. This differs from studies of other protests, according to the researchers, which found that only 30 percent of those tweeting about the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country.

In the following 48 hours, more tweets became visible in English as the initial hashtag #direngeziparki (with the term diren meaning resistance) was joined by the more accessible English hashtag #occupygezi, said one of the researchers, Pablo Barberá. Eighty-five percent of the geocoded tweets still originate in Turkey, suggesting that activists have been trying to increase international awareness, while the original hashtag still remains the most popular.

Social media chatter is flowing at a rapid pace, he added. While the so-called 15-M protests in Spain, beginning in 2011, generated about half a million tweets in two weeks, with the Turkish protests, "that's the volume of tweets in half a day," Barbera said.

And beyond just sharing information about the actual protests, the researchers noted that criticism of the lack of media coverage was a significant focus. Many of the tweeted images, then picked up by journalists for Western media publications, highlighted the contrast in media coverage by CNN Turk and CNN International. Among the images are photos showing TVs side-by-side in which CNN Turk is showing a documentary about penguins while CNN International is broadcasting coverage of the protests.

On Friday, the researchers also noticed the hashtag BugünTelevizyonlarıKapat with the literal meaning "turn off the TVs today," illustrating how the protesters see social media filling the void resulting from the failures of mainstream TV.

The researchers also were not able to confirm any kind of Internet blockage.

Even though other social media platforms are playing a key role as well, Megan Metzger, the other researcher, said that the connectivity of Twitter to other mediums means "it tends to still give the best overall picture about how public information about the event is [spreading]."

In that vein, many of the tweets included links to livestreams or images from the #occupygezi Tumblr. Those images, however, generally include only very limited descriptions and come from unknown sources. It's a familiar challenge, given unverified video uploads by activists in Syria and elsewhere.

CNN has also since removed an unverified iReport post from Saturday claiming that authorities had used Agent Orange. The link to the removed report received over 24,000 Facebook likes or shares and over 18,000 tweets. Now the link has the notice: "This iReport, which claimed that police in Istanbul have been using Agent Orange against protesters, has been removed. CNN reporters there have seen no indication this is the case. Police in Istanbul today have been using a colored substance, according to protestors, which may be the source of the confusion."

Another unverified iReport post with the headline A Letter to the Rest of the World with reports about police brutality has been liked or shared over 45,000 times and tweeted over 3,000 times.

A post circulating widely from PolicyMic with the title "Taksim Square Protests: 13 Photos Showing Severity Of the Protests," or "13 Twitter Photos That Prove the Media is Insane to Ignore Turkey's Protests," has run into similar problems. It has been shared or liked over 62,000 times and tweeted over 2,000 times. The post explains, "Here are thirteen pictures from Twitter that show why we should take offense with mainstream media for not covering what could become an historic event." On the one hand, that line seems to conflate mainstream media in Turkey with mainstream media overall outside Turkey, which has been offering extensive coverage of the protests in the New York Times and elsewhere. And that post also has an additional note: "An earlier version of this article contained graphic, but unconfirmed images which PolicyMic could not verify as true. We have replaced these photos in this version."