21 March 2014
So says Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey -- in Turkish, "Twitter, mwitter" is equivalent to saying, "Twitter, schmitter" -- vowing on the campaign trail that Twitter will learn to respect the power of the Turkish government. He's secured a court order denying Turks access to the popular, short-winded social-media service, citing alleged invasions of privacy, identity thefts, etc. From all reports, most IT-savvy Turks, including the country's president -- the head of state as opposed to the head of government -- quickly figured out how to get around the restrictions, and the supposedly-temporary ban has won Erdogan a new round of scorn around the world. Most critics assume that he's really just angry that Twitter has refused his requests to take down links to clandestine recordings that allegedly implicate Erdogan and his family in corruption. The west, seeing Erdogan as an increasingly "authoritarian" Islamist, sees the action against Twitter as further confirmation of their suspicions. Meanwhile, Erdogan plays to the rubes in his own country by boasting that he doesn't care what the west thinks, while at least one supporter of his action points to a recent case when the British government at least considered a temporary shutdown of Twitter during a period of rioting in London. The problem with the analogy, critic will most likely point out, is that the U.K. was dealing with actual unrest in the streets, while Erdogan is dealing with uncomfortable (if perhaps also unethical) revelations about himself. Superficially, it looks like another would-be strongman trying to protect his personal power rather than a statesman keeping the peace. Still, the British case shows that some in the west don't hold Twitter or other social media quite as sacrosanct as most in the west assume. Liberal idealists around the world see social media as a pillar of "civil society," a means for citizens to form networks and communicate with each other without the mediation or supervision of the state. The west's liberal democracies and republics are thought of as guarantors of civil society, not as its enemies. But for a moment one western government contemplated the possibility of social media, if not "civil society," serving a subversive purpose and needing to be shut down -- and if one such government has thought of that, it's not at all paranoid to suggest that the others have done so as well. Again, there can never be as absolute a guarantee of the right to dissent and protest as liberals assume to exist in some countries and insist on everywhere. Even in the most "free" societies dissent involves some element of personal risk, however minimal most of the time. For that reason it remains unrealistic to insist on guarantees of risk-free dissent as proof that a nation belongs in the community of civilized nations. Erdogan has failed, it seems, to keep Turks from Twitter, and if he tries harder and annoys more people, he may fail more badly -- but his success or failure can only be up to the Turks themselves to decide.