The Turkish state seems to be determined to repress ongoing and expanding popular revolts largely by using a combination of three strategies. While the violent clashes with demonstrators are on the increase, the propaganda machine has leapt into action to break the link between the protesters and their potential supporters inside and outside Turkey. At the same time there is an attempt to take control of the social media, to date functioning as the only communication network which allows people to connect with the protests, on the part of the police, various digital agencies and the youth members of the ruling political party, the AKP.
On the nineteenth day of Gezi protests in Istanbul, the police attacked protesters yet again, targeting those resident in the tent encampment as well as others who tried to reach Taksim Square to show once again their determination to continue demonstrating until their demands are met. Although the negotiations between the PM Tayyip Erdoğan and intellectuals, artists, activists representing the protesters began as early as June 14, crucial demands of the protesters have not yet been given any consideration – demands such as the removal of those authorities from office responsible for ordering and supervising the use of police violence that has resulted in the deaths of four people, together with a considerable number of others who were heavily injured during the demonstrations.
As more protesters gathered around different central points in the city, the police became more and more brutal – going so far as to deliberately attack hospitals, mobile clinics, hotel lobbies which had been turned into temporary medical rooms, and gassing the residential areas across downtown Istanbul. Doctors, medical students working in those medical rooms and mobile clinics, professional journalists covering the attacks despite the continuing unofficial media censorship, together with a number of protesters were taken into custody by policemen who routinely cover over their official identification numbers. Meanwhile rumours are spreading through the social networks about the gas the police have started using in the last couple of days which do not contain the usual chemicals but something else that generates rashes on the skin. Unconfirmed news regarding casualties and more arrests in different cities are also in circulation across the digital networks. The mainstream TV news media stays silent about all of these developments. As we are write this, thousands are trying to reach Taksim and yet being blocked, gassed and subjected to water cannons by the police.
While millions of people have been witnessing all this either by being part of the demonstrating crowd or through social media, millions of others have been clueless about the rising attacks and focused instead on the ongoing rallies of AKP that are always broadcast live on major news channels. These rallies held in Ankara and in Istanbul, where most of the clashes between the protesters and the police have been taking place in the last two weeks, are designed to show the whole world that “Taksim is not Turkey” as the PM has remarked. His speeches are largely based on a narrative describing an international plan to drag the country into extremities and to diminish Turkey’s economic power and success. In these rallies, one of which is being held at the same time as the protests in Taksim are being blocked, the PM continues to frame the whole seris of demonstrations within one simple conspiracy narrative.
The protesters within this narrative are continuously depicted as looters, terrorists, marginal groups, and occasionally voters for the opposition party, the CHP. Those who have kept up a presence in Gezi Park are immoral and fake environmentalists who have the face to enter mosques with their shoes on during the protests, to drink beers there - people who stink out, pee, and make love in the park as they reside there.
Thousands of supporters cheerfully applaud and welcome these malicious remarks and narratives. There is no let-up in the incessant production of this polarizing discourse which might well incite many believers to attack the protesters. After all, this a country with a history of cases such as the Sivas massacre of June 1993, when 33 intellectuals, writers, and poets were burned to death by the Islamists in Sivas, because they believed these 33 people were immoral.
There is a determined attempt to re-segregate and polarise the different groups such as the Kurds and the Kemalists-nationalists who unexpectedly found themselves aligned together in the demonstrating crowd for the sake of more democracy and freedom for everyone.
Moreover, journalists from the international media are accused of distorting the news, and together with the many famous artists worldwide who have aligned themselves with the protesters, the elite-bourgeois who opened their hotels and other properties for the injured protesters, as well as academics and universities who show sympathy for the protests – these people are singled out as the target of a much larger conspiracy theory.
Once more, the PM takes the position not only of a former victim of oppression who has risen to gain his party votes and the support of millions, but also a heroic leader in the eyes of many who have felt excluded, degraded and ridiculed by the west and the Kemalists. From this position, he redraws the whole picture of the contemporary climate so that the infinitely varied coalition of protesters is confined in already existing identity categories, and turned into a defined enemy - a homogenized group of looters.
The social media war
Fighting against this black propaganda and police brutality on the streets, millions of people continue to deploy digital media technologies to collect photographs, videos as evidence not only of police brutality and the state’s human rights violations - but also to disprove the lies of these authorities. For instance, users share across the social media the videos of injured protesters, receiving help from the mosque with the permission of the sympathetic Imam rather than drinking and partying in the mosque as the PM says in his rallies. Users of the social media also deconstruct the already familiar narratives of the PM about the protests by drawing on our power of laughter and humour whenever the police attacks recede. As the PM calls the protesters ‘looters and marginals’, the protesters immediately transform these concepts into something positive that they can celebrate and internalize cheerfully. Hence the videos of singing students named ‘a chorus of looters’, or visuals of gas masks rechristened ‘looter gas’. New hash tags are generated to mobilize people so that they become more and more visible in the social media, while the digital groups of AK youth and digital media agencies that were recently recruited to de-popularize and censor these hash tags do their level best to fight back.
Yet, the power of social media is still limited both in terms of taking on the powerful propaganda machines of the AKP that makes use of almost all popular communication networks, including mainstream TV and of creating the appearance of a much more solid, reliable information source. Moreover, the attempt to contain the revolt does not take place only through police attacks, black propaganda, and conspiracy theories, which trigger nationalist hysteria, but also through transforming the social media into a highly insecure space.
The social media is also used by the police to procure the coordinates of the protesters, hotels and medical rooms where they can get help as well as locating the barricades of the demonstrators. Furthermore, the rumours about the potential arrests of those who are actively involved in the mobilization of protests can only reinforce the climate of fear and insecurity.
As police brutality accelerates to the point where Can Dündar, a respected journalist, has claimed on Halk TV (the only cable that covers the protests from the ground), “I have seen many wars but not this sort of cruelty in all my life” and the propaganda of AKP turns more and more hostile and menacing in tone against the protesters, the lack of a truly reliable source for understanding what is happening in the different zones of the demonstrations is hard to take. For many of us, the feeling of insecurity, fear and distrust increases and dominates the entire atmosphere. This emotional force-field can be best be described with a quote from Tezer Özlü (a writer from the 1980s) who has become one of the most popular sources of messaging in the social media these days: “this country is not ours but the ones’ who want to kill us”. Nonetheless, humour, laughter, and indeed ecstasy continue to ripple out of the protesting crowd as a transformational energy for a more democratic Turkey.