Somewhere in a dingy basement in Brooklyn or a trailer park in Central Idaho, a conspiracy theorist is probably cooking up the idea that Twitter (s twtr) is in cahoots with the Turkish government. Why? Because the prime minister of Turkey’s decision to try and ban Twitter has to qualify as one of the biggest marketing bonanzas for the service — particularly in Europe — since Oprah showed people how to tweet.
As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci — who also happens to be Turkish — noted in a post on Medium about the ban (which was implemented at some point on Thursday night), blocking access to the social-media platform only increased the Turkish citizenry’s desire to use the service. And so they did, sending traffic soaring and putting terms like #TurkeyBansTwitter at the top of the trending list.
The best evidence that social media is a serious threat to autocracy is that the autocrats themselves think it is.
— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) March 20, 2014
Turkey meets the Streisand Effect
According to several news reports, Erdogan decided to block access to Twitter because some users have been leaking documents that allegedly show corruption at the highest levels of the government. As many observers have since pointed out, the Turkish prime minister’s attempt to have tweets and/or user accounts deleted (something he had reportedly asked Twitter to do) is a classic example of the Streisand Effect — in which the attempt to prevent something from becoming public only serves to draw added attention to it.
While the Turkish authorities reportedly discussed the matter with Twitter, users in Turkey were doing everything in their power to circumvent the blockade, including circulating the names of VPN services and anonymous proxies — which could route them to Twitter without triggering the ban — as well as spray-painting the walls with graffiti containing the addresses of DNS servers outside the country (including ones operated by Google (s goog), which the company promoted for that purpose) that could be used to get around the block.
As Tufekci notes in her post, many Turks are used to taking such measures because their country’s government has blocked other Web services in the past, including YouTube. And while open-web advocates like blogging pioneer Dave Winer have warned that centralized services such as Twitter are vulnerable to actions by governments such as Turkey’s, the service is still available through the web with a little effort, as well as via SMS.
Turkish users: you can send Tweets using SMS. Avea and Vodafone text START to 2444. Turkcell text START to 2555.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) March 20, 2014
Twitter as free speech engine
While some social platforms such as Facebook (s fb) routinely remove content for a variety of reasons — including pages that are related to the activities of dissidents in Syria — and have also been more friendly towards authoritarian governments like Turkey’s, Twitter has so far remained steadfast in its desire to be what former general counsel Alex Macgillivray has called the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” The company has reportedly denied requests from the Turkish government that it open an office in that country and provide a “liaison” whom the authorities can talk to when they want to restrict the service somehow.
Despite the determination of Turkish citizens to make use of tools like Twitter for disseminating information about their government, however, doing so could become more and more difficult in the future — as Tufekci notes in her post — because of the country’s new internet legislation, which essentially gives the authorities the ability to block content on a URL-by-URL basis, something which could make the use of VPNs and anonymous proxies more difficult, if not impossible.
But regardless of what Turkey ultimately ends up doing with Twitter (the country’s president, Abdullah Gul, has said that he doesn’t agree with the ban), the service is undoubtedly seen by many in that country now — if it wasn’t seen that way already — as a crucial tool for fighting oppression, just as it has become a tool for spreading information about corruption and government harassment in other nations.
Social media dissent may often fizzle out, as Tufekci noted in a recent New York Times op-ed about the use of Twitter and Facebook during uprisings like the ones in Egypt and Turkey, but they can provide an important way for dissidents in a country to connect with each other, as well as a distribution method for information that could help topple some of those regimes.
Photos courtesy of Thinkstock/Yuriz