On Turkish Clubhouse, a brief experiment in a more open web

Turkish riot police blocks the main gate of Bogazici University to prevent students from leaving the campus as they protest against President Tayyip Erdogan's appointment of a new rector in Istanbul Turkey January 4, 2021. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

When students at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, Turkey’s top academic institution, gathered in January to protest President Recep Tayyip’s Erdoğan’s eleventh-hour appointment by fiat of a government loyalist as their new rector, they turned to a new platform to take their message beyond the walls of their campus. Clubhouse was still in beta, only available on iPhones and by invitation, when Turkish student protesters discovered it. But it allowed up to 5,000 people to join chat rooms in which they could converse with strangers in a user-moderated audio discussion. The app became a hub of opposition politics and students began to host discussions about Erdoğan’s abuses of power. Thousands across the country flocked into chat rooms to listen to protesters’ stories—often in hours-long discussions deep into the night. Activists and lawyers joined to offer advice, journalists to find sources, and many others just to stay informed. By the end of January, the app had grown so popular that even the country’s 62-year-old former prime minister-turned-opposition leader Ahmet Davutoğlu was scheduling talks on Clubhouse.

But this brief experiment in a free-wheeling corner of the web was not to last. On Feb. 3, a month after the Boğaziçi protests began and Clubhouse entered Turkey’s digital lexicon, the police took three students into custody. The students had spent the night before moderating a Clubhouse discussion about the protests, and although the police attributed their detentions to posts made on Twitter and Instagram, the students insisted that the Clubhouse room was the only connection they had to each other and that the arrests had to be linked to it. It all went downhill from there. As users questioned how safe Clubhouse really was from government surveillance, pro-Erdoğan journalists and pundits flooded the app. On Feb. 6, Erdoğan’s communications director joined. These loyalists began to lurk in chatrooms to intimidate speakers and to schedule their own sessions to counter criticisms of the government. In just a few days, Clubhouse had transformed from a seemingly safe space for Erdoğan’s critics into yet another digital battleground for his information wars.

Clubhouse’s untimely, inevitable devolution into an object of government monitoring illustrates the central conflict of the Turkish internet. For about a month, the app offered a space for large-scale political organizing and discussion away from Erdoğan-controlled media and his censors. But the app’s creators were unprepared for what would come next. While billed as a safe space for free speech and democratic dissent, Clubhouse proved no match for Erdoğan’s efforts to dominate it and gave way to surveillance, censorship, and co-optation. In this, Clubhouse is following the well-trod path of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, all of which entered the Turkish market as democratizing forces at critical political junctures, only to face years of government intervention and harassment. For social media companies, their future in Turkey depends on their ability to both sufficiently placate Erdoğan to remain active and to provide the country’s increasingly anti-Erdoğan digital communities with a safe space for public debate. That will only get harder as the president tightens his reins on Turkish digital media and escalates his online repression. Social media companies must avoid becoming tools in this crackdown.

The contested Turkish web

Turkey is highly digitalized. Turkey is among the top 15 countries by time spent on the internet and social media. WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal are the most popular applications for daily communication. Three quarters of citizens are online, and 64 percent use social media. Thirty-six million people in Turkey are on Facebook; 13 million are on Twitter. YouTube is the second most visited website. Critically, a growing number of people report that they rely on social media as their top source of news and political information.

As everywhere, online platforms in Turkey are plagued by polarizing echo-chambers, hate speech, bullying, and disinformation. But compared to Turkey’s heavily pro-government media landscape, they look like beacons of democracy. Turkey’s top media tycoons control about 90 percent of TV channels and newspapers and depend on government contracts to grow their businesses—and avoid bankruptcy as the Turkish lira crumbles. The few independent outlets that remain face severe censorship and intimidation, limiting their reach. The imbalance is replicated online: A recent study found that 90.6 percent of Google’s top results for Turkish news go to three pro-government outlets and that Google News highlights pro-government sources almost 74 percent of the time. In this ecosystem, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Clubhouse, however flawed, offer vital spaces for citizens to freely exchange information.

Hence the government’s painstaking efforts to police them. Turkey launched its first major assault against online platforms when it banned YouTube in 2007 after a video was uploaded by Greek users pejoratively calling Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, gay. A court deemed the video to be “insulting Turkishness” and blocked access to the full website. This wasn’t Erdoğan’s call; it came from a state establishment that had never really cared for the international standards on freedom of expression. Indeed, long before the internet age, Erdoğan was jailed for reading a religious poem during a political speech. But Erdoğan endorsed the YouTube ban, and facilitated it by passing a law in parliament that year that allowed a court to block any website engaging in “crimes against Atatürk” or promoting gambling, prostitution, or child pornography. The move set a dangerous precedent of abuse. By 2010, Turkey had used the law to block access to more than 5,000 sites, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe warned.

Erdoğan’s personal war on social media began much later. In May 2013, on the heels of the Arab Spring protests in which Facebook and Twitter had played a major role, the Turkish youth, too, mobilized on social media and rose up in Istanbul against Erdoğan’s autocratic policies. None of the news channels, under Erdoğan’s pressure or influence, covered the shocking police violence against the Gezi Park protesters, and those that did cover the events spread propaganda and disinformation. But people used their smartphones to document the brutal crackdown, which killed 11 protestors and severely wounded thousands of others. Their images and videos went viral on social media, leading to trending hashtags and an international rallying cry for Turkish democracy. Erdoğan’s influence over the TV networks had its limits. The real conversation was taking place on Twitter and Facebook, not on CNN Türk.

A bigger threat emerged that winter. On the morning of December 17, 2013, Turkish police (affiliated with Erdoğan’s ally-turned-rival Fethullah Gülen) arrested 52 people including the sons of several cabinet ministers and business leaders with close ties to the government. Erdoğan was facing a massive corruption scandal, and his opponents were formidable. The prosecutors were media savvy and wasted no time getting on camera to promote their case. A group of influential (also Gülen-affiliated) newspapers published extensive reports and broke news about the indictments. Worse, an anonymous account emerged on Twitter that claimed to be an Erdoğan insider-turned-whistleblower and began to “leak” sensational allegations about the government. The final blow came via YouTube: Anonymous accounts uploaded videos purporting to leak private calls between Erdoğan and his children, directing them to hide large sums of money off-books. The soundbites went viral and seemed to offer proof, if illegally obtained, that Erdoğan was involved in corruption.

Erdoğan was furious. In February 2014, his parliament passed a law to allow the state regulatory agency to block websites without a court order. In March, the government banned YouTube and Twitter. While the Constitutional Court and other lower courts intervened, managing to lift the two bans, it only took a few months before the government blocked the sites again because of another national crisis. In the following years, it went on to block access to hundreds of thousands of websites—including Wikipedia, which was banned from 2017 until last year. To improve policing of the digital space, the state invested heavily in its surveillance of the internet. In 2018, the government boasted that it was actively monitoring 45 million social media accounts in Turkey.

For users, it grew increasingly dangerous to discuss politics or taboo topics on these platforms. As Erdoğan consolidated his power over the judiciary, particularly through mass purges and overhauls following a failed coup attempt in 2016, prosecutors began to increasingly exploit Turkey’s broadly defined criminal code and terrorism laws to detain citizens over their articles, speeches, or social media activity. Since becoming president in 2014, Erdoğan has personally sued tens of thousands of people for insulting him. Thousands of others face criminal charges for their social media posts, which are deemed either to be offensive against the president, state, “Turkishness,” “morality,” or promoting “terrorism.” Last month, the Turkish parliament revoked the MP status of a lawmaker over a few tweets sent five years ago, deeming them “terrorism propaganda.” Any Turkish citizen knows that she can get into trouble for her social media activity at any time, for any number of reasons.

Erdoğan’s war on Big Tech

Erdoğan’s authoritarian tactics have become a major headache for companies that claim to uphold and promote the freedom of speech. Besides the government’s own policing of the platforms by blocking pages and pursuing lawsuits against users based on their content, Turkey is Twitter’s top source of requests to block or remove content—accounting for nearly half of the requests that the company gets in total. For social media companies, compliance with these requests risks enabling authoritarian breaches against freedom of expression. Noncompliance, on the other hand, means taxing legal battles with a politicized judiciary and repressive government.

Last summer, Erdoğan raised the stakes. In July 2020, his government passed a draconian new law that required all social media companies with more than 1 million daily users to open offices in Turkey and appoint an employee officially responsible for implementing take-down requests. If companies didn’t comply with the law and appoint a representative by October 1, they would face massive fines, advertisement bans, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. It was an ultimatum. Companies would either have to facilitate Erdoğan’s repression or risk losing millions of customers in a booming market.

The tech giants tried to resist. A month after the deadline, none of them (except for the Russian VKontakte) had appointed a representative in Turkey. On Nov. 3, the government issued fines against Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok for $1.2 million. A month later, it fined them each another $5 million. YouTube was the first to cave. It announced on Dec. 16 that it would comply with the law and appoint a representative. Facebook followed a month later. Twitter was the last to go. Hours after Facebook said on Jan. 18 it would comply, the government slapped an ad ban on Twitter and its sister company Periscope, and threatened to slash their bandwidth by half in April—and by 90 percent in May. The company eventually gave in last month, announcing that it would appoint a representative. Critics have denounced these companies for caving to Erdoğan.

While the law is designed to force them into submission and they will face an uphill battle against the government to uphold international standards of freedom of expression, these companies are not powerless. Populist leaders like Erdoğan do not censor social media to get rid of it; they do it to conquer it. Even as Erdoğan built his extensive surveillance regime and criminalized his opposition in the digital space, he also invested heavily in co-opting and dominating it. His network of digital supporters—including paid trolls—are just as loud on Facebook and YouTube as his critics and opponents. The most popular Twitter account in Turkey belongs to Erdoğan.

Social media companies must use the leverage this gives them for good. As Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter begin to operate under Erdoğan’s new law, they must commit the necessary resources to evaluating the takedown requests according to their own free speech principles and push back against any orders by the Turkish governments and its courts that fail those standards. By maintaining a principled position against authoritarian repression, these companies can make a real difference for the citizens of this regime.

Twitter recently illustrated how this can be done. At the height of Boğaziçi protests, on Feb. 1, students shared an images of an artwork depicting an Islamic symbol with LGBT+ insignia, triggering a storm of homophobic attacks online. The next day, Turkey’s proudly misogynist Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu posted a thread calling the protestors “LGBT deviants.” Twitter intervened and in an unprecedented move against a Turkish official labeled his tweet as “hateful conduct.” Two days later, the company removed a tweet by an even more powerful figure, Erdoğan’s ultranationalist coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli, infamous for his outrageous far-right views on- and off-line, for promoting violence. Bahçeli had tweeted that the students were “like poisonous snakes” whose “heads need to be crushed.” Turkish digital rights activists celebrated Twitter for its vigilance and as an example of the steps platforms can take to moderate the toxic, polarizing language of populist leaders around the world, including Turkey’s political elite and their paid trolls.

The appeal of these platforms for Turkish users will depend on the companies’ ability to serve as a free space for democratic dissent. If these platforms fail to stand up to the government’s censorship—or worse, facilitate it—they will lose their users to platforms that do so. Turkish people are politically savvy consumers: In 2018, when President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey, they expressed their anger at the United States by smashing their iPhones on camera. And this January, when WhatsApp abruptly changed its privacy policy, millions of Turkish users reportedly quit the app to join Signal and Telegram. If these platforms fail to stand up to the government’s censorship—or worse, facilitate it—they will lose their users to platforms that do so.

Following the police intervention earlier this year, Turkish people continued to join Clubhouse. They looked for ways to avoid the government’s intrusions into chat rooms and held discussions on how to detect loyalist lurkers. But people seemed to stop engaging, and as the government’s crackdown on student-protesters escalated in Istanbul, the chat rooms gradually disappeared. By mid-March, my daily Clubhouse homepage consisted only of chat rooms that pundits and journalists used to host traditional panel discussions—as they already do profusely on television and Twitter. 

Clubhouse’s arrival in Turkey amidst a major democratic upheaval, and its astronomic rise at a critical moment for free information, are reminders that there will always be another app, and people will always find a way to seek the truth and express their opinions. For citizens of these regimes, social media can be an important source of freedom—spaces to find information kept off TV and out of newspapers, spaces that can host democratic debates and free exchanges of ideas. Ultimately, this is the highest value of any social media platform in Turkey: to empower the country’s citizens.

In the last Boğaziçi-themed Clubhouse discussion that I overheard in February, a young college student from central Turkey took the floor. In a shy, trembling voice, he explained why he, a small-town kid watching the protests “from the periphery,” had spent hours on the call. “I know we can all be jailed for our posts, and even the words that we speak here,” he said. “But I just want to say a word of solidarity. We are not there in Istanbul, in Ankara, and cannot physically attend the protests. But we want you to know that we are here, everyday, listening.” 

Merve Tahiroglu is the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).

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