In the lead-up to this past Sunday’s elections in Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter. For a leader to block media channels after they have carried reports embarrassing to his regime is hardly new. Nor is Erdogan the first leader to preside over economic advancement, then hack at the root of that advancement when threatened with a loss of control over information flows. Nevertheless, the drama playing out in Turkey today has high stakes for divided societies grappling with economic advancement in the digital age.
In a speech last week, Erdogan asserted, “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” In translation, at least, this evokes the rhetorical flourishes of an arch-villain in a cartoon. Yet before snickering from too safe a distance, we do well to consider that the kind of appeal Erdogan has been making to nativism, traditionalism and control over communications is politically effective in direct proportion to the economic damage it does.
Use of Twitter in Turkey increased during the ban, as users found various workarounds. And the ban was eventually lifted after Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that it illegally blocked freedom of expression.
At the same time, Erdogan remains popular with significant portions of the Turkish electorate. Allegations of electoral fraud notwithstanding, his party triumphed neatly in local elections this past Sunday. Erdogan has actively demonized social media platforms in both his rhetoric and his actions and cast those to whom these platforms give voice as outsiders and as enemies of home, hearth, and country. When it comes to short-term political fortunes, this strategy may well be proving effective. Erdogan has retained a measure of popularity in the face of scandal. A recording that circulated widely over YouTube before it was blocked, if genuine, documents him conspiring with his son to hide millions of dollars. Another recording catches his top foreign policy staff discussing a plot to provoke a war with Syria, with strong overtones of political expediency. In the latter recording, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says that the prime minister believes that the stratagem being discussed for provoking war “must be seen as an opportunity for us.”
Such an “opportunity” carries not only the threat of war itself, but also grave risks to the fabric of open society, as Erdogan redoubles his attacks on whichever platforms transmit information unfavorable to him. Turkey’s economy has burgeoned during Erdogan’s tenure. Its integration with the global economy, and with the information flows that are part and parcel of that economy, has increased commensurately. Thus, even while Erdogan has moved to consolidate power over the armed forces, judiciary and traditional media, economic growth has brought with it the decentralized communications of the information age. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the Turkish populace with Internet access has grown rapidly, rising from 36 percent to 45 percent in the four-year period from 2009-2013 alone. This has made Turkey, by some estimates, one of the top 20 countries for Internet penetration worldwide.
Users of Internet connections have unprecedented opportunities to communicate on a global basis, when those connections are unrestricted. Unfortunately, Erdogan’s regime has for years censored information passing over the Internet. Of late this resistance has intensified in ways that actively threaten economic growth in general and the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Turkey, in particular.
Digital access in Turkey is subject to significant censorship, with more than 30,000 sites blocked in 2013 and global content routed through Turk Telecom, which gives the government the means to block content and carry out bans like those of recent weeks. According to watchdog organization Freedom House, Turkey also has a history of prosecuting online speech. Even before the protests that began in the summer of 2013, a Turkish-Armenian columnist was handed a jail sentence for a blog post, and renowned pianist Fazil Say has been prosecuted for “insulting religious values” vía Twitter. Since the protests began, says Freedom House, dozens have been “arrested for their social media posts, and criminal investigations are expected under the use of Articles 214 and 217 of the Turkish Penal Code concerning incitement to commit a crime and disobey the law.”
Meanwhile, there are reports that the development of Turkey’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, until recently encouraging, is increasingly tenuous, as investors shy away from Turkey’s burgeoning tech sector, and entrepreneurs, who depend on the Internet, fear restrictions on Internet use. According to Sophia Jones, writing from Istanbul for the Huffington Post, such restrictions have badly shaken those investing in Turkey. Jones quotes Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar on Turkey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to this effect: "Turkey was an island of stability before the Gezi Park protests, but now what we see is that Turkey is no longer the stable market it was." Jones adds: “Sevin Ekinci, a Turkish economist who regularly consults foreigners looking to invest in Turkey, said that if she was [sic] a foreign investor, she wouldn’t put her money into a company here.”
Jones goes on to quote young Turkish tech entrepreneurs who have seen their sources of new customers blocked and their confidence in precious connectivity shaken. I cannot sufficiently emphasize the fragility of such entrepreneurs’ efforts or the costs when such potential is quashed. I was recently asked to serve on the board of an entrepreneurship initiative led by Turkish entrepreneurs and students who aspire to become innovators. This kind of decentralized initiative is where growth starts. It holds the seeds that, when enough are planted, develop into the innovations we hear about later. Twitter and Google (which owns YouTube and, of course, was itself founded by student entrepreneurs) may actually stand to gain cachet from Erdogan’s attacks, but entrepreneurs in Turkey are not so fortunate.
It is important to emphasize that these developments come at a time when Turkey is poised not just for garden variety growth, but for historic economic acceleration. Economist Jim O’Neill, who popularized the BRIC acronym for regions likely to see extraordinary growth in the coming years, has lately taken to speaking of the MINT countries, as well, of which Turkey is the “T.” Erdogan had previously garnered much respect for leading Turkey as it laid the groundwork for this progress. The tragedy is not just that he appears to have sought to gain rewards somewhat more concrete than respect, by pocketing significant funds for his family and himself – it is that in his effort to silence opposition to his regime, and cast recent scandals as sabotage on the part of that opposition, Erdogan is shaking the foundation of Turkey’s future growth.