Asligul Armagan is a writer and photographer born and raised in Turkey. She earned her History and Classics degree from Durham University, and is currently studying for the MSc in Global Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
In the age of overabundant social media, filter bubbles/echo chambers, and fake news, we have seen the emergence of fundamental concerns regarding the future of journalism. Facts versus emotions, legacy media versus social media, and offline versus online activism are some of the most prominent debates we see when we look at the news around the world today – questions which have become even more relevant in the 2016 United States presidential election, Brexit, and the early days of the Trump presidency. This article explores the challenges and limitations of networked resistance by examining the events around the Turkish Gezi Park protests of 2013.
When former Turkish Prime Minister and current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came up with a mocking nickname for the masses who had rallied in protest for Gezi Park in the summer of 2013 – dismissing them as ‘çapulcular’, or looters, marauders – he could not have imagined that the insult would be reapporopriated to become one of the most significant grassroots movements in modern Turkish history. What is so significant about this movement in particular is that it was made possible solely through the organic adoption of networked journalism, defined by Jeff Jarvis as “professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, [sharing] facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives, [recognising] the complex relationships that will make news, and [focusing] on the process more than the product”.
As coined by Castells in 2012, “networked social movements” are by no means rare in today’s global society. The Arab Spring is perhaps the most well-known and well-documented case of grassroots political activism in the digital age. However, the Gezi Park protests are unprecedented for two reasons.
Firstly, although the root cause of the movement seems to be quite straightforward at first (protesting the destruction of a beloved national park and public space), environmental zeal does not explain why the movement was so successful, and reached way beyond its own geography. In fact, the reason was much more unique, and much more reflexive: 84% of demonstrators in Istanbul cited lack of media coverage among reasons for joining the protests, compared with 56% who cited the destruction of the park. Vatikiotis and Yoruk describe the protests as “the moment of eruption of a series of accumulated social discontents”. In a way, Gezi was an ideological battle between networked citizen journalism and mainstream traditional journalism.
Secondly, the movement certainly became a global phenomenon, but, more importantly, it was quintessentially local and horizontal: around 90% of all geo-located tweets came from within Turkey. In comparison, only an estimated 30% of those tweeting about Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution were in the country. Thus, the Gezi Park protests were even closer to the idea of a digital and national Habermasian public sphere, where people came together not simply to inform the rest of the world, but to deliberate and witness the sociopolitical and fundamentally national phenomenon that was taking place.
© mehmet bilgin/Flickr
However, just as new media emerged as a set of solutions to the challenges of old media, new media itself poses challenges – and networked journalism in particular. The Gezi Park protests of 2013 highlight three of the most essential limitations of networked journalism: distortion, social destabilisation, and illusion.
The first of the challenges posed by networked journalism in the age of copious social media platforms is that of distortion. Although social media appears to give everyone a voice, the fact is that with so many voices and opinions, there is no way to fact-check everything that is being said. Just to give an overview of the sheer volume of content that was circulating online during the protests, Vatikiotis and Yoruk write:
“Between 29 May 2013 to 10 June 2013, use of Twitter per day in Turkey increased from 1.8 to 10 million. There were more than 20 hashtags related to the protests that became most popular worldwide trend topics, and among them, six hashtags went over the 1 million messages per day barrier. Social media analysts assert that the total number of tweets regarding the Gezi protests reached more than seven billion.”
Twitter was by far the heart of the Gezi protests. The two most popular hashtags – #direngeziparki and #occupygezi – allowed people to achieve a kind of social media solidarity that was previously unprecedented in Turkey, because it allowed people to move from digital expression to real-life resistance.
Ironically, the most prominent cases of distortion that took place during the Gezi protests came not from the actual networked citizen journalism, but as a reaction to it, from the pro-government mainstream media. Since the protesters had used Twitter to bypass the mainstream media and frame the demonstration themselves, thus shaping public opinion, the government tried to curb social media solidarity via blackouts – a measure which proved useless due to the abundance of VPN providers that allowed protesters to easily bypass it. After this effort to supress dissent backfired, the ruling Justice and Development Party (the AKP) allegedly formed “a regiment of highly Internet literate recruits to operate as AKP ‘trolls’ in the social media”. Moreover, pro-government media outlets ostracised and dehumanised protesters – among other things, they insinuated that the Gezi protesters were rapists, alcoholics, sexual deviants, or otherwise violent. Some examples for this are the disproved story about a headscarved woman being attacked by protesters, the fake interview with CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, the fabricated interview with Noam Chomsky, and Turkish government officials blaming the Gezi protesters’ actions for Turkey’s failed bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.
© Raimond Spekking/WikiCommons
Thus, there was a serious effort from the government and from pro-government institutions to discredit the ideology of the Gezi protests by discrediting the people involved, and to create as much disruptive content as they could in order to break down the unified opposition that they could see on the streets. Although many of the distorted stories have since been disproved, at the time, it created an environment of confusion and chaos that sent ripples of uncertainty and polarisation throughout the country – which brings us to our second point.
The second challenge posed by networked journalism is that of social destabilisation, and this is in fact quite closely linked with distortion, in the sense that it stems from it. Mistrust is what turned the Gezi protests from an environmental sit-in into a national uprising: while the international media reported on the protest, pro-government television channels were doing all they could to ignore it. CNN Turk broadcasted a documentary about penguins, which caused the very outrage that fueled citizens’ desire to take part and self-mediate. In fact, one study revealed that of those who participated in demonstrations, 69% followed the events from social media, while only 7% did so from television.
© Mstyslav Chernov/WikiCommons
The government’s violent response to the riots, which included water cannon vehicles and tear gas grenades, combined with social media blackouts, the clampdown on nonconformist media channels, the self-censorship of the independent mass media, and the disinformation campaign of the pro-government media led to the beginning of the Turkish population’s deep mistrust towards legacy media, and towards Turkish society in general – especially towards the Turkish police force, whose unprecedented violence towards unarmed protesters was captured time and time again in photos and used against them. There was definitely a shift towards a more suspicious and pessimistic sociopolitical environment, which has continued to this day. The conflict was further exacerbated by the arrests that followed – not only of journalists, of whom 22 were fired and 37 were forced to resign due to their coverage of the Gezi Park protests, but also of civilians who had simply been too vocal – too anti-government – via social media. The dynamic between networked journalism and government reactions to it, in this case, created a schism that has divided Turkish society to this day – either you are a çapulcu, or you’re against them.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – the challenge with networked journalism is that it is illusory. Social networks can provide us with comforting ‘bubbles’ that give us a distorted and disproportionate vision of the society we inhabit. One of the primary reasons for this is quite simply that access to social media is not widespread, especially in a country like Turkey. The Pew Research Center reported that “as of December 2012, 35% of the Turkish population was using social networking sites” – not insignificant, but certainly not representative either.
This illusion of digital democracy is part of the reason why social media movements – even those as huge as the Gezi Park protests – can have misleading results. Many Turks – especially those opposed to the AKP – saw the riots as an undeniable and powerful turning point for the better. They thought Erdogan and his cronies had shown their true colours, and that after over ten years in power, they would be out in the next election. The following year, Erdoğan was voted in as President.
Similarly, journalists thought that the protests represented a shift towards an increased freedom of press – in 2013, Oktem wrote: “chief editors might feel empowered to be less responsive to the directives issued by the prime minister, who in only a few days, and because of the struggle for a few trees, has lost much of his national and international reputation”. We only have to look at the current state of Turkish journalism to see how wrong this prediction was.
Thus, we can see that although networked journalism is an incredibly potent tool for social unity and mobilisation, it is also much more complex, unpredictable, and challenging than it appears, especially in the age of abundant digital networks and social media. Networked journalism is certainly a vital tool to initiate change, but the question that we should now be asking as journalists – after all, we are all journalists in our own right, on our networks – is whether or not networked resistance can actually create sustainable structures for consolidating change.
Header image: © Khalid Albaih/Flickr
Beckett, C. (2008) SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Beckett, C. and Ball, J. (2012) Wikileaks: News in the Networked Era. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Oz, M. (2016) ‘Mainstream media’s coverage of the Gezi protests and protesters’ perception of mainstream media’, Global Media and Communication, 12(2), pp. 177–192.
Vatikiotis, P. and Yoruk, Z.F. (2016) ‘Gezi Movement and the Networked Public Sphere: A Comparative Analysis in Global Context’, Social Media + Society, 0(0), pp. 1–12.