In praise of Twitter (and VPNs)

Jun 6, 2013

After his brutal reaction to the peaceful protests over the destruction of a small example of one of the very, very few parks in central Istanbul (to make way for yet another "exceptional retail shopping experience", (in fact, and of all things, a Wal-Mart and an ersatz recreation of a romanticised Ottoman barracks) Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaned very heavily indeed on the Turkish media with the result that most Turks learned of the civil unrest and police brutality that caused it, not from their own tv, radio and newspapers, but from the web in general and the likes of Twitter and Tumblr in particular.

One can, and does, despair at the tsunami of self-absorbed dross that constitutes the greater part of Twitter content but its ubiquitous utility as a medium for messages cannot but be applauded when an increasingly arrogant, out of touch politician with pronounced dictatorial tendencies describes Twitter as "the worst menace to society". He added that "the best lies can be found there". When you see this kind of panicky authoritarian response you know that Twitter is well worth its salt and a politician (or regime) is on the defensive.

When Erdogan says, "the worst menace to society ", what he actually means is that Twitter menaces his ability to control and censor information and stops him from keeping dark what is really going on.

Let us remember that Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia kept records of every typewriter and the strike pattern on paper of every keystroke on those said typewriters in an effort to stifle dissent and identify anyone who would write anything not in line with party thought. What happened? Handwritten information was distributed and copied and underground printing presses went to work.

As technology advanced, access to computers in many totalitarian countries was severely restricted and enthusiastically policed (as, later, was Internet access) but again the populace found ways around the restrictions. Mikhael Gorbachev freely admits that the fax machine hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union by several years. And mobile phone networks, while susceptible to governmental interference and the enforced shut down, can get a message out very quickly indeed.

What's more, mobile phone users generally are technically savvy (and those that aren't soon learn). That's why the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) in Turkey has increased massively since the protests started. VPNs have the handy ability to disguise a user's actual location permitting access to and use of the Internet without the authorities being immediately aware of where that user may be.

One particular app, "Hotspot Shield" had leaped straight into the Apple App Store's Turkish Top Five, attracting at least 140,000 new users in less than a week. David Gorodyansky, the founder and CEO of AnchorFree, the company that created Hotspot Shield said, "We find it satisfying and humbling to enable Internet users to gain freedom to access all information online and are glad to play a role in global events by putting users in control online."

While the Turkish state may have ultimate access to and control over communications channels, thankfully the general populace are still able to use both public and private networks to get around, under, over and through restrictions put in place by the very "democrats" they voted into power in the first place.

And of course, interfering with communications isn't entirely a one-way street. Shortly after the unprovoked police attacks on peaceful demonstrators the hacker collective Anonymous announced the launch of "#opturkey" with the intent to “attack every Internet and communications asset of the Turkish government". So far Anonymous has, among other things, successfully brought down the personal web site of the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul and also that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by the neo-Islamicist Recep Erdogan.

Elsewhere, police yesterday arrested 25 people in Izmir, Turkey's third-biggest city. They are accused of using Twitter and other social media to "spread untrue information" and "incite people to join demonstrations." It has since transpired that 18 of the 25 arrestees (all aged between 22 and 25) don't have Twitter accounts - but, hey, they fit the suspect demographic so bag 'em anyway.

When the you-know-what hit the fan, Turkey's state-run media simply ignored it but dropped scheduled news and current affairs programmes and replaced them with cookery shows, a documentary on the Antarctic and, irony or ironies, a biopic about Hitler.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

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