Is Social Media on Erdogan’s Crosshair?

The Turkish government now made it mandatory for social media companies to have local representative offices in Turkey, along with a legislative mandate that enables the Turkish government to restrict the content on these platforms. According to the legal amendment that is also known as the “Social Media Law”: social media companies will now face several penalties, with increased severity over time for:

  • Failing to respond to the direct complaints of privacy violations
  • Not removing or restricting access to a form of content that the Turkish courts deemed criminal or illegal
  • Not undertaking sufficient measures to keep user data in Turkey
  • Not having a local representative.

The penalty for not complying with this legislation, initially results in fines for up to 30 million Turkish liras (about 3.8 million $). If no action is taken even after the monetary fines, bandwidth cuts are imposed. The fines are to a large extent, dismissable for the social media giants of Facebook and Google, and to a lesser extent Twitter, Netflix and the co. This is due to the fact that the amount that will be penalized is negligible compared to the yearly revenue these companies acquire from their Turkish users. For instance, Turkey has Facebook’s 10th largest user base with around 44 million users. This, multiplied by last year’s average revenue per user of $29.25, means that the company can afford to take this penalty as a slap on the wrist. In this regard, the bandwidth restriction appears potentially more dangerous, however; as the Turkish users are accustomed to navigating state restrictions of the internet, this too is not going to be a cause for serious concern for the major social media companies.

However, the burning question here is whether this move were to impose a stricter and a politically motivated control over the content posted on these arenas of public opinion, or whether this legal action was more akin to those of European countries, aimed at protecting privacy and countering manipulative behavior.

Our conclusion is heavily swaying towards the former option. Turkish courts, in recent years have a track record in considering relatively light comments as criminal through a heavily biased reading of the constitution. Also considering that most anti-Erdogan and anti-Justice and Development Party (AKP) figures flocked to the social media platforms to voice their dissent, such a move could be considered viable for the government. Of course, this is not to say that the situation is without critical nuances.

To start with, some of this legislation’s points, especially those regarding the privacy concerns are based on an actual need, with similar laws being enforced globally. Secondly, AKP also needs, and actively uses social media to further their own political agenda. Frequent posts of pro-Erdogan and pro-AKP commentators targeting opposition figures, trending hashtags (that are sometimes supported by paid accounts or bots) are part and parcel of the Turkish social media ecosystem, along with the towering figure of Ankara’s “Communication Bureau of the President” skyscraper. It is not far-fetched to assume that a total ban on social media is not in the horizon anytime soon – this effort is to control what is already here. 

Author: Majoring in Political Science, Sarp Duyar acquired his degree at Lund University, in the Development Studies Programme. He is working at an impact investment fund by day, and on his RPG campaign by night.