ANKARA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rails against Twitter as part of a plot to blacken him and portray his Turkey as corrupt; but Turks in growing numbers are exploring ever more innovative ways to beat his ban in what has become a cyber-battle of wits.
Last week, few Turks were conversant with technical terms such as VPN or DNS, but that has all changed now, in the pursuit of the forbidden. In a nod to old-style political protest, “workarounds” are even daubed on walls in Turkey’s major cities.
Cartoons of Erdogan pointing a shotgun at a blue bird, the logo of the social networking site, are circulating widely. Even allies have made rare forays into insubordination: Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek tweeted a smiley face and acknowledged using a technological ruse after Erdogan ordered Twitter to be blocked.
The microblogging site has been a vehicle for a stream of anonymously posted audio tapes purporting to expose corrupt dealings by family members and businessmen. Erdogan, facing important local elections next Sunday, accuses U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally turned chief political opponent, of hacking secret state communications, then manipulating recordings to smear him.
Erdogan’s declaration last week that he would root out Twitter, and the subsequent attempt to block it in Turkey, triggered denunciations from European officials and the U.S. government, which spoke of “21st century book burning”.
The move seemed to backfire fast. Internet analysts reported a surge in tweets as “workarounds” were shared on social media.
“It sort of seemed it wasn’t very well thought-out. There would have been better ways of blocking Twitter,” Runa Sandvik, a technologist at the U.S. based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), told Reuters.
But over the weekend, authorities in Ankara began closing loopholes, triggering what Sandvik calls a “censorship arms race”, with users constantly shifting to different technology.
“The question is, what will the government do next? I don’t think they will be able to block 100 percent, there will always be a way around the censorship, (it‘s) whether they can make it difficult enough that users just give up,” Sandvik said.
Initially, many people delved into their computers’ settings to change the DNS or Domain Name System - effectively sending their traffic via different servers not initially subject to the ban. When the government caught on and blocked Twitter’s website directly, people turned to other technology to dodge the ban.
VPN software - which circumvents web-address-based bans - skyrocketed to the of top free download lists in Turkey’s online Apple and Android software stores.
Downloads of the VPN software Hotspot soared to more than a million in 72 hours from 10,000 a day before the ban, according to a tweet from David Gorodyansky, CEO of the company behind the program.
The use of TOR software has also surged. TOR makes web surfers invisible and was widely used in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as governments cracked down on protests.
Nevertheless, the number of Turkish language tweets has dropped sharply from Thursday’s peak, according to data provided by Semiocast Analytics and quoted in MIT Technology Review.
It’s not the first time Turks have faced cyber censorship - Youtube was switched off for more than two years until 2010. But the shutdown of Twitter in a country with millions of users has sparked a wave of mockery, much of it in tweets aimed at the government.
“I feel so juvenile using Twitter as I sit at a coffee shop in Izmir ... Once again, banning something makes it much more exciting,” Turkish writer Ziya Meral tweeted.
“Today I‘m spoiling myself. Instead of Switzerland, I‘m connecting to Twitter from Hong Kong,” read another Turkish user’s tweet.
On Monday, even the AK Party Youth wing was tweeting Erdogan’s weekly schedule, and the state news agency was also active.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc’s office cautioned against reading any hint of resistance into its tweeting of what was a routine morning schedule.
But Ankara mayor Gokcek, who tweeted the smiley face on Thursday, stopped tweeting on Sunday.
All the while, huge crowds from Erdogan’s largely conservative base have continued to flock to hear him speak ahead of Sunday’s local polls, an important test of whether his popularity has held despite the corruption scandals.
Many of his supporters, often more prosperous since he came to power 11 years ago, back his argument that the Twitter ban is a national security measure to ward off Gulen’s sedition.
Gulen denies Erdogan’s accusation he has used a network of supporters in the police and judiciary to concoct a corruption investigation against his government and family.
“I can’t say I‘m happy about Twitter,” said 52-year-old export manager Ismail Can Sahin as he attended an Erdogan rally. “(But) national security is very important.”
U.S.-based Turkish academic Zeynep Tufekci believes Erdogan’s assault on Twitter has been misunderstood as a bid to block it completely and stop the flow of damaging allegations - something even his ally President Abdullah Gul admits is not technically realistic - when, in fact, he wants to discredit it among his core supporters and discourage them from using it.
“Erdogan’s strategy is to demonize social media,” Zeynep said in a blog on Monday.
Erdogan himself has left little doubt about that.
“I don’t understand how people of good sense could defend this Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There are all kinds of lies there,” he declared to loud cheers at a weekend rally.
Additional reporting by Can Sezer in Istanbul; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Kevin Liffey