Social media an increasingly influential tool in aiding protesters

As political protests rage in Turkey, Ali E. Erol relies on Twitter to follow the ongoing conflict. Erol runs The Daily Direnis, which explains the latest Turkish news to an American audience with in-depth articles on different topics pertaining to the Turkish protests.

Erol is also a researcher who focuses mainly on Turkish nationalism, resistance against Turkish nationalism and the ways in which communicative technologies promote democratic exchange in the society. He analyzes events and social media, and looks at how language is being used by protesters and the government.

“Social media is something that the government can’t control,” Erol said. “People come together without being restricted. Social media enables communication.”

Demonstrations and protests against policies in Turkey June 2013, Bağdat caddesi, Istanbul. Nevit Dilmen

Over the past few years, with the rise of sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, social media has become a critical tool not only in organizing protests but also in everyday communication. Companies rely on social media to communicate with customers across the world.

“Everyone has a Facebook, a Twitter, a website,” said Gemma Puglisi, assistant director of communication at American University. “There are people whose job is to look solely at social media. They need it to survive.

But as the world has seen over the last several years, social media is more powerful and has more potential than promoting products and checking up on friends. It can spark revolutions.

Two years ago the world watched as revolutions and protests in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (just to name a few) sparked unrest in the Middle East, inspiring similar actions all over the area. These protests were intensified mainly through the use of social media. Protesters took to Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets as a way to connect with other protesters, challenge their government and bring the issues of their country into the eye of the rest of the world. “It was like a wild fire. It spread,” Puglisi said. “It was amazing to see how social media connected all the young people at one time.”

The Arab Spring just passed its two-year anniversary. And now new conflicts are continuing to come to light with the help of social media. In Turkey, a conflict first erupted when the government developed plans to turn Gezi Park, located next to historic Taksim Square in Istanbul, into a shopping mall. Thousands of people showed up for peaceful protests, doing such things as building portable libraries in the park and having peaceful sit-ins. But on May 28, Turkish police, in an effort to break up the protests, moved protesters out of the park by using pepper spray, water cannons and tear gas. This use of force against peaceful protesters sparked outrage throughout the country. Within five days protests had spread to two-thirds of the country’s major cities and led to an outpouring of support from around the world.

How was this kind of connection possible? Through the use of social media, Turkish protesters coordinated their protests. After a speech in which the Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted saying, “I’m not going to take advice from çapuling [a Turkish word for lootering],” protesters from all over the country started the #çapuling movement on Twitter.

Protesters are going beyond Twitter as well. “My Facebook feed is full of news from Turkey, humorous slogans, pictures of people who were unjustly beaten or arrested… A lot of people are sharing messages from doctors and lawyers who are willing to defend and/or help those in trouble with the government,” said Sibel Paradiso, a19-year-old Turkish student at Bennington University, in an e-mail. “I can positively tell you that if Facebook wasn’t around, the protests would have lasted a day and burned out.”

Turkey is not the only country involved in political protest at the moment. Both Brazil and Bulgaria are also fighting the unjust situations in their respective countries. People in Brazil are upset over a rise in bus fairs and the government investing heavily in the 2014 World Cup and 2016 summer Olympics. Bulgaria is protesting new corruption in its newly elected government.

“Social media users, in turn, have played and even greater role in documenting the protests and the police violence taking place and, by sharing this information massively through social media networks, they were able to garnet even more support,” said Paula Orlando, a doctoral student at American University studying media in Brazil, in an e-mail. “Social media networks have been important as a tool to help the groups or activists behind movements to spread the word, organize themselves, garner support and eventually start massive reactions to these various social and political issues.”

Added Erol: “There were social movements before social media. If social media were not there, there would be another way to communicate. Means of communication are the first thing people go for.”

It remains uncertain how these current conflicts will end, but it is clear that social media played an immeasurable role in the over all formation of these movements.