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Kurds, ISIS and internet censorship in Turkey

ElisabettaCosta7 November 2014

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Facebook profile picture from south-east Turkey

Kurds living in Mardin tend to not use social media for political expression when it involves a direct critique of the Turkish State, Turkish authorities or the Turkish nation. Social media has been described by many Kurds as a powerful tool for political control, as a new form of torture, as a weapon to scare people and prevent them from being politically active. In Turkey’s Kurdistan, the internet and digital technologies are immediately associated with control and persecution by the State. In the last couple of years, the Turkish government has banned and shut down several pages of political parties (see also this international campaign against the Facebook Company). Internet censorship in Turkey has become internationally known, when the ex-Prime Minister Erdogan banned YouTube and Twitter before and after the local election in March 2014.

The tight control over the internet has produced an efficient self-censorship mechanism in Mardin and elsewhere in the region; people tend to not criticize the Turkish government too openly in order to not be prosecuted. However, many Kurds have been using social media to express their support for the Kurdish cause by claiming solidarity with the Kurds living in other countries in the Middle-East. In the last two years, many people have been using an image with the word ‘Rojava’, the Kurdish name for the Siryan Kurdistan, the region inside Syria that started to achieve its autonomy in 2012, as their Facebook profile picture. Within the same period, the region has been under attack several times by Islamic groups, and more recently by ISIS. When ISIS attacked Kobane and PKK/ YPG fighters retaliated by showing resistance, news from independent news sources were circulated on social media, presenting different views on what was occurring. Before then, in the summer of 2014 during ISIS’ invasion of Sinjar in Iraq, many Kurds, together with unions, political parties and local charities, actively used Facebook to organize solidarity campaigns to collect clothes and money for the Yezidi refugees after the attack.

Over the past few months, social media has become a very important source of news for the Kurds living in Turkey. They want to know about ISIS’ attack on Kurds in Syria and Iraq; and Facebook in particular has become the main platform to organize solidarity campaign and to express support towards the Kurds in these two countries.

I don’t want to describe here the complexity of the crisis that is going on now in the Middle-East, but rather, I want to highlight the way Kurds in Turkey use social media. They continuously mediate between what they would like to share freely online, and what they know could be detrimental to them because of the draconian censorship enacted in Turkey. Far from being  the results of rational calculation every time, people have internalised a set of rules which influences what they can share publicly, what they can share on fake profiles and what they can read but not share at all. It’s only by adopting these implicit set of rules that a Kurdish “public sphere under restriction” is continuously created and recreated by social media users, with several consequences. One of these is that on social media the Kurds in Turkey tend to sustain the Kurdish nationalistic cause by expressing support towards the Kurds living in Syria (and Iraq), and they more rarely address the political situation inside Turkey.

On doing anthropology on activism and social media

JolynnaSinanan4 November 2014

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Image by Jolynna Sinanan

Although I left my field site in Trinidad on August 29, I have only just returned to Melbourne in the last week after nearly a year of being away. Last year, a large portion of field work was following the national issue of the large scale development project of the construction of a highway in the south of the country and the disputed section which will connect the areas of Debe to Mon Desir. My involvement started with covering the hunger strike of University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Kublalsingh, which lasted for 21 days. I watched this unfold by going to where Dr Kublalsingh was protesting, in front of the Prime Minister’s office, by following it on social media and by discussing it with informants in my field site, some 100kms away from where the highway is being constructed. Dr Kublalsingh ended his hunger strike when the Prime Minister agreed to reassess the decision to build that part of the highway and the Joint Constitutive Council (JCC) was funded by the government to review all the documents and agendas for and against constructing the section of the highway that would culminate in the Armstrong Report.

My involvement then deepened to the level of contributing to this state-sponsored review. I conducted a preliminary social impact assessment in the area and reviewed the reports from when the decision was made to go ahead with construction (in 2006) which I submitted to the Council. I concluded that no adequate social impact assessment had been conducted at the time and one should be, not just for that area, but for any area in which a large scale development project such as the construction of a highway is to take place. The JCC included at least five of my quotes in their final report.

Back in my field site, a town I have given the fictional name of El Mirador to protect the identities of the people who participated in my research, I was looking at how people were engaging with the issue on social media. Through my work with Dr Gabrielle Hosein, also from the University of the West Indies, we concluded that for those who aren’t in more ‘typical’ activist circles, of university students, musicians, artists and other urbanites, and more so, for those in country towns, being visibly, politically active and seriously engaging in national issues has social consequences of ridicule and alienation. It is very unusual for your average person in El Mirador to be politically active on Facebook.

Today, at the time of writing this blog entry, in Trinidad, Dr Kublalsingh is bedridden on day 47 of his second hunger strike, which he began on September 17. His reasons for this hunger strike is that the Prime Minister has not upheld her promise to adhere to the findings of the JCC report, undermining the council she assisted in founding and thereby undermining the efforts to build good governance in Trinidad. I have seen nothing on social media about Dr Kublalsingh or his second hunger strike on social media, apart from posts by the activist group he represents, the Highway Reroute Movement.

This situation is consistent with mine and Dr Hosein’s second insight that came out of the events of last year. A hunger strike is spectacular action, which makes the body a spectacle as an extreme form of resistance. But the power of the spectacle is in its transience, it holds power for only a short amount of time, a finite amount of time in which it disrupts the normal order. Similarly, Facebook is a spectacular space, a place to make things hyper visible. How many social media spectacles of causes gone viral can we name? Kony 2012? That video about sexual harassment? But the life of posts on social media are also finite. Sure, they exist in digital space forever, but people only care about them for a short amount of time. This obviously has bleak implications for Dr Kublalsingh’s actions.

A few members of the activist group have contacted me and implored my continued support. A few informants in El Mirador are wondering why I have kept silent this last month, when they know I have worked with and am friends with Dr Kublalsingh. My silence has been a mixture of having commitments to our project, which requires me to distance myself in order to adhere to the task of writing about the field and of having my immediate reality ruptured from being in Trinidad to being in Melbourne again.

The position of any anthropological researcher is not without contradiction (Sanford, 2006: 8). If we choose to take up Bourgois’ challenge ‘to venture into the ‘real world’ not just to ‘interview’ people but to actually participate in their daily life and to partake of their social and cultural reality’ (1990:45, quoted by Sanford, 2006: 6), we return with a mess of realities and experiences to come to terms with; our own and those of others. I will probably not see Dr Kublalsingh again. I feel an ethical obligation to uphold my integrity to the research in El Mirador but also to uphold my contribution to the Armstrong Report. This blog post has been a messy and inadequate attempt to do both.

 

References:

Bourgois, Philippe. 1990. ‘Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America’, Journal of Peace Research, 27.1: 43-54.

Sanford, Victoria and Angel-Ajani, Asale (eds). 2006. Engaged Observer: Anthropology, Advocacy and Activism, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press

The Riots in Brazil seen from a different planet

JulianoAndrade Spyer18 June 2013

Protesters at the National Congress

Protesters at the National Congress. Photo by: Midia Ninja.

By Daniel Miller and Juliano Andrade Spyer

After Egypt, Turkey, and other parts of the world, it is now time for Brazilians to appear on the front page of international newspapers – here and here. Yesterday, a quarter of a million people participated in political demonstrations across the country. But while I am also in Brazil, my experience is as though I was living on a different planet. Protests are happening 70 kilometres from here, at the state capital, but it might as well be across the ocean somewhere else. The Brazilians at my field site are simply not showing much interest in these events, especially not on Facebook.

It is an interesting inversion, noteworthy because Facebook and Twitter are, again, at the core of these “emergent” political rallies. What made the initial demonstrations (against the raise of bus fares in São Paulo) spread online was that the established news outlets such as radio stations and newspapers tried to ignore them. The feeling of impotence against the powerful – including the ones controlling the news – fueled people to self-organize and share information through social networking sites about the next rallies.

Notice that here, at the place I am conducting field work, Facebook IS the internet. Take Facebook away and there is very little left for people to be online, but it is also very important since a teenager without a Facebook profile is almost an outcast. And yet, the news about the rallies have only just arrived on Facebook in this area after they finally appeared on television. Because television channels could not for long ignore a self-organized demonstration that invades the National Congress. It was only after this happened that a few secondary school and university level students living here wrote something generic on their walls about democracy and the “waking up of the giant”.

I do not think this lack of interest for politics has anything to do with political alienation. On the contrary: it seems that political silence is very political here. Institutionalized politics is seen at its best as a necessary evil one has to accept in order to receive some government advantages, but it is not something that exists beyond the official time for electoral campaigning. This broad and rather abstract thing called “the government” is not something that people discuss. I have not seen, among the people I am friends with on Facebook, any posts mentioning a local politician, not even the mayor.

But, yes, there are social organization happening online and also ideological disputes. A few weeks ago, for instance, the police-made a sketch of a rapist operating in the region which was shared on Facebook and some people took the effort of going to internet cafes to have the image printed out so they could circulate it and show it at their neighborhoods. And I believe there is a serious dispute happening regarding the symbolic ownership of God by Evangelical Christians. I noticed that those commonly attacked by these more radical Christians – such as the gay community or the disciples of African Brazilian religions – make very public comments mentioning God, either thanking God for a blessing, or asking God for help to resolve a certain problem.

There are differences between large urbanized areas where the rallies are happening and small places such as here regarding the use of Facebook. There, Facebook is a channel used for keeping in touch with the people one does not necessarily see every day. Facebook tends to become a gathering place where we are close to everyone, independently of their location in different neighborhoods or other places. The purpose here of using Facebook is not “keeping in touch” because that is really not necessary as friends and everyone else are already physically near to each other every day. What is important, then, is not talking about public things that everyone can know, but to share private information that not everyone knows about. Demonstrations are not interesting for those living here because they relate to institutional politics and also because they are already public, everyone knows about it, and something everyone knows about is not worth talking about.

We, the researchers of this project, still have a long way to go in our ethnographies, so what I am writing now is still an initial impression about how different Facebook is even considering the people living in the same country. But this is a major part of the justification of our project. By comparison the big debates about politics and the internet such as the work of Morosov and those opposed to him, look quite crude. In the same country and at the same time, social media are both central to today’s politics in Brazil and almost irrelevant. It depends on who exactly you are talking about. We need ethnography to undertand how they relate to the different types of politics and the different types of social media. It is not that we are trying to make things more complex, it is rather that we are trying to acknowledge the complexity that we confront.