In his 1966 classic movie based on Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, legendary French director Francois Truffaut describes a world in which the fire department is called in not to extinguish fires, but to burn books wherever they are found. The struggle is between those who desperately seek to preserve books and an authoritarian state hell-bent on destroying all evidence of humanism and free thought.
I was reminded of this film this week, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to ban first Twitter and then Youtube in the country. In a March 20 speech, he promised to eradicate Twitter and in so doing, demonstrate Turkey's power to the rest of the world. Soon thereafter, social media users in Turkey started to experience difficulties reaching Twitter. In a country that is disproportionately linked to the Internet for its level of development, these users immediately looked for ways to circumvent the restrictions, starting a cat-and-mouse game in the ether.
Erdogan’s hatred for Twitter and other social media platforms goes back to the Gezi Park protests in May and June 2013, when opposition to his increasingly authoritarian governance style mounted. The protests were aided by social media, particularly Twitter, as young and savvy protesters used technology to coordinate activities. Later on, in December, the details of major corruption investigations were disseminated to the public mainly through social media. In many ways, social media managed to undo what Erdogan had painstakingly worked to achieve: a docile and subservient Turkish media. Newspapers and other media properties were gobbled up one by one — often at his initiative — by his cronies. As leaked conversations amply demonstrate, he took an active interest in what was said and reported, and by whom. In one tape, the owner of a national newspaper is heard crying by the end of his conversation with the prime minister, who harangues him for a headline he did not like.
This is not to say that the Turkish press was free and independent before Erdogan. In fact, the owners of media outlets have always done the bidding of either the military or powerful politicians while seeking government contracts. What is different under Erdogan is that he promised, and initially delivered, reforms that made Turkey freer and more democratic. He started to tackle some of the thorniest issues, such as the Kurdish question, that have deviled Turkey for generations. In the end, he fell victim to his own success and hubris as he began to equate himself with the state.
The bans on Twitter and more recently YouTube, driven in part by an animosity to all things Western deeply rooted in Turkish society, are worrisome. They are being implemented in a country that has traditionally been part of the Western bloc and not aligned with Russia, China or North Korea. It is also being implemented at the whim of a leader. Affecting an estimated 10-12 million users (almost a sixth of the population), the Twitter ban is a sign of a burgeoning intolerance on the part of a government that aspires to join the European Union.
What conjures up the Fahrenheit 451 analogy, however, is the extent to which the government has gone to prevent people from accessing their Twitter accounts. As tech-savvy Turks discovered alternative means to access the service, the government’s technology bureaucracy worked to shut them down one by one. Already, following the Gezi protests, the government had sought to prosecute individuals, including a well-known actors, for having sent tweets encouraging people to join the protests. While Twitter use is now down, it is also clear that the government has failed in its mission to prevent embarrassing leaks.
So what’s next in Turkey? In Iran, where satellite television is banned, the authorities make sure people cannot install parabolic antennas. Turkish authorities forcibly removed such antennas in Turkey’s Kurdish-populated southeast in the 1990s to prevent the population from accessing a rebel TV channel broadcast from Europe.
What will Fahrenheit 451 look like in the 21st century, in which electronic communication is ubiquitous? Will everyone be given government-approved devices that can only tune in to selected channels? Will the firemen be called to destroy, say, iPhones and other devices obtained illegally? Will prisons fill with those who acquire such devices?
The lesson from Turkey is that a secretive and nontransparent government can easily be unhinged by the almost instant free flow of information. And when it becomes unhinged, it will resort to all possible means to contain the flow. When it undoubtedly fails, it will resort to increasingly more draconian measures. And that path will cement the road to Fahrenheit 451.