BOSPHORUS BLOG: Twitter takes over role of traditional media in Turkish protests

By bne IntelliNews June 4, 2013

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The Turkish media has almost completely ignored the protests in Istanbul - or at least they tried to. On June 3, Turkey's NTV could ignore the protests no more when thousands of protestors pressed up to the station's headquarters and screamed through locked doors at the staff. NTV was thus put in the embarrassing position of having to report on the protests against itself.

And NTV was still the only station that was actually attempting to report on the protests that have now swept the country for the last five days. Halk TV that had bravely defied the state's orders to ignore the events had its website hacked by June 3 and was off the air.

The western media failed to cover themselves in glory as well. While most international media were dutifully starting to rev themselves up to full "Arab Spring" mode by June 1, a widely re-tweeted shot of two TV screens showing CNN Turkey and CNN US highlighted that even international subsidiaries were buckling under government pressure: CNN US carried dramatic images of protestors in Taksim Square in central Istanbul battling police at the top of the hour; CNN Turkey was running a documentary about penguins.

Yet the government's attempt to marginalise the demonstrators by cutting off their access to TV broadcasters failed completely as the protestors turned to Twitter to an unprecedented degree, in what some academics are calling the first example of true crowd-sourced, real-time reporting on a major news event by and for the people it concerns.

Tweets by the people, for the people

A post on the pro-democracy blog Monkey Cage based on research conducted on June 2 by the New York University's Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, written by lab members Pablo Barberá and Megan Metzger, found that almost all the tweets in Turkey were coming from the crowds in the streets and were aimed almost exclusively at the crowds in those same streets. "What is unique about this particular case is how Twitter is being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground. Unlike some other recent uprisings, around 90% of all geo-located tweets are coming from within Turkey, and 50% from within Istanbul," Barbera and Metzger wrote. "In comparison, Starbird (2012) estimated that only 30% of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country."

The authors go on to point out that 88% of the tweets are in Turkish, "which suggests the audience of the tweets is other Turkish citizens and not so much the international community."

The role of social media in promoting and sustaining popular protest and uprisings has been widely reported, but in Turkey the government's attempts to stifle the coverage took the phenomenon to a new level, argue the academics. "Dissatisfied with the mainstream media's coverage of the event, which has been almost non-existent within Turkey, Turkish protestors have begun live-tweeting the protests as well as using smartphones to live stream video of the protests," the doctoral candidates wrote. "What this trend suggests is that Turkish protesters are replacing the traditional reporting with crowd-sourced accounts of the protest expressed through social media."

NYU published a chart that shows the frequency of tweets carrying the main hash tags used to demark the protest coverage - #direngeziparkı (950,000 tweets), #occupygezi (170,000 tweets) or #geziparki (50,000 tweets) - which show that the volume of tweets throughout the day barely dipped until finally at 03:00 local time they fell off abruptly as the last demonstrators went home to catch a few hours sleep. In effect, the demonstrators were giving wall-to-wall coverage of the unfolding events that no cable news channel could come close to. "This documentation through multiple sources in public forums serves to provide a more accurate description of events as they unfold," Barbera and Metzger wrote. "The coming days in Turkey will give us more insight into the processes by which this takes place, but it is certainly an impressive realization of the potential for social media."

BOSPHORUS BLOG: Twitter takes over role of traditional media in Turkish protests

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