Blaming the media is a time-honored tactic of politicians the world over. Generally speaking, the more democratic the society, the more freedom the press has to find fault, and the more the pols cry about sensationalism and bias.
The likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann literally complain about press coverage in advance of the reporting of any given appearance because they know their various lies and stupidities will be called out. Oh, and it works, too. Because the angry bigots who see these tinhorn demagogues as demi-gods are perfectly prepared to dismiss such concepts as “fact” and “knowledge” and “history” as liberal elitism. As they say, reality has a liberal bias.
Strangely, however, that dynamic does not work when politicians try to deflect blame for their own failings on the social media. As Hosni Mubarak can tell you, that is a fatal mistake. Now, Mubarak was understandably frustrated, because the actual Egyptian press was utterly muzzled. Twitter and Facebook, which helped so helped to propel the Arab Spring, were under no authoritarian thumb. Perfectly natural that he should react badly to impertinent backtalk.
Turkey is a different story, and quickly turning out to be an astonishing one. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an immensely powerful politician, but by no means a classic strongman. The Turkish press is a bit circumscribed -- there are red lines no one dares cross -- but there is still plenty of debate. Parliament is no rubber stamp. Furthermore, Erdogan is (or was) extremely popular in his country and well regarded both in the Muslim world and the West. His Islamic leanings scared the daylights out of Europe, the U.S. and Israel, all of whom enjoyed strong relations with Erdogan’s devoutly secular predecessors, but he showed himself to be first and foremost a pragmatist. Along the way his economic policies turned Turkey into a regional powerhouse.
In short, with parliamentary and presidential elections coming in 2014, he was in the catbird’s seat. Then he cut down some trees.
Taksim Square, the social hub of urban Istanbul, was Erdogan’s latest venue for runaway redevelopment. Buoyed by his own popularity, in both rural conservative rural Turkey and urban corridors of business, he has transformed Istanbul with office buildings, shopping malls and mega-mosques, along the way turning many historic structures to rubble. The problem is that at some point he stopped asking permission. His plans for Taksim Square -- a sort of shopping center in the form of a replica Ottoman Era military barracks -- were strong-armed into motion, requiring the clear-cutting of protected green space.
That little move is what card players call “overplaying your hand.” The tree-cutting sparked protest, which led to violent police reaction, which led to rioting -- and now Erdogan is facing not only civil unrest but criticism from every sector of society, including Islamists. The world “dictator” has been thrown around.
So what did Erdogan do? Stop construction and pull back his riot police? Apologize for overstepping his authority? Convene his critics for a national conversation? Nah.
He dismissed the protesters as mere looters and blamed the media. The social media.
“There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” Erdogan said. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.”
Uh oh. First of all, if he sees social media as the enemy. That bodes very poorly, because as the Arab Spring and the Super Bowl tell us, what social media really represent is the pulse of a society in real-time. He thinks he’s taking on a technology, or a small mob. In fact, he’s taking on a huge mob. You’ll recall that two years ago, Bashar al Assad took exactly the same stance against civic protest and now is faced with a bloody civil war that will most likely lead to his exile or violent death.
Now, Assad is a dictator -- or at least the frontman for a ruthless tribal mafia. Erdogan till now has been just a powerful pol. Taksim Square may be a turning point for his administration, his party and his country. In demonizing Twitter, his first instinct was to turn the wrong way.