There’s a long and inglorious history of authoritarian governments targeting vaguely-defined “provocateurs” for exercising their right to free speech. If someone has a complaint or disagrees with the government’s policies, you see, they are clearly out to make trouble and are probably either the paid agents or unwitting dupes of malevolent forces inside and outside the country.
It’s usual enough to hear this sort of nonsense from, say, North Korea or the former Soviet Union (other popular favorites from the Golden Cold War era were “saboteurs,” “wreckers,” and my personal favorite, “capitalist running dogs”) -- or modern Russia for that matter. But it’s profoundly discouraging to hear it from the government of Turkey, a democracy which is however showing undeniable signs of creeping authoritarianism.
The Turkish government is preparing new legal regulations for social media in response to “provocateurs,” according to the Financial Times, which reported the news on Monday. The FT quotes interior minister Muammer Guler, a member of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, as saying: “Those who manipulate public opinion and guide demonstrations on Twitter and Facebook will be revealed.”
The government contends that social media users circulated false information online in order to stoke the recent demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent in confrontation with the police. So far, however, the government has released no details on what constitutes “misinformation”; previously some Turkish social media users speculated that the term may include photos of police mistreating protesters.
Starting two weeks ago, the government has arrested dozens of people for allegedly spreading misinformation and making “libelous” comments on Twitter, as well as “inciting
rebellion” (out of a total 393 people detained in connection with the protests overall, according to the FT). Some of the Twitter users were accused of “misguiding youth,” which has
a certain Brezhnev-era ring to it. Around the same time Erdogan called Twitter a “menace” and a “curse,” criticizing it as means for spreading lies.
He has also lashed out against traditional media, including broadcast TV and newspapers, for “provocative coverage,” and threatened media outlets with investigation and legal action. But the government has been vague about what new legal penalties may apply to media and private citizens who run afoul of the government.