Even as thousands of people were scrambling to find their loved ones after the devastating earthquake, the Turkish government throttled Twitter on Wednesday evening. The move came as a surprise to many inside the country even though access to social media networks has been periodically restricted in recent years. The platform has become vital for spreading information after a devastating 7.8 magnitude quake shattered cities in the south and southeastern parts of the country, killing more than 20,000 people. The service was restored Thursday morning following widespread criticism and furor.
“Twitter simply saved lives and helped people living in the cities impacted by the earthquake immensely,” technologist and researcher Ahmet Alphan Sabancı told Rest of World. “People quickly started sharing information and visuals from the earthquake zones, locations of the collapsed buildings, people under the rubble or [in need of] supplies.”
Without access to Twitter, Sabancı said that recovery would be harder. “Even though organizational and technical problems caused issues during the early days, the results would be much worse without the information shared and organized through Twitter,” he told Rest of World.
Numerous tweets about people that were unaccounted for or confirmed to be trapped under the rubble had been rapidly shared in the aftermath of the earthquake, in addition to information about donation drives that have been vital in providing aid to victims in need.
NetBlocks, which tracks internet outages, confirmed impeded access to Twitter on Wednesday morning. Other online services were unaffected, leading many to conclude the issues were the result of government action. The government has not officially claimed responsibility for the block, with Vice President Fuat Oktay attributing the issue to “some technical problems” during a news conference.
Access was restored shortly after a meeting between Turkish officials and Twitter employees on Thursday. “The Turkish authorities had a productive meeting with Twitter yesterday,” said Turkey’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, in a post on Twitter. “We are grateful for Twitter’s cooperation and pledge to support Türkiye’s efforts to combat disinformation.”
Similar access problems have been observed in Turkey before, including after a bombing in November and during the Idlib military crisis. Typically, the issues have lasted less than 24 hours and coincided with periods of intense criticism of the government.
“The main purpose of such a restriction from my point of view is that the authorities and, in particular, President Erdoğan is not happy at all about the growing critical voices over the social media platforms,” cyber rights activist Yaman Deniz told Rest of World. “The desire is always to control the free flow of information. However, this time, vital communications were also affected.”
In October 2022, the Turkish parliament passed a “disinformation law” that prescribes prison sentences for the sharing of misleading news, something one international observer described as “self-regulation through intimidation.” The law also places heavy fines on platforms that do not promptly take down flagged content or provide information on users.
Despite the new restrictions, Twitter has been invaluable in Turkey and to those who want to provide earthquake relief assistance from abroad, according to Sabancı.
“[Twitter meant that] people around the country and around the world had access to the information about the situation on the ground, and knew how they can help in a meaningful way,” Sabancı told Rest of World.
Turkish users weren’t completely cut off from Twitter, as the service could still be accessed through VPNs. But years of escalating enforcement actions against popular providers have made VPN access unreliable within the country. “Turkey persistently makes it harder to rely on VPN services from Turkey,” Deniz says.
Still, the monolithic nature of Turkish media has made Twitter one of the few channels for accessing independent voices during the crisis. The majority of the mainstream media in Turkey is controlled by companies close to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and these channels and newspapers maintain a strident pro-AKP editorial stance. Since massive nationwide protests broke out nearly a decade ago in Turkey, Twitter and other social media platforms have been integral in disseminating news reports from media networks outside the control of the government, in addition to functioning as independent media outlets themselves.
As Sabancı sees it, the attempted block only drives home a sense of pervasive mistrust. “One major consequence of this throttling is that people lose access to wider information channels and [turn to] WhatsApp and Telegram groups,” he said. “They also don’t trust official information because of these throttling attempts … This makes them open to disinformation, misinformation, and all kinds of conspiracy theories. In almost every major event that happened in Turkey where the government tried to throttle social media, we see this dynamic play out.”