Social Media and Taksim Square Protests in Turkey

Yesterday, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Twitter is a menace to society.Flag_of_Turkey.svg He may have a point as at least two major newspapers also reported that there were a number of baseless rumors circulating on Twitter that may have played a major role in the escalation of the events. Below is the list of some of those rumors

Turkish police used agent orange (very dangerous chemical gas) this was retweeted on Twitter at least 3000 times . The picture that was retweeted only shows a can, no proof that this was used by the police.

A protester named Kerem killed by police. This was retweeted 332 times and by now it is clear that it was a different person who died of a heart attack.

There were tweets that 40,000 people were crossing the Bosphorus Bridge but the photo seemed to have been taken during last year’s marathon. (src)BLqy-FVCYAA8j-m

These are quoted from Todayszaman 

One such photo was posted by Birgün daily columnist Ece Temelkuran. The photo showed the police using pepper spray against demonstrators from a close distance. Temelkuran posted the photo as if it was taken in Turkey but it was actually from Boston.

Another misleading piece of information in social media were rumors that Turkey’s Constitutional Court would overthrow the government if the demonstrations last for more than 48 hours but there is no such a law in Turkey.

There were also claims that the police used Agent Orange against protesters, which was not true. The use of Agent Orange is banned by the United Nations as it considers it a chemical weapon.

A tweet allegedly posted by Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu saying, “You oppose the state and the police and then expect an ambulance to show up,” was also found to be fake.

A photo showing a policeman using pepper spray against a dog also turned out to be an act of manipulation on social media as the photo was from Italy, not İstanbul.

What Happened?

The prime minister and his party proposed to turn one of the public parks (partially) into a culture center and also rebuild a historical military barrack as a museum. There were concerns that people close to the ruling party were to have financial gains from this project. The protests started 7 days ago and in the past 3 days turned violent. According to the govt., hundreds of vehicles and shops were damaged and vandalized while the number of demonstrators and security forces who were hospitalized reported to be in the hundreds. Yesterday the prime minister admitted that the police forces used excessive force.The public park and the vicinity, where most of the demonstrations and clashes took place, currently are open.

During the events more than 2 million tweets related with the demonstrations were posted on Twitter.

Cultural Implications

After reading the news, I wanted to compare the rumors in Istanbul with the ones that got circulated around during the occupy wall street protests (OWS) as both of the events seemed somewhat similar. To my great surprise, the only two false news that got retweeted thousands of times during OWS were Radiohead’s concert and Batman’s appearance in the protests that turned to be hoax despite the scale of the event (there were more than 700 arrests and the demonstrations lasted for weeks) . Of course no two social movements can be compared head to head but it made me wonder why in Istanbul there were at least half a dozen false rumors produced and hundreds of times retweeted just in 2 days while there was pretty much nothing in NYC.

Media censure and media coverage

Some people may blame the lack of media coverage as the main reason for these hoaxes. Simply put, having no information by credible journalists makes it way easier for provocateurs to spread false news. While major news channels like CNN and BBC frequently informed the public about OWS, CNN Turk and NTV, the two major news channels in Turkey, chose not to broadcast the demonstrations in Istanbul.  One should also remember that Turkey ranks as one of the worst countries in the world according to the Press Freedom Index . Some protesters also attacked vehicles and buildings owned by media organs because of this reason. However, there’s another side of the story.

Even if all of the media channels broadcasted the demonstrations live, all of those hoaxes and anger against the mainstream media would perhaps still be around because the Turks in general have a love level of social trust anyways. According to Edelman’s trust barometer, Turkish people in general don’t trust the govt., business, media and NGOs. (slide 6). So it would be too naive to presume that all the hoaxes circulated because of the lack of media coverage, given the fact that all of the major newspapers (both right and left wing) gave the news on their front pages for the past few days. (please click on arsiv)

Social media adoption and social media usage

Turkey is known to be a very Facebook Friendly country. As the matter of fact, according to  Comscore Turkey has the 4th highest social media engagement score (avg. time spent for social media)  after  Israel, Argentina and Russia. Turkey is the 6th largest country represented on Facebook even though the country has a relatively low internet penetration rate. Twitter also seems to be making some inroads in Turkey. Turkish is the 5th most popular language on Twitter and there are more than a dozen Twitter accounts in Turkey followed by more than 1 million people. Obviously Turkish people like social media.

Are there difference between how Turkish people use social media and the way social media used in different parts of the world? Recently we are conducting a study to answer a similar question: what role culture plays when it comes to social media usage? We showed the following pictures to people from different parts of the world and asked them to indicate the likelhood that they would “like” the post on Facebook or not. Then we correlated the individuals’ country scores on different cultural dimensions and  post likeability.


We found that people coming from countries that have clear social hierarchies (e.g. Turkey) are more likely to share images that aim to raise awareness about humanitarian issues (#2)


We also asked the respondents how comfortable they would feel sharing the following type of info on Facebook. The results show that people from collectivistic and masculine societies (e.g. Turkey) are more likely to share political messages on Facebook.


Communication style

I couldn’t find any particular resource on Turkish communication style but this paper about Arab communication style can be quite insightful how people communicate over there. Although, as a Turkish citizen, I can list one million differences between Arabs and Turks, there are some similarities in the way these two nations communicate. After all they are geographically close, have similar religious beliefs and politically and culturally influenced one another (e.g. the Ottomans used the Arabic alphabet and a significant number of words used by the Ottoman had Arabic origins). The article compares and contrasts the Arabs and Americans in the way they use persuasive language

1. Repetition vs. simplicity: Americans prefer simplicity and Arabs prefer repetition

2. Accuracy vs. imagery: Americans prefer accuracy and Arabs prefer imagery

3. Exaggeration vs. understatement: Americans prefer understatements, Arabs exaggerate

4. Words vs. action: Americans prefer action, Arabs verbal statements are powerful among Arabs

5. Vague vs. specific: Americans are specific and direct while Arabs prefer vague statements

if we presume that Arabic and Turkish communication styles are somewhat similar, then we can presume that there are likely to be more hoaxes on Twitter consciously or subconsciously produced by Turkish Twitter users. Especially #3 (exaggeration) is a clear indication that any event  on Twitter can easily be turned into a hoax after a few “quoted” retweets.

More on exaggeration and vagueness in Turkish culture

Today there were news in the mainstream media about the social media rumors that sparked the events. However even these news stories were exaggerated. For instance, according to Star Gazetesi, there were tweets saying that 500 demonstrators were killed, however when I searched on Twitter , there was only 1 tweet like this. Turkiye Gazetesi claimed that there were tweets that said “we all will be killed by this govt.” but once again I couldn’t find any similar tweet. Another one was posted on Milliyet’s website, Turkey’s one of the top 3 newspapers, claiming that agent orange was real because there were “pictures” in social media.

Diverse opinions and hoaxes on Twitter

A recent study showed that hoaxes are more likely to spread if people do not look for different opinions and different resources. According to the paper, there’s already homophily (people friedning similar people) and polarization on Twitter which makes it easy for people to accept false news. The paper also reports that the best way to control the spread of misinformation is getting news from diverse resources. However, Turkey, because of many reasons, is not necessarily a pluralist or multiculturalist society. This naturally means it is more difficult for Turkish people to detect false news.

-Connecting the dots

Given the fact that people from collectivistic and high power-distance societies tend to share political messages more and compared with Western cultures, people from the middle east tend use more vague language, we may expect more Twitter hoaxes especially in the middle east.

-A reminder about human psychology

I personally think Taksim Square/Gezi parki events were mostly caused by police brutality, which may have indirectly caused Los Angeles Riots, London Riots, the Arab Spring and etc. The police, as amateur and as wild they were, also may have acted irrationally because of various reasons that we may not know. Besides, studies show that all human beings may act very aggressively based on the context or selflessly obey orders from their superiors.


Some of the analyses above are qualitative in nature

Turkey is a candidate member of the EU, it does not have exactly the same communication culture with the Arabs

Occupy Wall Street and Gezi Parki may not be dirrectly compared because the events are different in terms of

number of hoaxes vs number of hoaxes retweeted

number of hoaxes/total number of tweets

total number of tweets/number of twitter users in the country

number of affected people

number of incidences that involve violence

Number of tweets within vs. outside the country

and so on…

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