Elena Goldstein is a senior at Columbia University and an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program.
Today, if you search “Gollum” on Google, your results will likely (still) feature Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a now legendary meme highlighting a perceived uncanny resemblance. As reported in several major periodicals last month, a physician in Turkey faces up to two years in prison for insulting the head of state by sharing the image on Facebook. Since the court solicited an “expert examination” of the fictional character, everyone from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to Tolkien expert Stephen Colbert has weighed in. Essentially, the verdict rests on whether Gollum—or alter ego Sméagol—is evil.
In light of other social media motivated arrests in Turkey, this surreal trial may not seem so surreal. Indeed, President Erdoğan once called social networks “the worst menace to society.” The country has experienced three official Twitter bans in the past two years, and the Turkish government recently fined the company $50,000 for refusing to take down “terrorist propaganda.” According to Twitter transparency reports, Turkey filed the majority of total content removal requests since 2014; the state requested 718 deletions in the first half of 2015 alone, 650 more than runner-up Russia. Meanwhile, Facebook government request reports reveal it restricted more than 10,000 pieces of content in Turkey since January 2014.
What is truly paradoxical is that Erdoğan was named the fourth most followed world leader in the 2015 Twiplomacy study, ranking just below Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pope Francis, and U.S. President Barack Obama with over 6.1 million followers. The Turkish president clearly embraced the menace and now posts, likes, and tweets alongside Turkey’s roughly 35 million Facebook and 15 million Twitter users, a remarkably high percentage of the country’s 75 million citizens. Erdoğan’s short statement condemning the Istanbul bombing in Sultanahmet Square last Tuesday tallied over 108,000 likes and 2,000 shares on Facebook, whereas the same statement posted on Twitter charted over 14,000 likes and almost 7,000 retweets. Since the Twiplomacy report was first published in April, @RT_Erdogan has amassed an additional 1.6 million followers. The leader has even defended a ban of Twitter on Twitter.
While simultaneous persecution and prioritization of social media may seem outlandish, it has become standard procedure for many governments in the digital age. Erdoğan namedrops Mark Zuckerberg in a status and tweets personalized welcome messages for leaders attending the G20 summit in Antalya. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro recommends articles and retweets supporters’ pro-regime memes. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei appropriates #BlackLivesMatter and posts #Letter4U notes for “youth in western countries.” Although Twitter has been blocked in Iran since 2009, citizens and government officials alike use VPNs to circumvent the statewide ban. Similar behavior received buzz during the Burundi protests last spring.
Unsettling, yes, but perhaps this is just common sense. By way of a quickly transcribed or (more often) laboriously assembled tweet, presidents and prime ministers can reach global audiences, comment on breaking news, and instigate vibrant conversations online and off. Certainly, social media presents an effective, cost-efficient method of appealing to constituents, especially those who pass over wordy press releases and white papers. It also allows leaders to challenge the journalists and activists who have long embraced social networks and wielded them to expose injustice, coordinate demonstrations, and destabilize regimes. Whether sincere or not, a personal-political online presence projects relevance and a willingness to engage the press, public, and other politicians. And what better way to defend oneself than with a pithy status or (hopefully) 140-character jab? If you can’t beat them, join them.
As Walt Whitman put it, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Regardless of whether Erdoğan should feel insulted or qualified to persecute on account of his alleged doppelganger, strange government social media incursions are here to stay. Expect the unexpected.