A Breakout Role for Twitter? Extensive Use of Social Media in the Absence of Traditional Media by Turks in Turkish in Taksim Square Protests

The following post is provide based on research conducted in the past 24 hours by NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory.  It is written by lab members and NYU Politics Ph.D. candidates Pablo Barberá and Megan Metzger.


Over the past several years the role of social media in promoting, organizing, and responding to protest and revolution has been a hot topic of conversation. From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring Revolutions, social media has been at the center of many of the largest, most popular demonstrations of political involvement. The protests taking place in Turkey add to this growing trend, and are already beginning to add new layers to our understanding of how social media can contribute to public participation.

Protests have been ongoing since early this week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Organized in response to government plans to tear down the green space in the center of the square and replace it with a shopping center, the protests have morphed into a more visceral expression of the general discontent with the government’s policies over the last several years In response, the police fired massive amounts of tear gas and pepper spray into the crowd and set fire to tents set up for protesters to sleep in, leaving several people injured.  Protesters have begun wearing homemade gas masks while continuing to protest on the street. As of 2 AM Turkish time on Saturday, the protests are still in progress and some protestors have reportedly breached the barrier and entered the park.

The social media response to and the role of social media in the protests has been phenomenal. Since 4pm local time yesterday, at least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags related to the protest, such as #direngeziparkı (950,000 tweets), #occupygezi (170,000 tweets) or #geziparki (50,000 tweets) have been sent. As we show in the plot below, the activity on Twitter was constant throughout the day (Friday, May 31). Even after midnight local time last night more than 3,000 tweets about the protest were published every minute.


What is unique about this particular case is how Twitter is being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground. Unlike some other recent uprisings, around 90% of all geolocated tweets are coming from within Turkey, and 50% from within Istanbul (see map below). In comparison, Starbird (2012) estimated that only 30% of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country. Additionally, approximately 88% of the tweets are in Turkish, which suggests the audience of the tweets is other Turkish citizens and not so much the international community.


These numbers are in spite of the fact that there are reports that the 3G network is down in much of the area that is affected. Some local shops have removed security from their WiFi networks to allow internet access, but almost certainly the reduced signal will have impacted the tweeting behavior of those on the ground.

Part of the reason for the extraordinary number of tweets is related to a phenomenon that is emerging in response to a perceived lack of media coverage in the Turkish media. Dissatisfied with the mainstream media’s coverage of the event, which has been almost non-existent within Turkey, Turkish protestors have begun live-tweeting the protests as well as using smart-phones to live stream video of the protests. This, along with recent articles in the Western news media, has become a major source of information about this week’s events. Protesters have encouraged Turks to turn off their televisions today in protest over the lack of coverage of the mainstream media by promoting the hashtag #BugünTelevizyonlarıKapat (literally, “turn off the TVs today”), which has been used in more than 50,000 tweets so far.

What this trend suggests is that Turkish protesters are replacing the traditional reporting with crowd-sourced accounts of the protest expressed through social media. Where traditional forms of news have failed to fully capture the intensity of the protests, or to elucidate the grievances that protesters are expressing, social media has provided those participating with a mechanism through which not only to communicate and exchange information with each other, but essentially to take the place of more traditional forms of media. Further, this documentation through multiple sources in public forums serves to provide a more accurate description of events as they unfold. The coming days in Turkey will give us more insight into the processes by which this takes place, but it is certainly an impressive realization of the potential for social media to be used in overcoming barriers to diffusion of information regarding and motivation for protests.


Update: we also wish to acknowledge the contributions of NYU Politics Ph.D. candidates Batuhan Gorgulu and Emine Deniz.


29 Responses to A Breakout Role for Twitter? Extensive Use of Social Media in the Absence of Traditional Media by Turks in Turkish in Taksim Square Protests

  1. kerokan June 1, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    Thanks for this post. Events are progressing very rapidly in Turkey. The spread of protests from the small group of environmentalists to larger sections of the population disgusted by police brutality and the government’s arrogance are very interesting and worthy of analysis. I believe that the data you collect will contribute greatly to future analyses.

  2. Peter Walker June 1, 2013 at 8:53 am #

    I find the lack of media coverage of the brutality being meted out by Erdogan’s boot men quite disturbing. It appears that they are frightened to go up against this emerging Tin Pot Dictator. Thank goodness for the social network without which we would be kept in ignorance in Britain. Keep sending those graphic images.

  3. Ido June 1, 2013 at 9:14 am #

    Many thanks for this interesting post. It actually impelled me to reflect on the findings in my own blog (see http://reportweeting.tumblr.com/post/51879221874/the-taksim-demos-preliminary-thoughts-on-twitter-in). Would be glad to have your response.

  4. a June 1, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    this is what happened in Turkey

    • Sukaya June 2, 2013 at 5:44 am #

      The summary of what happens in Turkey:

      Erdogan: I’ll build a Mall on the most important city park of the most important city.

      People: No.

  5. a June 1, 2013 at 10:17 am #


  6. dos June 1, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Thank you for this overview. I am really interested in what kind of tools you use for creating the statistics. Can you provide some information or release the data set?

  7. George June 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    I know that it is not entirely relevant to the data depicted in the map; however, I find use of pre-1989 map of Europe interesting. 🙂

    • Sun June 2, 2013 at 10:23 am #


      Just sayin’…

  8. haren June 1, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    twitter doesn’t represent people of Turkey, but bourgeois.

    • Simon June 2, 2013 at 10:02 am #

      Most of the Turkish youth has internet enabled mobile phones. So I don’t agree.

    • Sun June 2, 2013 at 10:26 am #

      It’s one of the most iPhone crazy countries on the planet. People go without meat for weeks to get a smartphone (preferably an iPhone 5). Workers on less than $1000 per month are likely to have one. Definitely not a bourgeois phenomenon.

      • dos June 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

        Agree! But don’t forget: Istanbul is not really representative for the rest of Turkey.

        • Andrew S. June 2, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

          But the protests are not only occurring in Istanbul. They may have started there, but protests have since spread to Izmir, Ankara, Adana, and elsewhere.

          • Sun June 2, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

            In 30 years I have never seen such a widespread uprising in so many cities and towns. When places like Denizli, Antakya, Eskisehir, and GaZiantep start to go at the same time for the same reasons, you know it’s not just a top three rich city issue anymore.

  9. Kalimuré June 1, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    Thanks for this statistical data showing extra ordinary political participation of Turkish citizens. This can only be defined as a reaction to the one party domination and authoritarian political behaviours of ruling party in Turkey. This is a civil protest FOR democracy which establishes, maintains and protects the minority groups in political life and the sense of Demos-cratos.

  10. esra June 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

    I think the role of the communication through social media, WITHIN the process of protests shouldnt be ignored. that is why the majority of the tweets are in turkish, they diseminate the channels they can seek help, like volunteering doctors, places they can seek shelter, as well as they guide people about the latest situation in the neighbouring districts, where to move next, how to act together. so they give shape to the movement of people. Informing the world is one of the purposes, yes, but within the protests they do have much more crucial role.

  11. Hasan June 1, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    what about the number of fake tweets and fake pictures which are showing thing never happened? i would suggest you better search on these as well.

  12. Ebru June 1, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    I find the pro-AKP tweets and trending topics quite interesting. Their efforts to marginalize the protesters (subtext: WE are the majority, the real “people”), their reliance on a few fake images to claim that the number of protesters is negligible and that the police brutality has been exaggerated is hilarious. These tweets also deserve an analysis. Unbelievable how delusional some might be despite what unfolds via social media, but such delusion does exist, as exemplified above in some of the comments to this post!

  13. Chaz June 1, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Very interesting. I’m surprised Erdogan is employing such extreme violence. If he lets his popular support drop doesn’t that make him vulnerable to a coup?

    Are you sure 3G is necessary to use Twitter? I think text messages can be send over old school mobile (voice) connections.

  14. Todd Phillips June 2, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    This is very fascinating. Social media allows the people to circumvent the traditional news media and broadcast to the rest of the country, and to the world. It is tempting to assume that this is good and democratic, but the people are disorganized. And so long as they are, they can only be reactive to events. Only an organized group can be proactive. If the government and mainstream media aren’t in control, this could open the door for some other organized group(s). Should we assume that, that group will be good and democratic? I doubt it. Social media could be a enormously effective means of tearing the existing order down, but do nothing to build it back up. It may even introduce some with their own selfish agenda. So long as the people are disorganized they are in great danger.

  15. veli June 2, 2013 at 3:52 am #

    writing in English doesn’t mean you’re writing objectively. it’s obvious that majority of twitter users in Turkey is elite layer of society which enjoyed long years of military junta.

    • Sun June 2, 2013 at 10:28 am #

      Garbage. Many of the people in the streets voted for AKP because he pulled the reins of the army, and stabilized the economy. His behaviour is no better than the worst excesses of military rule in the early 1980s, so….

  16. James June 3, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Hello Joshua

    I have translated all of the Turkish hashtags used so far in the protests and will continue to do so as they change every few hours: http://socialmediastrategist.co.uk/blog/1-news/197-turkey-protest-twitter-hashtag

    I hope you do not mind but I also added your wonderful graph and insight to the post?


  17. JimKay June 3, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Bear in mind, Twitter will remain usable only as long as the Turkish government tolerates it. Internet and cellular telephone access are controlled by the authorities. What will happen when Erdogan says “Enough!” and flips the switches?

    • AlbertoCossu June 3, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

      It already happened in Egypt and Tunisia Jim.
      In Tunisia there was a quasi-total Internet blackout but it left 10% of connections active that is, the ones attached to the routers to which also the authorities (but not only, luckily) servers were connected. A total blackout is impossible, and we remember that twitter during those critical days allowed people to tweet using a simple SMS.
      In Egypt we had a similar scenario but, in addition, as the last work of Manuel Castells shows (Networks of Outrage and Hope) the Egyptian people re-organized usind the pre-exististing, traditional networks: e.g. soccer teams 🙂
      So, twitter facilitates, facebook as well, but they can’t be and won’t ever be the only cause for a success or the failure of a protest.

      P.S. Can I ask the authors how did they gather such precise geo-localizations?

      • Pablo Barberá June 3, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

        Alberto, around 3% of all tweets have their coordinates attached, when their authors decide to geolocate them (e.g. when they tweet from a smartphone). That’s the data we used to know the geographic distribution of the tweets. Thanks for your comment!

  18. Fredy June 3, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    The map shows the remaining 10% of geolocated tweets mainly sourced by Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands and UK plus Paris and Vienna, all countries / cities with large Turkish expat communities.

  19. nur June 5, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    Than you Simon to inform that is not a bourgeois protest on the contrary, the 3rd day, it has become a protest to the bourgeois with emphasizing their brands because of their blindless to the violence.Thus,the advertisements agencies has joined to the protest with hashtag #ajanslargrevde (agencies on strike) and refused to promote on stream media. Some of intenational brands also give a support with their written notice by social media. What happened next? Unhopefully, before he leaves Turkey, Mr. Erdogan threatened all branding societies with an investigation and with a legal action because they give support to this provocation! And he did this menace in front of all Turkish citizens by national TV, TRT.
    This frustration about human rights, about freedom of speech led an unnegligible amount of people in all over the country to join to the protest.
    The second day, the slogan was “Not about the park only, it is about democacy” Thus, it should be understood well that a real civil demonstration take a place. The government has taken action by the police very brutally, sharply, untolerantly with tear gas to agent orange (which is prohibited by UN) but the mainstream media has been totally blind and sourd to make the people angry. The have been protested by their sisters company as well like NTV (sister company Garanti Bank, people took their money back, their credit cards)
    #bubirsivildirenis (it is civil standing strong) (c’est la resistance du peuple civile)
    #heryertaksimheryerdirenis (everywhere Taksim,everywhere boycott) (partout Taksim, partout la resistance)
    I would like you check and have a help for translation of the letter to spread out the world to be understood what is going on in Turkey with hashtag #whatsupinTurkey. This letter has been written by a AKP (Erdogan’s party) voter spread through the social media and finally took place in a newspaper in Turkey. It resumes almost every citizen feelings on the protests.
    By social media, People already gathered an amount to make an advertisement in New York Times to alert, to take the attention of the world what is happening in Turkey.