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On the front lines of Turkey's Twitter wars

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared war on Twitter. The Turkish premier has laid blame for the protests currently rocking his country at the feet of the popular microblogging site, referring to it as a "menace" and a "scourge" that has spread lies about events in his country. And the Turkish police have followed his lead: Authorities have arrested dozens of social media users for spreading "false information" about the demonstrations, while the police are reportedly scrutinizing 200,000 "fake" Twitter accounts.

A crackdown on media is nothing new in Erdogan's Turkey (or under previous Turkish governments, for that matter). Turkey is currently the world's leading jailer of journalists, beating out such strong competition as Iran and China. Perhaps even more pernicious is the media's financial dependence on political patrons: For example, the pro-government newspaper Sabah, which is owned by a holding company run by Erdogan's son-in-law, ran a front page praising the prime minister for his anti-smoking campaign on the first, tumultuous day of protests.

An enterprising group of young university students have stepped in to fill this information gap -- and disprove Erdogan's dark warnings about social media. Under the moniker 140journos (for the number of characters in a tweet), they have long undermined the state's tight grip on information -- reporting on everything from Kurdish activism to gay rights issues. Since the beginning of the protests, the team told FP that they have been working 20 hours a day, creating a streaming timeline of the most important events in the country.

"Credible or not, social media has been the only [news] source until now," 140journos told FP. "Interaction has been immense.... One of the good aspects of the protests is that the news delivered on social media has been legitimized for many people. A lot of people have created Twitter accounts to get notified right away."

The team acknowledged that social media had been far from perfect. Twitter users, trying to incite outrage at the Turkish government response, have spread rumors that authorities were using the infamous Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange on protesters, and passed off videos of police brutality elsewhere as occurring in Turkey. 140journos sees its job as cutting through the disinformation, using a network of trusted volunteers on the ground to verify the information that comes their way.

The mainstream media's failure has helped fuel the growth of Turkish citizen journalism. The 140journos team castigated the media's "shameful silence" on the protests, saying that its corporate owners were skewing the coverage for political purposes. Twitter and Facebook have also proved more adept at capturing the spirit of the protests: "Social platforms carried the mutual sense of humor of the protesters," the team explained. "Humor has been a motivational reinforcement in spite of [protesters'] nervousness of the state and police."

In line with that spirit, 140journos' most popular tweet since the beginning of the protests doesn't show a massive protest or police brutality. Rather, the team said it was a viewpoint even less likely to appear in mainstream Turkish media: The image shows a television smashed on the street of the Istanbul neighborhood of Besiktas, which had been thrown by a Turkish man who shouted, "I'm sick of the lies of this!"

Read a transcript of the interview with the 140journos team after the break. It has been condensed and edited.

FP: How has social media affected the coverage of these protests?

140journos: Obviously, credible or not, social media has been the only source until now. Interaction has been immense.

While huge protests against police were going on in Taksim Square, news channels such as CNN Turk was broadcasting a short on penguins. This familiar silence really offended people. One of the good aspects of the protests is that the news delivery on social media has been legitimized for many people. A lot of people have created Twitter accounts to get notified right away.

Mainstream media is now covering what's going on -- yet its role is more like a verification to the unstoppable stream on social media. It can also be said that social platforms carry the sense of humor of the protesters.

FP: What has been your impression of the official Turkish media coverage?

140journos: Shameful silence, yet nothing new.

The coverage of the official Turkish media began three days after the protests first started. Before that time, when the public switched their TVs on to verify the rumors of street protests, NTV, one of the leading news channels, was broadcasting a Hitler documentary, and CNN Turk was broadcasting a documentary on penguins. This can't explain any better about how bounded they are with financial concerns.

FP: Are there any downsides to social media? Has there been disinformation?

140journos: There's no culture of management of social media content, and there won't be. After the first days of the protest, photos and videos started to repeat with false titles, locations, and dates. 140journos has made a difference by filtering and verifying information, with the aim of preventing disinformation and provocation.

FP: What have you been doing since the protests broke out? How have you tried to cover them?

140journos: We are all university students with a concern about media, but without any political affiliation. Just like we have been doing for one and a half years, 140journos has started to broadcast from where the action happens and about what the public wants to know. 

We have been working 20 hours a day since the protests broke out. During the day, we follow the news in our hub -- nothing big, just one of our tiny studio flats -- and watch mainstream media's live broadcasts, citizen journalists' live broadcasts, and evaluate the incoming data.

FP: What have you tweeted that you think has gotten the most attention? Why do you think it spurred public interest?

140journos: The most retweeted and favorited content so far is not a proof of brutality, like you may guess. It's a tweet with a photograph in Be?ikta?, Istanbul, where harsh street clashes between protesters and police have taken place for 2 nights in a row, showing a guy throwing his TV out of his balcony shouting "I'm sick of the lies of this! It doesn't show the clash that happens right in front of my apartment in Istanbul's center!"

The public is in a search of something like solidarity to hold on to, and this give them that. Citizen journalism seems to be the only way out in this corrupted media atmosphere.

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The question at the center of the NSA's data-mining program: What the heck is PalTalk?

Reports by the Washington Post and the Guardian on PRISM, a top-secret National Security Agency program that directly mines digital data from the servers of major Internet companies, raises big questions about the proper balance between privacy and national security, the true nature of the terrorist threat facing the United States, the role leaks play in a free press, and the legality of government surveillance. But they also bring an admittedly more minor question to mind: What in the world is PalTalk?

Let me backtrack a bit. Thursday's reports include a slide from a PowerPoint presentation for senior NSA analysts that charts when the nine tech companies complying with the program signed up. A murderers' row of Silicon Valley giants appears -- with PalTalk sandwiched inexplicably in the middle.

The Washington Post and the Guardian don't go into detail about why PalTalk is on the list, but the Post does offer this clue:

PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

So what is PalTalk? Here's how the (mostly) free instant messaging service, which was founded by Jason Katz in 1998, describes itself on its website:

Paltalk is the world's largest video chat community, with more than 4 million active members. Paltalk provides video and chat capabilities that can facilitate virtual face-to-face interactions between individuals and between groups. It is the only provider that can support hundreds of thousands of users simultaneously, including thousands of people within a single chat room.

The Washington Post mentions that PalTalk has received substantial traffic during the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war, but people have also raised concerns for years now about terrorists using its chat rooms (in 2012, for instance, the British press reported that four men plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange had made contact with each other through the service). In 2009, the year PalTalk reportedly began participating in the NSA's program, a U.N. report on the "Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes" expressed concern about al Qaeda propaganda spreading in "debate groups such as Yahoo and PalTalk."

That same year, PCWorld reported that terrorist networks were harnessing PalTalk for recruitment purposes:

Cyberterrorists are using a series of online forums and at least one social-networking site, PalTalk, to recruit people to their cause, Evan Kohlmann, a senior investigator and private consultant for Global Terror Alert, said at the International Conference on Cyber Security 2009 in New York. Many of these people never actually meet in person, but conspire online to launch both cyberterrorist and physical terrorist attacks such as suicide bombings, he said....

[P]eople have actually used PalTalk, a chat-room hosting site, to host a live question-and-answer with people they alleged to be Al-Qaeda leaders, Kohlmann said. He said that he's not sure if the company "actually realizes what is going on with their chat rooms," but that the chat room in question is well known among members of jihadi forums.

"In this case, we are particularly talking about a single chat room, with a slightly-changing-but-mostly-static identifiable name, accessible via the official PalTalk chat room index," he said via e-mail a day after his presentation in New York. "This chat room has been routinely advertised on jihadi Web forums, and it is used on a day-to-day basis to trade download links for Al Qaeda propaganda videos [and] terrorist instructional manuals ... If the company hasn't gotten a hint of any of this by now, then they really need to start re-considering their security policies."

At the time, PalTalk responded to the charge that jihadists were exploiting its chat rooms, highlighting its constraints in taking down forums:

When asked if the company is aware of Al-Qaeda chat rooms, Judy Shapiro, vice president of marketing for New York-based PalTalk, said the company is aware that there are many political-discussion forums. However, if the chat occurring within those rooms does not violate the company's terms of service for troublesome language, freedom of speech applies.

"We absolutely shouldn't discriminate," she said. "We can't constrain people's ability to say what they want. If someone says, I am the head of Al Qaeda, come talk to me, that's perfectly legal."

In its terms of service, PalTalk lists "unacceptable conduct" that would violate those terms as "threatening, harassing, or intimidating another user" or "transmitting any unlawful, threatening, abusive, profane, offensive, defamatory, or hateful text or voice communication or images or other material, or any racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable material, or any material that violates or infringes the intellectual property or privacy or publicity or other rights of any other party," among other kinds of behavior.

PalTalk will take down a chat room with no warning if users report trouble to its moderators. "If someone said, how do I create a bomb I can [detonate] in Times Square," that would obviously raise a red flag, Shapiro said.

In cases where "the level of language" would warrant an investigation, PalTalk would take whatever steps necessary to cooperate with law-enforcement officials or take down the site or both if there is good reason, she said.

(For what it's worth, PalTalk's terms of service don't appear to have changed much since the report.)

All of which is to say: the NSA appears to have had its reasons for reaching out to PalTalk.

Update: PalTalk has issued a statement to the Wall Street Journal denying knowledge of the PRISM program -- a stance several other tech firms referenced in the NSA slides have also taken. "We have not heard of PRISM," the company told the paper. "Paltalk exercises extreme care to protect and secure users' data, only responding to court orders as required to by law. Paltalk does not provide any government agency with direct access to its servers."