Why Turkey Banned Twitter

"Democratic life demands sacrifice": Seven Turkish newspapers, each of which theoretically makes its own editorial decisions, decided to pluck that line from a speech by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last summer to use as their main front-page headline. It happened again earlier this month, when 10 Turkish papers all chose to feature another line from an Erdogan speech, in which he vowed that the people "will foil the games [played against his government] at the ballot box."

While Turkey's press is legally free, it is also controlled. Erdogan's government has imposed billion-dollar fines on media holdings hostile to the government, issued blunt instructions to editors about how to tailor their coverage, deported critical journalists -- and when all else fails, thrown reporters in prison, transforming Turkey into the world's leading jailer of journalists.

All of this helps explain why Erdogan took the extraordinary step today of blocking Twitter. This is not a government that tolerates media it can't control -- and there's nothing harder to control than millions of Turks self-publishing news about the country at a click of a button. While Twitter hasn't commented on the ban, the company took the unusual step of issuing guidelines for how to evade the ban, telling Turkish users that they can post tweets via cellular text-messaging. Fittingly, the announcement came from the Twitter feed of the company's policy arm:

"Twitter, schmitter!" Erdogan said at a campaign rally Thursday. "We will wipe out all of these...The international community can say this, can say that. I don't care. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is."

On Friday, the U.S. State Department condemned the government's decision to block access to the service. "An independent and unfettered media is an essential element of democratic, open societies," spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. "Today's shutdown of Twitter is contrary to Turkey's own expressed desire to uphold the highest standards of democracy."

Erdogan's crackdown on Twitter was likely precipitated by recent leaks of recordings that allegedly show corruption at the highest ranks of his government. One of those wiretapped conversations purports to be a discussion between Erdogan and his son about how to hide large sums of money. Another allegedly shows the prime minister browbeating an editor for not firing a critical columnist. These wiretaps appear to have been released as part of Erdogan's feud with Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers are thought to include many top officials within the country's police force. Erdogan has denied the authenticity of the most damaging leaks and hasn't commented on others.

The Turkish government can pressure large swathes of the print media to ignore the leaks. However, there's nothing it can do to prevent Twitter users from sharing and commenting on the wiretapped conversations.

"The leaked tapes on corruption are being watched, reposted, and shared millions of times," said Engin Onder, a member of @140journos, a group of university students who report on protests across Turkey using Twitter to circumvent what they see as the failure of the country's mainstream media. "It's being said that new tapes are upcoming and can cause the governing party to lose significant votes [in local elections later this month]."

Because of the constraints under which the official media operates, Turks are devoted Twitter users -- the country ranks among Twitter's 10 most active markets in the world. And Erdogan's ban, predictably, incited a predictable backlash among devoted tweeps. The hashtag #TwitterisblockedinTurkey quickly started trending across the globe, while there was no large drop in tweets from Turkey, as users quickly found ways to circumvent the ban.  

Meanwhile, Turks passed around cartoons lampooning the state's fear of Twitter and Erdogan's intolerance toward dissent.

More importantly, the ban also appears to have exacerbated divisions within Erdogan's party. President Abdullah Gul, who visited the headquarters of Twitter in 2012, said a ban on the site was "unacceptable" -- and to add insult to injury, he made his comments via his Twitter account.

Gul isn't alone. Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara and another member of the ruling party, also continued to tweet. His first message after the ban was announced could've been interpreted as support or defiance -- whatever he meant, it was retweeted thousands of times by Twitter users within Turkey:

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images


Datelines and Maps Are the Latest Casualties of Russia’s Crimea Invasion

Though the United States and the European Union refuse to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin now firmly directs facts on the ground in the Black Sea peninsula. Crimeans are already receiving shiny new passports and using the Russian ruble as their new official currency. But for Putin, the cherry on top may come not from the streets of Simferopol and Sevastopol, but instead from the headquarters of the Associated Press in New York. The AP, in a semantic victory for the Russian strongman,  announced Wednesday that they would be changing their style to reflect the new reality in Crimea.

"Previously, we wrote ‘SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP).' But Ukraine no longer controls Crimea, and AP datelines should reflect the facts on the ground. Therefore, effective this week, we are using the city name and "Crimea": "SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP)," Tom Kent, the deputy managing editor and standards editor for the AP, wrote on their blog. The AP, a non-profit wire service whose articles run in hundreds of publications in the United States and abroad, is an authoritative voice on style for most English-language publications.  

But the organization is not going quite so far as to indicate that Sevastopol is an unquestioned part of Russia with a "SEVASTOPOL, Russia" dateline. "The reason is that Crimea is geographically distinct from Russia; they have no land border. Saying just the city name and ‘Crimea' in the dateline, even in the event of full annexation, would be consistent with how we handle geographically separate parts of other countries," Kent wrote, comparing Crimea's situation with the Italian city of Palermo -- "PALERMO, Sicily (AP)" -- where the second part of the dateline is occupied by the island of Sicily, not the country of Italy.  

The New York Times has also changed its style regarding the disputed region, going from "Ukraine" to simply "Crimea" in its Simferopol datelines.

Crimea's geopolitical situation is a conundrum for international cartographers as well. Google Maps has the region in a red outline -- but as still belonging to Ukraine. Competitors Bing and MapQuest also still list the peninsula as Ukrainian.

The standoff over Ukraine has also played out in the virtual world, where the editors of Wikipedia are at each others' throats. After the the Russian map was repeatedly altered in a heated debate over whether Crimea should be denoted as a Russian territory, the online encyclopedia's administrators locked the page. For now, Crimea has been left a light-green to Russia's darker shade of the green. The lighter shade is supposed to represent a "claimed territory," according to the page's discussion board.

Meanwhile, RT, the pro-Kremlin news outlet, gleefully declared that National Geographic, the world's authoritative map-maker, is firmly on Moscow's side. "We map the world as it is: National Geographic maps Crimea as part of Russia," their headline screamed.

But that isn't quite true. National Geographic has in fact not yet decided how to depict the region on their maps. "We are waiting to see the results of Friday's [Russian] parliamentary vote," Juan Valdes, the geographer of the National Geographic Society told the organization's news outlet. "If it is formally annexed, our policy will dictate that we shade the area gray, signifying that it is a disputed territory." Other disputed areas in the region -- including the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- are gray on National Geographic maps.

"National Geographic Society's cartographic policy is to portray to the best of our ability current reality. Most political boundaries depicted in our maps and atlases are stable and uncontested. Those that are disputed receive special treatment and are shaded gray as 'Areas of Special Status,' with accompanying explanatory text," the organization said in a statement.

Rand McNally, an American publisher of maps and atlases used in classrooms all around the United States will not be changing their materials. "We take our direction from the State Department," company spokeswoman Amy Krouse told US News.

Not that it really matters: Those maps don't seem to be getting much use. Some Americans just think of Ukraine as "the place where Borat is from."