‘The internet’s sewer’: why Turkey blocked its most popular social site – Ruth Michaelson / THE GUARDIAN

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« Chaotic free speech on Ekşi Sözlük finally proved too much after devastating earthquakes hit country » Ruth Michaelson reports in The Guardian on March 1, 2023.

Launched on the eve of the millennium, Turkey’s most popular homegrown social media website has weathered lawsuits, criticism from the highest levels of government and even death threats directed at one of its founders. A simple editable online dictionary turned national obsession, Ekşi Sözlük has for more than two decades spurred its own biting form of social satire while providing a rare haven for free expression on the Turkish internet.

But this year’s earthquakes that upended life across Turkey may prove to be the death knell for Ekşi Sözlük, which was abruptly blocked across the country in the weeks after the earthquakes first struck, without proper explanation.

To the site’s diehard users, the block did more than just cut access to their chosen place to critique the issues of the day. Ekşi Sözlük, tweeted its founder, Sedat Kapanoğlu, had frequently hosted “calls for help and providing relief in the regions affected by the recent earthquakes in Turkey”.

Trying to load the site now brings up only a broken link in Turkey, as though it never existed at all. Manager Basak Purut tweeted a screenshot of his efforts to examine the block’s inner workings, showing a screen with a bright orange banner from Turkey’s communications authority stating it had blocked the website.

Users speculated publicly about the reasons for the shutdown, discussing whether it could be connected to posts critical of the state’s response in the aftermath of the twin earthquakes that left more than 44,000 dead and many more injured or homeless. In a statement, Ekşi Sözlük’s management connected the website block to a lack of content moderation, blaming false information provided by users for disturbing public order after the earthquakes. “The state was shown in a situation of helplessness, and the site’s administrators did not show the necessary reaction to the incorrect and slanderous articles,” they said.

In the 24 years since the site’s creation, designed by Kapanoğlu to imitate the endless intergalactic dictionary described in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyEkşi Sözlük grew to become a Turkish internet behemoth. The site has ranked among the top 10 most visited in Turkey, and last month clocked in more than 100m unique visits. The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci once described it as “Wikipedia, a social network and Reddit rolled into one.”

Over time, as political forces rampaged through an increasingly febrile Twitter or blocked content elsewhere, Ekşi Sözlük hosted a hive of politicised misinformation despite its place as a beacon for free expression. Even so, the site remained the last refuge for many Turks in a distorted media landscape that left many desperately seeking out alternative sources of information.

“Ekşi Sözlük is immensely important, not only for free speech in Turkey but also the free flow of news, as mainstream media outlets are controlled by the government,” said the journalist Emre Kızılkaya, the head of the Turkish branch of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. “These forms of alternative media, including digital outlets, are incredibly important for Turkish democracy and Ekşi Sözlük was one of the primary channels for news and commentary in Turkey.”

The site’s shutdown came as the country looked increasingly towards elections expected in June. Turkish authorities briefly blocked Twitter after the quakes and detained at least five journalists.

“Many free speech advocates in Turkey see this ban on Ekşi Sözlük as yet another attempt by the Turkish government to dictate its own narrative, both about the response to the earthquake and also to suppress criticism during this election season,” said Kızılkaya. Ekşi Sözlük’s owners are expected to appeal against the ban in court, hoping to bring the site back online as the country lurches closer to a consequential election.

For many of the site’s dedicated users, the ban is simply another round in a long battle between the forces of the internet and Ekşi Sözlük’s many critics. A Turkish daily newspaper once described the site as “the internet’s sewer”, and in 2021 it drew the ire of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who labelled it “a hotbed for fake news, racism and calls for terror”. Turkish courts have routinely investigated the site to demand administrators remove content they labelled as blasphemous or illegal – shortly after Erdoğan criticised Ekşi Sözlük, the Istanbul public prosecutor’s office launched an investigation over a post entitled: “What needs to be done for the people’s uprising.”

Frequent mudslinging about who was perpetrating misinformation on the platform changed little, largely because political actors seeking to use it to troll their competition were unwilling to lay down their arms. “The management did not or could not stop the invasion of bad actors, including trolls and agents of organised disinformation, and many of these bad actors were pro-government, spreading propaganda and misinformation,” said Kızılkaya.

An employee of one major Turkish political party, who asked to remain anonymous, described how they used Ekşi Sözlük to push favourable messages, carefully calibrating the message via a proxy user who had managed to cross the virtual velvet rope that separated the hundreds on the waiting list for valuable membership, allowing them to post entries rather than just read the site’s contents.

“We use their day-to-day services to push messages on the site if we need something fast,” they said. “The thing is, if someone was revealed to be an advertising account the site could remove them, but worse than removal would be the community banishing you. You’d get downvoted, there would be entries mocking you, and you’d be exposed.”

As a result, they said, the site functioned less as an opportunity for bots and deliberate misinformation, “but more like a sounding board. Ninety per cent of the user base is organic, so you can see if something you post gets pushback or is received positively. The best use of Ekşi Sözlük is really as a kind of anonymised focus group,” they said.

The site has generated its own lore. Ekşi Sözlük’s recurring characters included a flatulent lawyer who unwittingly filmed themself on a livestream and who has repeatedly sued the site’s users. Another prominent target was an actor who deluged founder Kapanoğlu with emails to complain about how she was being described.

In an interview, Kapanoğlu said he asked users to tone down their descriptions, sparking a tsunami of positive comments, “like, she is three metres tall and known for scoring a goal against Monaco from 75 metres away. Pages and pages of absurd praise for her – then she got mad again.”

Kapanoğlu said the first sign the site could provoke legal troubles came in 2003, when a police officer showed up at his former workplace in Istanbul to question him. By 2011, Kapanoğlu estimated he was being called to the public prosecutors’ office at least once a week to give a deposition after enraged citizens or officials lined up to sue users for defamation. Kapanoğlu felt the pressure mount as the government expanded a 2007 law governing the internet that forced websites to hand over user data.

“No one came from the government to threaten us directly, but the environment built by the Turkish government made things harder,” he said. The mounting clamour of criticism and even death threats reached a fever pitch as Kapanoğlu received a suspended prison sentence, accused of allowing anti-religious content on the platform. He later handed control of the site to his lawyer and relocated to Silicon Valley.

Kapanoğlu remained an avid user and spoke of his creation with deep affection despite its turbulent history. The site, he said, had taught its users so much, particularly an ability to spot fake stories about celebrity deaths or other forms of common disinformation that abounded on the site without anyone caring.

“Ekşi Sözlük’s history is filled with a combination of funny and sad events,” he said. “But I believe that taken together, these have all been an education for anyone who was a member of the site. It helped us to understand the boundaries of free speech.”

Ruth Michaelson reports in The Guardian on March 1, 2023.

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