We are Turkey’s Generation Y – not a robot lobby
Last week the Guardian’s “modern little bastards” took over G2 to reflect the diverse voices of the generation Y. The ever-amazing Nabeelah Shabbir gave me the opportunity to voice the concerns of Turkey’s Generation Y — a piece that touches on the young protesters who took selfies in the back of a police van and the amazing work that 140journos does. That also marks my debut in the pages of the Guardian — which is thrilling! P.S: In a fairly strange turn of events, on the day my piece was published Turkey has blocked access to Twitter. More on that coming soon.
In Turkey, platforms like Facebook and YouTube are being used for “all kinds of immorality, all kinds of espionage” if you believe the prime minister’s recent words. Last summer, Recep Tayyip Erdogan went so far as to brand social media “the worst menace to society” in this secular Islamic republic of 74 million, where between 50% and 60% are under the age of 30. He laments a “robot lobby” – nefarious forces, which aim to take down his government with tweets on social media (his ownTwitter profile, I suspect, is run by a communications team, and has 4.16 million followers).
Even his wife has chimed in to express her concerns over “technology addiction”. Where Michelle Obama fights obesity, or Samantha Cameron glides around fashion councils, Emine Erdogan has said that social media is worse than alcohol, drugs and gambling.
Last week marked the funeral of Berkin Elvan. The 15-year-old boy died nine months after being hit by a police canister during the Gezi Park protests, reigniting a new wave of protests. Erdogan did not utter a word of condolence. Ironically he emphasised his tech credentials instead, claiming that his role was to “give children tablet computers”, not supply them with “molotov cocktails, stones or slings”.
But who are these mighty robots launching “hashtag wars” on Twitter? Images from Battlestar Galactica spring to mind. Is my sister a soldier in the robot lobby? Will her eyes turn to lasers and fry our next family lunch?
Maybe the Erdogans have a point – are we just narcissistic millennials? Last week two guys in Istanbul even took and tweeted a selfie at a major police crackdown. The picture of protesters grinning defiantly as they were packed into the back of a police van became known as the “Ellen selfie” and went viral.
Engin Önder is one of these “technology addicts” rattling the prime minister’s offline cage. A co-founder of Turkey’s popular citizen journalism network, 140journos, he and his friends have been documenting news on Twitter since early 2012. They have tweeted ferociously from left, conservative and LGBTQ protests, as well as courtrooms where accredited journalists were not allowed in. Önder does not strike me as a member of some kind of robot lobby – but I remain sceptical.
“I’d only attended one rally before 140journos,” he says – a Don’t Touch My Internet protest in June 2011. So if these twentysomethings are not really conspiring against the government, what exactly are they trying to achieve? His fellow co-founder Cem Aydogdu wanted to cover citizen news because his father had kicked him out of the house for reading alternative newspapers. “Cem wanted to hack his parents and sway his father,” says Önder.
As the Gezi protests kicked off, the 140journos network grew by six times almost overnight. The grievances of young people all around Turkey streamed through their timeline. Verifying and curating thousands of tweets 24/7, they did not leave his small apartment in Istanbul for days.
For Turkey’s Generation Y, who grew up with the internet, defending the freedom to share information online becomes at least equally, if not more, important than individual politics. Just under 50% are online every day. They are often willing to put themselves at personal risk to capture images from the frontline of protests.
Many are trying to hack a way out of the political crisis closing in on them. The deepening polarisation is intensified by Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric. Generation Y tweets through teargas to expose how absurd the reductive narratives of the political elite are. They poke fun at the dismissive language of government officials. They mock the mainstream media that is complicit in misrepresenting them.
The country’s young protesters do not document their struggle on social media because they are narcissistic millennials. Yes, they want to be visible, but not for likes or pokes or friends; they document their resistance to cultivate social empathy for everyone. They are not a self-affirming group who bury their heads in the sand when violence hits other homes. They are aware that preaching to the young and already-converted, and ignoring the rest of Turkish society out in the analog cold generates a dangerous sense of “us v them”. They do not want to be portrayed in these divisive terms, which cement their differences. There is no need.
Cem’s father, for example, who used to read just one newspaper, has since become an activist who now encourages young people at protests to send reports to 140journos.
“We are just like everyone else,” says Ali Emre Mazlumoglu, one of the 13 protesters from the “Ellen selfie in the police van”. “But what makes us peculiar in the midst of all the pressure and violence is that we can still laugh our way through it all.” Governed by a prime minister who can’t stand political satire in cartoons, or thinks passersby who give him the middle finger should be detained, young people in Turkey are holding on tight to their mobile phones – and to their sense of humour.