In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, social media blackouts have complicated rescue efforts – here, Access Now explains how to navigate this bleak new reality
In times of crisis, social media can be a vital platform to share developing news, check in with loved ones, coordinate aid efforts, and – on a global scale – direct attention toward more material ways to help, such as fundraisers and IRL activism. But what if the authorities overseeing the crisis turn the internet off, or limit people’s contact with the outside world? It’s a growing reality, particularly in parts of the world where internet access is becoming increasingly tangled up with living under (and opposing) oppressive regimes.
On Monday (February 6) southern Turkey and northern Syria were struck by two devastating earthquakes – with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5 – that reduced buildings to rubble and cut off vital infrastructure, including road links and gas. As of Friday, Turkish authorities recorded more than 18,000 deaths and Syria recorded more than 3,000, with injuries numbered in the tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands more left without homes. The number of fatalities is expected to rise sharply in coming days, as rescue crews continue to search through the rubble.
Rescue teams are struggling, however, against severe weather conditions and freezing temperatures, with reports of insufficient equipment and expertise to help many of those who are trapped. As hopes for finding survivors dwindle, many in Turkey have placed blame for the inadequate response on president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. With an important election looming, however, Erdoğan himself has fought back against the bad press. In a furious speech (reported by the Washington Post) he vowed to crack down on citizens who talk about the government’s relief efforts in a negative light, and dismissed their commentary as “fake news and distortions”.
Citizens are already feeling the effects of this authoritarian crackdown, with Turkish authorities making several arrests related to “provocative posts” about the earthquake. Authorities have also been accused of intentionally causing nationwide Twitter and TikTok outages in the aftermath of the disaster, despite the fact that the social media platforms could have contributed to the rescue effort and helped those affected connect with friends and family. In a statement, TikTok confirms that Turkish users struggled to access its platform in the days following the earthquake, and the internet monitoring group NetBlocks tracked a gradual implementation of Twitter restrictions before the platform was restored on Thursday (February 9).
“Shutting down the internet or restricting access to digital communications platforms during national crises or emergencies is an arbitrary and dangerous reaction,” says Felicia Anthonio of Access Now, a global non-profit dedicated to defending people’s digital rights. “Authorities usually justify these acts of censorship as necessary to curb the spread of misinformation, but what they fail to realise is that restricting access to information endangers lives and amplifies the spread of false information.”
Below, Anthonio and Marwa Fatafta (who also works with Access Now) discuss the significance of Turkey’s internet censorship after the earthquake and how it reflects a growing international concern, and offer some tips on how to circumvent internet shutdowns during a crisis.
⚠️ Confirmed: Real-time network data show Twitter has been restricted in #Turkey; the filtering is applied on major internet providers and comes as the public come to rely on the service in the aftermath of a series of deadly earthquakes— NetBlocks (@netblocks) February 8, 2023
📰 Report: https://t.co/CEbfgeBpvzpic.twitter.com/3884wMpYD2
HOW DO INTERNET SHUTDOWNS HAPPEN?
Turkish authorities say that technical issues were responsible for the recent social media outages, but experts agree that this seems unlikely. NetBlocks, for instance, says the gradual shutdown was “consistent with known forms of censorship in the country” via firewalls or platform throttling, as previously seen during past national emergencies and political demonstrations.
“The Turkish government has a track record of muzzling free speech and clamping down on journalists, human rights defenders, and political dissidents,” confirms Fatafta, suggesting that May’s elections add an extra incentive to silence criticism by throttling social media platforms.
IT’S NOT JUST A PROBLEM IN TURKEY
The restrictions reflect an ominous worldwide trend, which has seen many other countries – such as Brazil, Nigeria, Iran, and India – erect firewalls or flick the internet ‘kill switch’ to disrupt vital communication networks. “Internet shutdowns have become a knee-jerk response for governments in times of crisis,” adds Fatafta. “During mass protests, military coups, elections, and now natural disasters, governments rush to restrict or disrupt access to online services in the hope they can ‘contain’ the situation.” In reality, though, the restrictions are more about “controlling the narrative, censoring people, and hiding state violence and abuse from the public eye” than they are about actually helping people.
In 2021, Access Now documented at least 182 such cases of internet shutdowns across 34 countries (up from 159 across 29 countries in 2020). It’s a clear trend that looks set to continue. Digital authoritarianism is only going to become more prevalent as time goes on, and it would be naïve to think that it can’t happen closer to home.
“Internet shutdowns have become a knee-jerk response for governments in times of crisis” – Marwa Fatafta, Access Now
HOW CAN YOU FIGHT IT?
Luckily, there are ways to circumvent firewalls and regain access to the world wide web, if you know how. For example, using a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) can grant access to social media platforms even in countries where they’re flat-out banned, like Russia or China. But VPNs are only effective during partial shutdowns such as social media bans, Anthonio explains. To fight complete internet blackouts, people are finding “increasingly innovative” solutions, such as keeping foreign SIM cards handy, or crossing over to neighbouring regions that aren’t hit by the ban.
If you are dealing with partial restrictions via firewalls, throttling, or deep packet inspection (which analyses the data sent over a network and blocks it accordingly), Anthonio adds that your best option is to encrypt all of your internet traffic. “The Tor Browser allows you to stay connected,” she notes, “and in addition keeps your connection anonymous.”
More options to help prepare for and mitigate internet shutdowns can be found on Access Now’s #KeepItOn coalition webpage.
HOW CAN YOU HELP IF YOU’RE NOT PERSONALLY AFFECTED?
Of course, there’s not much you can actually do if another country’s government switches off the internet – chances are, you can’t communicate with people affected by the blackout, or send them aid directly. What you can do, though, is apply political pressure and spread awareness.
“Governments implement internet shutdowns when they think they can get away with it,” Anthonio notes. “But when the whole world is watching, and when people outside their borders collectively shine a spotlight on these draconian acts of censorship and control, it can mount enough pressure that the internet is restored.” When Turkish authorities blocked Twitter, people from across the world expressed public outrage, taking the conversation to policymakers and tech company heads such as Elon Musk. The platform was restored the next day. “People power works.”
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