THE BLOG
02/10/2013 13:13 BST | Updated 02/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Turkish Government Still Making a Hashtag of Social Media

After branding social media a "scourge" at the height of the Gezi Park protests in June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had a change of heart. The ruling AKP government recently hired a 6,000-strong brigade of social media operatives to direct public opinion and win hearts and minds.

After branding social media a "scourge" at the height of the Gezi Park protests in June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had a change of heart. The ruling AKP government recently hired a 6,000-strong brigade of social media operatives to direct public opinion and win hearts and minds.

This army of tweeps can do little to help, however, when the prime minister's inner circle stray off-message online.

Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, a former London banker, notoriously keeps tabs on the large cadre of foreign journalists working in Turkey. He often responds in person to anything he finds contentious, with such tweets as: "Why don't you apologise for lying or spreading false rumours?" and "Just - stop lying, be honest - should suffice!"

To be "Şimşek-ed" has entered the vernacular of the international press corps. Elsewhere in the world, the idea of senior government officials closely following journalists and engaging in tit-for-tat arguments is odd it best, career-damaging at worst. In Turkey, it's par for the course.

Melih Gökçek, the ruling AKP's mayor of Ankara - a position of considerable power - spearheaded a personal Twitter attack on a BBC journalist, who he claimed was an "English agent". He even launched a hashtag for her. This inflammatory campaign to discredit a well-respected journalist at the height of civil unrest drew condemnation from the BBC and human rights groups, but no sign of contrition from Gökçek or anyone else in the party.

In a recent Twitter exchange with a journalist (disclaimer: she's my wife), Erdoğan's adviser Mustafa Varank encouraged her to break the law when she tweeted that the government's new ban on the sale of alcohol at stores after 10 p.m. was working exactly as the government intended.

"If you can find the place that wants to sell and [is] willing to pay the fine, you can buy," Varank said, after accusing her of lying for reporting when the law went into effect last month. He also recommended she hit a bar if she needed a drink that bad.

Varank's retort demonstrates that he and his colleagues have little idea how social media works. It also reminds us that the enforcement of Turkish law can be arbitrary, favouring those with influence.

It also raises questions about whether some legislation passed by this Islamist-leaning government is less than sincere and merely populist in design. The government in May passed the controversial law restricting the sale of alcohol to reduce harm to young people. In a country with Europe's lowest alcohol consumption, critics said the law, and the ensuing outcry, was aimed at distracting attention away from the government's unpopular Syria policy following a devastating bomb attack at the border that killed 52 people on May 11.

The law became a rallying cry for many during the Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey in June and July. Secular Turks saw it as evidence of Erdoğan's authoritarian tilt and his government's effort to make the country more conservative. Meanwhile, small-business owners with a liquor licence face slashed sales and even closure.

It's enough to drive you to drink.