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Smart-Phone Tool Lets Turkish Protesters Know WhatsApp

Turkish opposition activists who want the latest news need something faster than the local newspaper.
ISTANBUL -- It's only natural, in this social-media-savvy city, that demonstrators would turn to Twitter and Facebook to keep the world updated on the mass protests that unfolded in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey this week.

But it's a simple smart-phone app, available for less than a dollar, that has emerged as the movement's sleeper success.

Demonstrators say that while Twitter and Facebook have been critical to getting the word out, WhatsApp, an application created in 2009 that allows users to send unlimited text messages over 3G telecom networks or WiFi, has allowed them to share sensitive information within smaller groups.

This, they say, is a feature that is particularly important given the harsh rhetoric directed at Twitter and other social-media platforms by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the scourge of the protests.

Erdogan this week called Twitter a "menace of lies," and in the western city of Izmir, 25 people were detained on June 5 for spreading "libelous" information via social media.

WhatsApp contacts are based on the numbers a user has saved to his phone. From that list one can create a group of as many of 50 people to pass along short messages, including text, photo, and video. People who receive messages can then forward them on to their own groups of friends. But unlike Twitter and Facebook, which are searchable, WhatsApp content spreads only through connected networks.

Fast And Direct

Groups of volunteer doctors and medical students are a constant presence on Taksim Square, the heart of the protests that erupted a week ago. Outfitted in white lab coats, they gather in groups of four or five and when called upon -- to aid protesters exposed to tear gas or injured in clashes with police -- they sprint through the crowd, medical kits in hand.

Volunteer doctors (left to right) Cagatay Nuhoglu, Halit Alvet Guner, and Gorkem Godaelioglu rely on the app to target aid to the protesters.
Volunteer doctors (left to right) Cagatay Nuhoglu, Halit Alvet Guner, and Gorkem Godaelioglu rely on the app to target aid to the protesters.

Cagatay Nuhoglu, 23, a first-year doctor and member of the Turkish Medicine Association, spoke to RFE/RL just as he finished treating an injured demonstrator.

He says WhatsApp helps his team of doctors circumvent possible disinformation flying around on Twitter and determine precisely where to position themselves to best serve the protesters. "There is lots of disinformation and we use WhatsApp groups -- for the real information and the real friends," Nuhoglu says.

Local blogger and social-media expert Arzu Geybulla says that while she does not rank WhatsApp in importance with Twitter or Facebook, she believes it is crucial to spreading information within exclusive groups.

A WhatsApp message that had been forwarded to her during the first days of the protests listed doctors willing to treat people for free and private apartments equipped with first-aid kits. "People were asking to distribute it among the group instead of putting it on Facebook, because they thought maybe police could hijack the names of the people," Geybulla says.

Erdem Gunes, a journalist at the Istanbul-based "Hurriyet" daily, says his contact list on WhatsApp has helped him attain information before it spreads on social media and also aids organizers of the protests. "Someone -- I don't know, say in Gezi Park -- says we need this and someone [else] takes it [to them]," he says.

Unwelcome Scrutiny

Although WhatsApp has mostly flown under the radar as a protest tool, the company, which last year boasted 18 billion messages processed in a single day, has received unwanted attention from the authorities in some countries.

In Saudi Arabia this week the Communications and Information Technology Commission suspended services on Viber, a similar but smaller-scale messaging service, and the authorities have threatened to do the same to WhatsApp.

The app has also been criticized by privacy-rights advocates, who say the service puts users' personal information at risk while giving them what may be a false sense of security.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.