Of course, 140 Journos’s popularity raises larger questions about the extent to which information spread via social media can be considered reliable. 140 Journos itself never publishes commentary, and removes any tweet traced to a different location than the one reported. Others following the group’s lead may not be so scrupulous, but many think that’s a risk worth taking. “There is a huge potential of distortion and manipulation in social media,” reflected Esra Arsan, a professor of journalism at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “But in Turkey, in my country, these people are trying to spread real information. It’s not a big step. But it’s something.” Arsan was a print journalist until 1994, when she quit because it was becoming increasingly difficult to publish the kinds of stories she felt necessary.
Other members of the counter-media movement have chosen different ways of getting information to the public. Film director Imre Azem, 36, thinks visually, and draws connections between seemingly distinct but urgent urban issues in Istanbul in his award-winning documentary Ekümenopolis. A carpenter by day, Azem created his film primarily to provide an informative framework for people to unite around critical issues, ranging from the rise of squatter communities to the environmental damage to Istanbul’s last water reserves that a proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus would cause. “I wanted to bring about criticism of the system, but on a tangible level,” said Azem. “Something concrete and visible. There’s a lot of information that’s not visible, but has concrete manifestations.”
In Turkish cinemas, Ekümenopolis has only been seen by about 7,000 people, barely enough to cover its production costs. Most of those viewers have seen it through one of about 50 special screenings at festivals, at universities, and in neighborhoods. These screenings often include discussion groups. “People were saying that the film really gave them the tools to discuss these issues,” said Azem.
Counter-media is spreading even beyond documentary filmmakers and 140 Journos. The latter is, itself, actually part of the Institute of Creative Minds (also cofounded by Onder), which works to bring contentious issues like urban renewal to the public discourse. Another institute project called “Sound Space” is an interactive exhibit, which ran at the Istanbul Modern museum from October to December, that recreates the sounds of Istanbul neighborhoods in danger of destruction, like Tarlabasi and Sulukule. In another project, volunteers projected a realtime Twitter debate about nuclear energy in Turkey onto the walls of the Galata Tower, complete with audience participation and a small panel of experts.
Independent of the Institute of Creative Minds’ other endeavors, however, 140 Journos is quickly turning into a full-time enterprise. The organization is currently transitioning to a revenue model and, over the next few months, Onder hopes to implement a quality-checking system similar to that of Wikipedia’s. He also plans to release unique platform for 140 Journos soon, freeing them from third-party applications like Twitter. Such an app would make creating content even easier, and would widen the potential for anyone, hypothetically, to become a citizen journalist.
“We have to do this,” he reflected. “People are waiting.” But Onder remains wary of the fate of his organization in Turkey, and fears legal or illegal checks—or worse—on its activity from the government. He’s decided to rent server space in the Netherlands, which recently passed net neutrality legislation, so that the government can’t block the content.
We finish our lemonade, pay, and head back out to the crowded street; Onder has some tasks to take care of at his new office. He carefully slips his iPad into his messenger bag, which he slings over his shoulder, and we part ways. With his black T-shirt, sneakers and cargo shorts, he looks like any other Turkish student strolling through the center of town. He passes the Galata Tower, around which the police have resumed a restricted zone to prevent large crowds from gathering, and soon blends in with the bustle of Istanbul.