The authoritarian surveillant assemblage: Authoritarian state surveillance in Turkey

In January 2018, the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebel forces launched a military operation against Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters in Afrin in Northern Syria. In the aftermath, Turkish authorities arrested, detained, and prosecuted 648 people for social media posts criticizing the military operation. In addition to state actors, civilian informants were involved in monitoring and reporting these social media dissidents. Turkish authorities also targeted groups holding public protests. Notably, 15 Boğaziçi University students were detained after President Erdoğan called them “communist, traitor terrorist youngsters” and announced police would “identify each and every one of them using surveillance camera footage.” Erdoğan urged the university’s rector and professors to be alert and distance themselves from “terrorist students.” Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets operated as government propaganda organs to legitimize the military action and suppression of dissenters.

The short period following the Afrin Operation reveals some of the main dynamics of Turkey’s authoritarian state surveillance regime. It operates through the complex interactions among once discrete surveillance systems, including a protest and dissent surveillance system, an internet surveillance system, a synoptic media surveillance system, and an informant–collaborator surveillance system. Rather than having fixed boundaries, these systems continuously expand their capabilities, connections, and reach. Multiple actors of surveillance operate within them and cooperate with one another. These actors include the riot police, social media monitoring agents, intelligence officers, pro-government trolls, hackers, secret witnesses, informants, and collaborators.

Based on these empirical realities, I tried to make theoretical sense of the model of surveillance that exists in Turkey. I turned to the surveillance studies literature and found Haggerty and Ericson’s (2000) concept of the surveillant assemblage (SA) highly useful. The SA model is relevant for Turkey because it highlights the unprecedented expansion of surveillance, the convergence of once discrete surveillance systems, and the increasing diversification of and collaboration among surveillance actors. However, upon further reflection on the capabilities of the Turkish authoritarian state in relation to the SA, I began to see the limitations of the latter. The SA concept, in its original formulation at least, puts the main emphasis on decentralized, uncoordinated, and multifaceted forms of surveillance and does not provide a sufficient analytical space to analyse how diverse surveillance systems could be appropriated by a state, in particular an authoritarian state, and used for the main purpose of controlling the population in a hierarchical manner, as in Turkey.

To build on and expand the SA concept, I draw on Michael Mann’s theory of state power and the authoritarian state to emphasize these capabilities of the authoritarian state, and producing what I call the “authoritarian surveillant assemblage” (ASA). The ASA is a complex entity with diverse and interconnected surveillance systems and actors. It is also a project of the authoritarian state rather than something that operates without a central coordinating authority or an overarching rationale. The authoritarian state mobilizes its despotic and infrastructural powers to assemble the diverse surveillance systems of the ASA to make them serve the overarching purpose of controlling the population and suppressing dissent. The ASA obeys the hierarchies of the authoritarian state so that the ruling party and its leader have the greatest discretion over how it operates. Its coercive capacity makes resistance a very difficult and costly endeavour.

Building on this theoretical framework, in the full paper, I analyse the four complex and interconnected systems of Turkey’s ASA mentioned above: a protest and dissent surveillance system, an internet surveillance system, a synoptic media surveillance system, and an informant–collaborator surveillance system. I demonstrate how each system has its own diverse and ever-expanding set of surveillance laws, actors, and technologies. It also shows how each, at the same time, is coordinated by the Turkish authoritarian state, ruled by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), to control the population. I also note that the increasing repressive capacity of Turkey’s ASA is not necessarily an indicator of its invincibility, stability, or longevity. This is especially so considering that around 50% of Turkey’s citizens continue to vote against Erdoğan, and many people, despite the increased risk of prosecution, still voice dissent.

The ASA concept has relevance for other contexts beyond Turkey, given the global march of authoritarianism. Future research should examine the extent to which surveillance practices in other authoritarian contexts exhibit patterns central to the ASA model.

For more, read Topak’s article in Security Dialogue, volume 50, issue 5.

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