The only thing not known how to be dealt with: Political humor as a weapon during Gezi Park Protests

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DOI: 10.1515/humor-2015-0094
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Abstract
This study investigates the underlying grounds and outcomes of nationwide antigovernment demonstrations that began as an environmentalist protest against the razing of Gezi Park in Istanbul. Humor became a weapon for the protestors for targeting and degrading Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the government and the police forces. Captions, caricatures, graffiti, posters and slogans that were used as a means for humorous criticism of social reality in Turkey proliferated during and after this period. The slogan “the only thing they do not know how to deal with is passive activism and humor” was prevalent among protestors. The phrase ‘disproportionate intelligence’, which was used as an umbrella term for all humorous material, showed the protestors’ effort to react to the disproportionate violence they were exposed to while positioning themselves as more civilized and able as compared to the police and the government who could only resort to violence. This study includes semiotic analyses of composition and content of examples with humorous content.
Şenay Yavuz Görkem*
The only thing not known how to be dealt
with: Political humor as a weapon during
Gezi Park Protests
DOI 10.1515/humor-2015-0094
Abstract: This study investigates the underlying grounds and outcomes of nation-
wide antigovernment demonstrations that began as an environmentalist protest
against the razing of Gezi Park in Istanbul. Humor became a weapon for the
protestors for targeting and degrading Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan, the government and the police forces. Captions, caricatures, graffiti,
posters and slogans that were used as a means for humorous criticism of social
reality in Turkey proliferated during and after this period. The slogan the only
thing they do not know how to deal with is passive activism and humorwas
prevalent among protestors. The phrase disproportionate intelligence, which was
used as an umbrella term for all humorous material, showed the protestorseffort to
react to the disproportionate violence they were exposed to while positioning
themselves as more civilized and able as compared to the police and the govern-
ment who could only resort to violence. This study includes semiotic analyses of
composition and content of examples with humorous content.
Keywords: political humor, rhetoric, social media, Gezi park, digital activism
1 Background
Following the Turkish Prime Ministers announcement of the project that aimed
to rearrange Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Istanbul, an environmentalist
protest began. The project included the construction of a museum, a mosque,
a replica of an Ottoman-style military barrack, and a shopping mall with
residences. As Gezi Park is almost the only green area in Taksim, the heart of
Istanbul, a megacity of 14 million, environmentalists gathered in Gezi Park and
organized a sit-in on Gezi Park to protest against the project. Many people
claimed that the project was a win-win deal between the government and its
proponents.
*Corresponding author: Şenay Yavuz Görkem, T.C. Maltepe Üniversitesi, Marmara Eğitim Köyü
34857 Maltepe-İSTANBUL, İstanbul 34857, Turkey, E-mail: senayyavuz@maltepe.edu.tr
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The Taksim Platform invited people to stand up for Taksimwhen bulldo-
zers tore down the walls of Gezi Park on May 27, 2013. A group of fifty people
gathered in Taksim Gezi Park right after this announcement. For the next three
days, a growing number of people kept watch and guarded the park and the
police struggled to get them out, but failed. When police forces staged a raid
on the Gezi Park tent encampment at 5:00 AM on May 30, 2013, the protest
turned into resistance not only against the project but also against the govern-
ment, especially the prime minister. The audio-visuals of peaceful protestors
reading books under the shadow of the trees that they were trying to protect
and the police attacking them with water cannons and tear gas before dawn
led to a public outrage (Bölükbaşı 2013: 18). The outrage was aimed at the
prime minister. He was criticized for using excessive force against his own
population.
A snowball effect took place and thousands of people flooded the streets of
Istanbul chanting vociferously against the prime minister. As people decide to
mobilize or immobilize by weighing the opportunity structures and how success-
ful the protest might turn out to be (Brauer and Schumann 2014: 150), the first
group of protestors who flooded the streets encouraged the others who were
already discontent with the governments policies to join in. Within hours,
people from neighborhoods of varying distance to Taksim started traveling to
the park on foot, as the police had shut down public transportation and had
closed the main thoroughfares to cars. A visual showing the Bosporus Bridge
filled with hundreds of people trying to reach Gezi Park was a significant
example to this effort (Bölükbaşı 2013: 62). Protests began to reach unprece-
dented levels both in sheer numbers and bold discourse. Millions of people
flooded the streets of many cities in Turkey and protested against the govern-
ment with slogans that reflected their criticisms in a very direct and bold
manner. Protestors showed that they were not afraid of the government with
their fearless statements.
Protests spread all over Turkey. By June 6, 2013, 746 protests supporting
Gezi Park were organized in 79 out of 81 cities in Turkey. According to a report of
Turkish Medical Association dated June 20, 2013, 7,836 people in thirteen cities
had to be taken to hospitals, sixty people were seriously injured, 101 people
suffered head traumas, eleven lost sight, and five people died (Göncü 2013: 11, 18).
In many cities, numerous people gathered and shouted out the slogan everywhere
Taksim, everywhere resistance!and the government resign.People started
carrying placards saying Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Expiry Date: 31.05.2013.It
was no longer a matter of saving a few treesas Erdoğan said later, it was a
movement against the practices of the government, especially against its
leader Erdoğan.
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People criticized the prime minister for not being democratic. This was the
first time Erdoğan, who had always had the support of most of the rural,
socially, and religiously conservative population and quite a high percentage
of the urban, more non-conservative population, had faced opposition and
resistance in his eleven-year rule (May 2013: 298). Although democracy is the
political notion that he most often uses in his speeches named On the Path of
Service to Nation(Özel and Yolçu 2014: 345), he was accused of being anti-
democratic. He was also accused of dragging Turkey into war with Syria with his
foreign policy and acting as Esad whom he called a dictator who did not take his
publics criticism into consideration and resign. Each day the crowds swelled to
tens of thousands and the clashes between the police and the protestors became
more hostile. As Salamey and Pearson (2012: 937) put forward:
Revolutionary outbreaks cannot be understood in terms of incidental or sudden eruptions,
but as an accumulation of political experiences gained by the people over time: these
expressions can only fully blossom under the right conditions and are seemingly mani-
fested in popular revolts against the stating order.
The prime minister responded to the events in Taksim 24 hours later. He
criticized protestors and accused them of causing public disorder, chaos and
harming public property. He informed the public about the number of properties
that had been harmed, which backed his accusation that the protestors were
vandals. He did not mention the number of injured and dead people, which
made the protestors more enraged. He called those protestors çapulcu, which
means looter or vandal in Turkish. The protestors turned this criticism into an
opportunity and started defining themselves as çapulcu with pride. Many people
used the word like a nickname in their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The word
was transferred to English as chapuller with pejorative meanings such resis-
tance to force,demand justice,seek ones right(Kılıç 2013: 134135).
Prime Minister Erdoğan also called the protestors terrorists,”“pawns of
international powers,and provokers from the marginal sects of society.
He stated that shameless people took the Turkish flag in their hands commit-
ting anti-democratic, lawless actions.(May 2013: 299). Erdoğan defined these
protests as an attempt for a military coup to overthrow Turkeys ruling Justice
and Development Party (AKP). He asserted that Gezi Park protests were the
result of planned activities of interest groups, international media, capitalist
groups and labor unions. He ensured the public that Gezi Park was a conspiracy
planned by the Jewish lobby and the American Enterprise Institute under the
code name of Istanbul Uprising three months prior (May 2013: 299). He in no
way agreed to define the protests as a public resistance against his governments
and his own practices but defined the protests as a conspiracy planned by the
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governments enemies in Turkey, especially the opposing political parties, and
Turkeys international enemies for which many good-hearted Turkish people
became a pawn.
Different ethnic groups, people of different ideologies, religious orienta-
tions, sexual orientations and lifestyles, and fans of rival football clubs
who would not normally have tolerated each other at all united during this
process. Images of Kurdish and Turkish youth, a female with a headscarf and a
girl covered in tattoos protesting against the government together, religious
youth praying while their non-conservative peers are acting as a human wall
to protect them from the police, gays and lesbians stating their discontent with
government policies and uniting with other protestors all added to the feeling
that Gezi Park protests were generated by the public. Anti-capitalist Muslim
youth carried placards saying property belongs to God; capitalism, get lost
(İşeri et al. 2013). These conservative groups attracted more attention as Erdoğan
had always followed conservative policies. The factors that amalgamated these
groups could be listed as the authoritarian attitude of the prime minister,
violation of democratic rights, different peoples discontent with Erdoğans
policies, disproportionate violence towards the protestors, silence of the main-
stream media and the belief that the government was bargaining away green
areas to capital for benefits.
A miniature pitch battle took place in Taksim for Gezi Park on June 11, 2013.
The police attacked with tear gas and armored water cannons designed to
control riots. Some protestors burned vehicles and barricaded against the police
forces. Between June 13 and 15, 2013 meetings with Governor Mutlu and the
Prime Minister Erdoğan were organized. Some avant-garde protests such as the
standing manwere added to the protestorsrepertoire during this time. The
protests followed an undulant pattern but came to an end by the end of June
(Bölükbaşı 2013: 226329).
2 The Bermuda Triangle of the protests:
Rhetoric, humor, and social media
In addition to the physical struggle going on between the police force and the
protestors, a cyber war had also been going on between the protestors, the
supporters of protestors and the government and its supporters. This cyber war
was a rhetorical one; both the protestors and the government used rhetorical
elements to degrade the other partys credibility and gain the support of a
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larger audience. Social media was an important battleground of this war
and humorous texts on which semiotic analyses of composition and content
will be conducted later in this study acted as a means to degrade the other
partys credibility and gain more supporters. Both the government and the
protestors used Aristotles rhetorical elements offline and online to persuade
the public and to get their support. Some offline examples will be covered in
this section and online examples will be discussed in detail later in the
analysis section.
Aristotle focused on audience psychology and claimed that available means
of persuasion could be inartistic or artistic. Inartistic proofs are the ones that the
speaker does not create such as documents or testimonies. Artistic proofs are
those that the speaker creates and are divided into three as logos (logical),
pathos (emotional) and ethos (ethical). The element of logos appeal to peoples
mind with reason-based discussion and logical statements whereas the element
of pathos aims to draw a feeling such as anger, mildness, friendship, hatred,
fear, confidence, indignation, or pity out of the hearers. Ethos of the speaker is
another important element that affects the reaction of an audience to a speech
and involves the credibility, perceived intelligence, shared values, virtuous
character and goodwill of the speaker (Griffin 2012: 289294).
Rhetoric is an important tool used during the protests by both the protestors
and the opposing parties. Milners research, for example shows how rhetorical
appeals, namely, pathos and ethos are used to foster participation (2013: 2372,
2385). During and after the protests, the protestors tried to craft logical and
emotional appeals to the general public and build a credible, virtuous character
for protestors to get widespread public support. They also aimed to degrade the
ethos of the government, police force and especially Prime Minister Erdoğan as
he was the most influential figure in the country. The prime minister and the
government also used all rhetorical elements and justified their actions with
logical claims such as the number of damaged public properties or the harm to
the economy of the country. They also crafted emotional appeals that made the
public angry with the protestors. The prime ministers reaction of calling the
protestors chapulleror marginalized groupscan be interpreted as an attempt
to degrade their ethos.
Some of the information shared in social media was real and informing,
whereas some of the information was false. Some of the messages used
Aristotles rhetorical element of pathos. They included protestors describing
their situation with statements such as the police are attacking us, they are
going to kill us right here, right now. Help!It should be noted here that some of
these messages were real; but some were fake messages designed to motivate
people to join the protests physically or virtually. The statements reporting fake
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deaths and fatal injuries were other examples of misinformation that appealed
to emotions. Numbers were also manipulated to attract more protestors by using
the rhetorical element of logos and appealing to peoples logic. Visuals showing
hundreds of people on the streets were used to make people think that they were
not alone and that was the perfect time to get together with people on the streets
and stand up for their rights.
Prime Minister Erdoğan also used pathos and appealed to peoples emotions
by claiming the protestors drank alcohol in a mosque that they used as a shelter
and that he had proof. However, the muezzin in charge refuted this claim and
stated that no such thing had happened in the mosque. Erdoğan also organized
a public meeting in Kazlıçeşme where he showed his supporters and protestors
that thousands of people were content with his policies and raged at the
protestors for criticizing him. He called for conservative masses to gather at
meetings against the protestors to alarm the public that the hell of an anarchic
state was at the door (Kılıç 2013: 139).
Ethos, the credibility of the speaker, was another rhetorical element used
by the protestors. The visuals that were used during the protests included
educated, well-dressed, charismatic and globally exposed young people
enduring violence, standing still for their rights by engaging in civil disobe-
dience. Visuals of protestors giving shelter to stray dogs and cats caught in the
tear gas, cleaning Taksim, establishing a free library and reading to riot police
all created credibility for protestors. On the other hand, Prime Minister
Erdoğan also acted with strong determination and stood firm, making clear
that he would not make any compromises, adding to his credibility in the eyes
of his supporters.
There is no doubt that the advances in information technology amputated a
limb of the governments ability to control and censor information. The web
became “…avirtual agorawhich facilitated the free exchange of ideas …” and
is therefore a potentially important public sphere for its limitless access, the
equality among members, the openness with regard to topics and the incomple-
teness of the participants (Drüeke 2014: 59). Protestors used social media such as
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as a springboard to break down obstructive
barriers and to diffuse information without censorship. A cyber war, as afore-
mentioned, took place. The war was a rhetorical one and humor was an impor-
tant means of attacking the opponent. A form of liquid leadership emerged on
social media: different protestors emerged as leaders in accordance with the
intensity of their activism efforts and led the protestors at different points. They,
in a way, choreographed the protests (Gerbaudo 2012: 163).
The number of tweets sent from May 31 to June 11, 2013 was 22 million
according to the New York University Social Media and Political Participation
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Lab. Of those tweets, two million were sent in the first twelve-hour period of
May 31, 2013. The first fourteen days of the protests were reflected on
cyberspace, with 13.5 million different videos, photos, and comments (Kılıç
2013: 136137). Protestors produced and shared numerous info-stimuli during
this process to form a public view of the movement and to guide the people
join the protest.
Most of the stimuli that the protestors used during and after the protests
used humor as a weapon. One slogan often shared said the only thing that they
dont know how to deal with is humor and passive activism,which invited
everyone to engage in passive activism, keep away from violence and use humor
as a weapon to achieve their goals. Humor was used to create solidarity among
protestors and supporters.
One example that shows how humor was used to create solidarity and
degrade the other partys ethos came into being when the governor of
Istanbul, Hüseyin Mutlu called for mothers to bring their children homeas
the protestors were mainly young people. Contrary to his expectations, dozens of
mothers flooded Taksim Square and created a human wall between the protes-
tors and the riot police. Their main slogans were everywhere mothers, every-
where demonstrationsand mothers are here, where is the prime minister?
(May 2013: 299). The fact that the mothers, some of whom were wearing head-
scarves, some of whom were trying to feed the young protestors with home-
made food and backing their kids up in their resistance was used against the
prime minister as one of his claims that the protestors were provokers from
marginal sects of society was refuted. Visuals of ordinarymothers were used
with the statements of the prime minister for humorous effect.
The slogans often used in Gezi protests, cheers Tayyip,”“you banned
alcohol, now we are awake,or do you want three more children like us?
were also examples to offline humorous dissent. These slogans reflected non-
conservative publics discontent with Erdoğans social policies. Many people
argued that his statements were becoming ultraconservative, as his party
became more and more powerful with no threat of political opposition in the
parliament. The Justice and Development Party had 327 seats, the next largest
party, the Republican Peoples Party, had 135 seats in parliament at the time. He
stated that contraception, abortion, and cesarean sections should be illegal,
women should have at least three children, and that male and female university
students should not stay in the same houses. He also passed a bill restricting the
sale of alcohol between the hours of 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM. He called Atatürk
and his successor İsmet İnönü a pair of drunksand directed the question
why are their laws sacred and one that is ordered by religion deemed objec-
tionable?He continued by saying that anyone who drinks a sip of alcohol is
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an alcoholic.(May 2013: 300). The slogans above were humorous criticisms of
the prime ministers social policies.
Online humorous messages spread rapidly across the web for many reasons.
First, the use of humorous messages made participation in the protests more
convenient and less burdensome. The lack of regulation and anarchic ethos of
cyberspace, together with the fact that there is no editorial control, encouraged
people to join in the cyber protestors. The fact that people were just sharing
humorous texts that could not be attributed to a particular author or creator just
for funand the feeling that they could not be accused of doing so encouraged
people. As more people used humorous content to criticize the government and
the prime minister, joining cyber protests and criticizing the government via
humor became more normaland more people were encouraged to do the same.
People who could not participate physically felt they were taking active part by
posting and sharing humorous messages online.
In addition, the fact that social media messages had to be short and catchy
as long statements have less chances of grabbing attention and being read on
social media also created a tendency for short, humorous content. Ethan
Zuckermanscute cat theory of social mediapoint to the fact that instead of
long and serious texts, people tend to share humorous short texts or visuals
(Gerbaudo 2012: 148). As protestors were mostly young people who grew up
reading humor magazines like Leman, which had already published its Gezi
special issue, creating humorous content was not difficult and sharing the
humorous content was a pleasure for most people.
In comparison to dry political messages, people tempted to share humorous
content, as it is accepted Internet behavior to forward something that makes
you laugh and people do not need to fear opprobrium. Online social reality
is approached as fantasy or as if it exists just for fun(Shifman et al. 2007: 468469).
Although Facebook and Twitter changed the way people expressed themselves on
the Internet and people build virtual personalities on social media instead of using
anonymous or fictional personalities which Žižek calls interfaceas in the 1990s
(Aşkın 2014: 222223), cyberspace still gives people the feeling that their activities will
not lead to real-world consequences. That is why people could adopt more informal,
whimsical and humorous stances. The fact that humor changes the tone of criticism
into a lighter form also lessened peoplesfear.
Another reason why humorous content was used is its ability to attract
attention and get people involved in the subject, even if the subject falls outside
of their area of interest. Humor is a good means of getting people engaged
in something. As we live in a world of super panopticon where everybody
has become the big brother,watching others through social media (Aydemir
Advan 2014: 203; Demirtaşand Telci 2014: 208), humorous content that was
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shared was seen by people who were not interested in the protests at all.
According to the Turkish Statistics Institute, 73.2% of Turkish Internet users access
the Internet to join social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
(Demirtaşand Telci 2014: 217). Turkey has the seventh largest population of
people using Facebook. By March 7, 2013, over 32 million had Facebook accounts
in Turkey (Aşkın 2014: 224). Therefore, it would not be wrong to conclude that
many Turkish Facebook users, even the ones who were not interested in the cause
and claims of the protestors, were exposed to information about what was going
on through humorous content that spread virtually.
3 Humor as a weapon
Tsakona and Popa assert that humor can be used for many purposes. It can be
used to lead publics to question the effectiveness of political decisions and
practices. It does so by bringing the inconsistencies and inadequacy of political
practices to the surface and by revealing the incompetence, recklessness and
corruption of political leaders. Thus, it can be used as a tool for initiating and
leading resistance to political oppression and social injustice. Humor can also be
used for the purposes of deconstructing social reality and, at the same time,
creating and proposing an alternative one.(2011: 1, 6). Humor can serve the
purposes of undermining power structures, convincing an audience of the
legitimacy of a given interpretation of reality, gaining the attention and sym-
pathy of an audience and create persuasive energy (Carlson 2008: 3435).
Badarneh (2011: 305, 307) notes that just like a carnival does, use of humorous
content in a repressive environment helps to create a second world alternative to
the one created by the oppressive regime by acting as a means to regain self-
respect and the spirit of freedom. It should be noted here that humorous content
was used for all these purposes during and after the protests.
Humor has been a tool for passive resistance and political resentment for long
(Tsakona and Popa 2011: 13). It can be used as a safe release of aggressiveness
against a superior force, as a vehicle for expressing popular disdain or for ques-
tioning the legitimacy of the political system (Badarneh 2011: 306, 307). As Orwell
states every joke is a tiny revolution Whatever destroys dignity, and brings
down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny.(Orwell
1968: 284). By taking Hobbessuperiority theory as the basis, Monro (1988: 350)
states that laughter is a kind of sudden victory. It provides a sense of self-esteem
to the party who laughs.Being laughed at is always something that degrades
peoples reputation, be it in kindergarten or in politics. Both parties compete
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against each other and laughter becomes the criterion that determines the winner.
According to superiority theory, laughter gives the feeling that the ones laughing
are superior to others. When humor is used by one party against the other, the
party that laughs over the other feel that they are the winners.
Humorous content was mostly delivered with the title disproportionate
intelligence from Geziindicating that the government could use disproportion-
ate violence as it had its police force; however, protestors were intelligent and
thus able to deal with the violence they had to face. Another implication of the
use of the title disproportionate intelligenceis that violence is seen as a
primitive act. It is the most primitive expression of anger. Humor, on the other
hand, requires higher order intellectual skills. Protestors defined themselves as
more intelligent people who were reacting to the disproportionate violence
directed at them by just using their sense of humor. This observation confirms
Davies (1998: 65):
We may see jokes about stupid outsiders as an affirmation of the value of rationality,
efficiency and applied intelligence on the part of the joketellers, for any failure to live up to
and conform to these qualities is ascribed to outsiders and then subjected to ridicule. It is
they who are comically stupid and irrational and we who are intelligent, skilled and
organized.
Within this framework, the protestorsattempts to define themselves as more
intelligent than the government, its police force, and the supporters of the
government can be interpreted as a reflection of their effort to build a superior
position for themselves and to get an edge over the competition against the
prime minister and the government. Protestors struggled to feel and portray
themselves as superior in accordance with the superiority theory of humor. This
attempt also served to gain a larger audience and supporters by enhancing the
ethos of the protestors and degrading the credibility of their opponents.
A proliferation of online jokes, captions, caricatures and graffiti during and
after Gezi Park protests was an example of how humor could be used as a means
of political critique and contestation. For example, Ünsay and Ügümü (2014: 249)
found that captions, which are the visuals of popular individuals or situations to
which a literary expression with a humorous or critical content is added, were
used as a strong means for criticism and digital activism during Gezi Park protests.
In the Gezi Park protests, it should be noted that the humorous content was
mostly targeted at the Prime Minister Erdoğan due to the fact that he was the
most influential figure in the country; the main aim was to degrade the ethos of
the prime minister.
As humor is harmless, playful, pervasive and positively evaluated, most of
the content that aimed to criticize the government and the prime minister was
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humorous. Humor turns political critique into a respectively humblegame.
Dissent is voiced in a pleasant and harmless way via humor. Criticism in the
form of humor does not pose any serious threat against the status quo, politi-
cians or the wider audience (Tsakona and Popa 2011: 11). As Dundees put
forward: jokes are, by definition, impersonal. They provide a socially sanc-
tioned frame that normally absolves individuals from any guilt that might
otherwise result from conversational articulation of the same content(Davies
1998: 175). Therefore, protestors who express themselves via humor do not face
the serious consequences that people who express themselves directly and
openly in oppressive regimes face. Humor also makes it easier for politicians
to deal with criticism. They have the opportunity to dismiss it as mere joking or
reply back with humorous content.
Humor was the most pervasive and popular discourse during and after the
protests. As Simpson (2003: 52) puts forward humor can be defined as a military
weapon with two ingredients; wit or humor that is based on a sense of the
absurd and an object of attack. The object of attack in the present case was
Erdoğan and his government. The ethos or credibility of a leader is the most
important battleground of politics (Rolfe 2010: 365). The majority of people vote
for leaders, not political parties in Turkey, like in many other countries.
Degrading the prime ministers ethos was significant in this respect as protestors
were discontent with Erdoğans policies and hoped to have another party rule
Turkey in the future. Accusations of lies, conspiracy, being self-regarding and
deceitful, delivered in a humorous and light tone though aimed to harm the
ethos and political legitimacy of the prime minister and his government.
4 Methodology
The roots of semiotics go back to the time of Aristotle. The study of sema, or
signs, became the prerogative of philosophers during this time. Stoic philoso-
phers were the first to investigate word-signs in three steps: the physical word
itself (the sounds that make up the word), the referent to which it calls attention
and its evocation of a psychological or social meaning. It was later expended
and developed by scholars such as Saussure, Peirce, Morris and Barthes to name
a few (Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 1314).
Barthes is the academic who elaborated on the role of humor in the demys-
tification of political messages. Demystification is a process where individuals
realize obviously falsemessages. Myths, which are the codes for all types of
communication, have to be unveiled to reach the meaning of the message.
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As Barthes introduced the role of humor to the field of semiotics (Penn 2000:
241), his model serves as the framework of this study. The aim of this study is to
interpret the verbal and non-verbal signs that create humorous content. All
aspects of composition and content that contribute to overall signification
were analyzed. Political and cultural referent systems by which verbal and
non-verbal signs can be interpreted are unveiled during the analysis (Penn
2000: 244).
The visuals in this study were selected on a purposeful means. As Panzaru
(2012: 410411) states visual images are memorable, easy to digest, capable of
evoking an emotional response instantly and a quick way to communicate
ideas. They affect cognitive processes and increase comprehension, recollec-
tion and retention. Thus, they serve as a means to attract attention, motivate
people and influence their attitudes and decision-making. That is why they
were utilized frequently during and after the protests. As Milner (2013: 2361)
argues, producing various visuals that reflect political criticism in a humorous
way is a way of combining pop participation and political engagement and
increasing polyvocality. However, during Gezi Park protests, protestors were
the party that produced humorous content and the supporters of the govern-
ment did not reply to these statements very often. That is why the sample of
the present study comprises only the visuals created by the protestors and thus
do not reflect polyvocality during the specific time period.
For the purposes of this study, the visuals that were shared most often and
the ones that are not totally bound to the Turkish culture and thus have the
potential to be transferred to people outside the Turkish society were chosen.
The sample comprises different types of humorous content that are mostly
anonymous.
5 Analysis
Figure 1 demonstrates the role of the youth in Gezi protests and how they were
given credit for their efforts. The current generation of Turkish youth is often
criticized by their elders for being irresponsible and egotistical. However, they
became the leaders of the protests. The caricature, taken from the special issue of
Leman, a Turkish humor magazine, for the Gezi protests depicts a typical teen
room with posters and basic furniture. The items on the table include a bottle of
water, a gas mask, and a helmet, and the teen is about to put a piece of lemon
that he has taken out of his bag on the table. These elements denote that the
young individual is a protestor as those were the main things every protestor
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needed. At a connotational level, the elements on the table suggest that the
protestors are innocent people trying to protect themselves as they have no
weapons but basic things that they need for protection in their bags. The posters
on the wall: the poster of Alex, a famous football player, transformers and Che
Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary figure, denotes that the fact that the teen is
interested in science fiction films based on toy lines or football does not mean that
he is not interested in politics and appreciates revolutionists. The teen appears to
be ordinary with colorful clothes and a Deep Purple t-shirt. The father, in his
pyjamas, typical of a Turkish father, says, I have been his father for 22 years,
I have never thought I would wimp out and respect him. I cannot even say this is
not a hotel, this is a home.Turkish society is a patriarchal one; fathers are
important figures. Many parents have rules and do not tolerate their children
Figure 1: I have never thought I would wimp out and respect him(Leman Humor
Magazine, 2014 May).
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coming home late at night. The pajamas of the father connotes that the father
represents the conservative part of the society. Is this home a hotel?is a typical
humorous statement of Turkish parents. This caricature depicts a young Gezi
protestor who could go home after a day or two to get a few hours of sleep and
instead of getting criticized for that, he earns respect from his parents. The
mothersstatementshush, let him sleep for a few hours, he is tired. Clean his
helmetreflects this appreciation. Turkish youth, who led the protests, is praised
and heroized in this caricature by humor as the means. The caricature aims to
enhance the ethos or credibility of the protestors.
Figure 2 is a caption featuring the following parts: a visual showing the
police and the water cannons that were used aside tear gas and rubber bullets
Figure 2: Tomakracy is a system where the public waters itself (Akkuş2013: 79).
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against the protestors and a statement Tomakracy is a system where the
public waters itself.The statement is a humorous expression criticizing the
government for using its police force and water cannons against its own
citizens who were using their democratic right to protest. TOMA, the acronym
for intervention vehicle for social eventsin Turkish is blended with the word
democracy and a new word, tomacracy, is derived. This statement is an
attempt to underline the anomalous situation of a public hosed by the
government it elected. It implies that the notion of democracy is distorted
in Turkey and questions the legitimacy of the rulers elected in this distorted
system. The sentence structure, the subject public,and the active voice used
connotes a self-criticism, expressing that the public was suffering the con-
sequences of its decisions; that the public in Turkey voted a government,
which in turn, hosed them down for using their democratic right to protest.
However, considering the fact that most protestors were not supporters of the
government, the statement can also be read as a subtle accusation to the
voters of the Justice and Development Party for being unwise and electing
them. This visual and the statement might be considered as a way of illustrat-
ing that protestors were intelligent and the voters of the government were not,
and as a consequence their power in a distorted democratic system was not
legitimate. Davies (1998: 90) states that following every election in democratic
countries, it is not uncommon to see stickers proclaim dont blame me, I voted
X (i.e., for the losers).He asserts that it is this process of competition and
choice that is the basis of political legitimacy in a democracy. Therefore, this
figure can be read as protestors reaction to the voters of AKP. The colors used in
the word Tomacracy (blue, white, and red) are the colors of the French flag,
which connote the French revolution and its motto liberty, equality, and
fraternity.It would not be wrong to claim that those colors were chosen on
purpose to define the protests, in a subtle manner, as a revolution carried out for
liberty and equality in fraternity. The image reflects the disappointment and
sorrow of protestors with the way they were treated. The protestors were mostly
the ones who did not vote for AKP in the final elections. Thus, this statement
was a humorous reflection of this groups disappointment with the citizens who
voted the present government in and a means of calling the legitimacy of AKP
into question by implying that its voters were not wise enough to see the
outcome of their choice.
The visual in Figure 3 includes a reappropriation of an important moment of
Gezi protests. Reappropriations of moments during protests are not uncommon.
For example, Milner (2013: 2383) displays how Bert, a character from Sesame
Street, was replaced with a protestor in a Photoshop to show how even the
most innocent people were dragged off in handcuffs by the policemen. In the
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present case, a cutout of Ceyda Sungur, one of the iconic figures of the Gezi
protests and a policeman on a canvas backdrop was used as a reapproximation
to point to the innocence and dignity of the protestors. The photograph taken
while the policeman was spraying her with tear gas from a distance of almost
one meter became the symbol of disproportionate violence. Her outlook, her
non-reaction as her hair was waving in the air because of the gas made her look
noble and innocent, making the policeman look even more guilty (Figure 4). It is
obvious that the depiction of Ceyda Sungur, or the woman in red, with a cutout
for people interested in a photograph as a memento of the protests is intention-
ally oversized and the policeman is intentionally undersized. This attempt
results in making the woman in red look bigger and thus more powerful and
the policeman bantam and impotent. The background of the canvas is white
which makes other chromatic elements on the canvas more prominent to the
eye. This cutout exhibits an effort to express that the protests will be comme-
morated with respect to protestors and with disdain for the police force and the
government. This cutout also adds to the feeling of carnival and fun that
motivates the protestors.
Erdoğan uses uniting messages of important Sufis in his speeches to the
nation. In his nation speech named On the Path of Service to Nationon
February 27, 2013, he quoted from Sufi, philosopher-poet Mevlana Rumi and
Figure 3: A memento of the resistance (Göncü 2013: 79).
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said come,come,whoever you are.He also used an important Turkish Sûfî,
HacıBektaşVelis quotation: Donthurtevenifyouarehurt.Last, he quoted
from a Sufi, humanist poet Yunus Emre and said we love the created.Forthe
Creatorssake(Özel and Yolçu 2014: 348). Nonetheless, the disproportionate
violence directed at the protestors displayed that his humanistic statements
andhispracticesduringthistypeofcrisisdidnotmatch.Protestorswhose
ideas did not match the governments were not welcomed or tolerated and they
were hurt. The whirling dervish with the gas mask was a humorous means to
express the idea that even Mevlana, the most humanistic figure in Turkish
history, would have to wear a gas mask to protect himself from the govern-
mentsforcesifhewasalive(Figure5).Thisvisualexpressestheideathat
humanistic people with good faith were being exposed to disproportionate
violence to which they answered with a sama, the Mevlevi dance which
symbolizes the spiritual journey of a believer. Erdoğans humanistic state-
ments were used as a weapon against him.
The poster above (Figure 6) displays policemen amidst the clouds of tear gas. It
was designed as a festival poster to point to the irrationality of governmental
practices. The name of the event is Istanbul Inter-Class Gas Festival. The name
suggests, in a subtle manner, that a struggle between the infraclass and the ruling
class was taking place. The note under the auspices of the Turkish Republic
Figure 4: The woman
in red.
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Premiershipis a means to accuse the prime minister of creating the atmosphere in
the visual and causing people to be exposed to enormous amounts of tear gas. The
poster also thanks Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, the Mayor of Istanbul, for his valuable
contributions, which is a humorous way of criticizing him for not preventing the
violence that was taking place and not creating safety and welfare in the city which
he was supposed to protect and rule. The statement on the upper-right of the poster
(Follow the declarations of Prime Ministry, Police Headquarters and Governorship
for a Calendar of Events) points to the prime ministry, the police, and the mayor as
the ones responsiblefor the negative atmosphere created. The logos ofthe ministry,
police headquarters, and the logo of Istanbul as a candidate city for 2020 Summer
Olympics imply that these unfortunate clashes between the police and the people
and their consequences are all products of cooperation between those government
bodies and hence being a candidate for 2020 Summer Olympics was just humorous
considering the conditions of the city.
A mixture of Talcid (a medicine containing high amounts of antacid) and
water was used as a treatment to relieve the effects of tear gas. Some protestors
became Talcidmen (Figure 7), whose only goal during the protests was carrying
Figure 5: The whirling dervish with a gas mask (Akkuş2013: 25).
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the mixture and helping the ones suffering from tear gas. They became the
mobile first-aid stations of the protests. In the poster above, they are depicted as
superheroes whose philosophy is to serve and protect from those who are
supposed to serve and protect.
This humorous expression points to the irrationality of the situation. The
mission of the government is to serve its people and the mission of the police
force is to maintain safety. However, as the poster demonstrates, heroes had to
be created out of ordinary public to serve and protect others from the govern-
ment and its police force. Other slogans with similar content included state-
ments such as theres the police run!
The final visual is a collage using six different photographs taken during the
television show, Word Game. In the show, the contestants are given definitions
of words and asked to guess the words. In the show on June 3, 2013, all seventy
words were related to Gezi protests without any explicit mention of the events.
The seventy words that were asked and the way they were defined with their
denotations and connotations praised the protestors and criticized the prime
minister, police forces, the government and the media. The way the questions
were ordered was also meaningful. The questions that were asked were: Journey
Figure 6: İstanbul gas festival (Bölükbaşı 2013: 335).
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(Geziin Turkish), park, civilian, action, unity, awakening, youth, common
sense, public property, pacifism, vandalism, ballot box, plebiscite, provocateur,
public, tree, forest, Çarşı (the name of a very active and leading group during the
protests, a group composed of supporters of Beşiktaş, a football club), Taksim,
square, march, resistance, protest, freedom, solidarity, general strike, organiz-
ing, rebellion, public, ethics, the press, the media, silence, censor, reporter,
Twitter, journalist, bootlicker, cowardice, fabricated news, ask for trouble, cyber
space, intervention vehicle for social events, ask for mercy, police, law, lawyer,
violence, probation, barricade, withdraw, mercy, disproportionate, tear gas,
pressurized water, gas mask, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, public,
arrogance, despotic, conscious, aberration, chapuller, Reyhanlı(a town of
Mersin where two car bombs exploded and killed at least 51 and wounded 140
people, a terrorist event for which the government was criticized to have caused
because of its foreign policy with Syria), dictator, servant, prime ministry, resign
and apologize.
It is clear that the host of the program İhsan Varol purposefully asked the
word public three times to give the message that the protests were led by the
public, not marginalized groups. The words Gezi, park, tree, forest, Taksim,
square, freedom show that he appreciates the causes of the protestors. The
Figure 7: Talcidman (Bölükbaşı
2013: 334).
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words like awakening, civilian, youth, action, unity, march, resistance, protest,
organizing, solidarity, rebellion, general strike and Çarşı are an indirect way of
praising the protestors and supporting their resistance. Words like common
sense, public property, pacifism, vandalism, provocateur connote a warning
message to protestors. Starting with question number thirty, a humorous criti-
cism of Turkish media could be read between the words, the words listed one
after the other (ethics, the press, the media, silence, censor, reporter, Twitter,
journalist, bootlicker, cowardice, fabricated news, ask for trouble) accuse the
media of being unethical, cowards and bootlickers of the government and
keeping silent or fabricating news.
There is no doubt that mass media is an essential tool for a protest to get
widespread national and international support with its capabilities of agenda
setting and framing (Brauler 2014: 150). As Lippmann (1991) and McCombs
(2014) put forward mass media determines what the public thinks about and
from what perspective they view the event. The more something is covered on
mass media, the more people learn and talk about it (Akyazıet al. 2014: 187).
The perspective adopted when the news is delivered affects the way people view
the events. The Turkish media has always been a tool in reconstructing and
reinforcing the official ideology of the government and forming the collective
social memory (Aydın 2014: 578).
The extent to which the Turkish media can be controlled changes, though.
During the Gezi Park protests, the Turkish media was accused for being under
strict control of the government and for being dependent and subjective. Due
to the transformations in media ownership during the rule of AKP and the
seizure and tendering of almost all media corporations with an opposing
stance, it was not surprising that the Turkish media was lost in aspiralof
silenceduring Gezi protests. It was humorous that Sabah-ATV, an important
mass media group, was sold by Turkuvaz Media Group whose CEO is the
sibling of Berat Albayrak, Prime Minister Erdoğans son-in-law, to Kalyon
Construction. Kalyon Construction was the company that purchased the
Taksim Rearrangement Project, the cause of Gezi protests (Saran 2014: 365).
It would not be wrong to say here that the mainstream media gave more
coverage and provided the government with parallel agenda and favorable
opinions during and after the protests.
All major of news channels except for Halk TV refused to broadcast the
protests. Most of them continued with their broadcast stream during the first
police crackdown on May 31, 2013. One channel broadcast a documentary on
penguin migration, which later became the symbol of media blackout during the
protests. Others reported biased news, only showing protestors fighting against
the riot police and some of them harming public property while doing so. This
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media bias was to be expected as Turkey had the highest number of jailed
journalists since 2001. Anti-Terror Law #3713 seems to teachjournalists how
to self-censor themselves (May 2013: 300).
However, the protests became an important part of the media coverage all
over the world. CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Euronews, Reuters, AP, AFP, and other
international channels broadcast live from Taksim. Reporters and cameramen
became live witnesses to the events. The New York Times,theWashington Post,
the Telegraph,theGuardian,Time,Der Spiegel,theFinancial Times and many
other newspapers reported the protests with positive coverage for the protestors
and criticism for the prime minister (Bölükbaşı 2013: 116118; Kılıç 2013: 135). The
advertisement of the chapulling movement in the New York Times and Washington
Post, the hashtags such as #GeziParki, #OccupyGezi, #DirenGeziParki added to
this upsurge of international interest about what was happening in Turkey. The
advertisement in the New York Times invited people to join the conversation and
stand with protestors who demand an end to police brutality, free media, open
democratic dialogueand civil rights(Kılıç 2103: 137).
Returning to the discussion of Figure 8, words that were asked later in the
program criticized the disproportionate violence and the arrests, blamed the
prime minister of being merciless, arrogant, despotic, and dictatorial. The order
Figure 8: Word game.
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of the last four words (servant, prime ministry, resign, and apologize) was an
attempt to remind the prime minister that his mission should be to serve the
public and an invitation to him to apologize to the public and resign.
To constitute an example, some definitions and the words they defined
were selected and shared online during the protests. Figure 8 displays six
words and their definitions. The questions and answers from top left to bottom
right are: a public official whose occupation is named after a Greek word with
the meanings of city, site, government and government order.(police), the
secretion of intervention vehicles for social events(pressurized water), reten-
tion of someone somewhere by arm of the law for some time(probation),
something that has to be done sometimes to ease the tension, to step back, to
retreat(withdraw), gill for democracy(gas mask), vulgar power(vio-
lence), a block built by using every tool possible to obstruct a road or a
passage(barricade), and a humane sentiment that every person should have
no matter what their profession is(mercy). It is clear that İhsan Varol used
humor as a weapon for the purpose of social criticism; humor was the domi-
nant pattern in the denotations and the connotations.
6 Conclusion and discussion
More than a year has passed since the Gezi Park protests were put to an end.
More than ten young people died, eleven lost their sight, 104 suffered from head
traumas, 61 suffered from serious injuries, 3,584 were taken into custody, and
121 of these people were arrested. The Gezi Park protests created a more politic
youth. Many freshman students, for example, volunteered to be polling clerks
during the March 30, 2014 local elections, as these elections were seen as a
predictor of general elections. As illustrated by Figure 1, adults were surprised
by how the youth were involved in politics and were eager to take responsibility
and action.
Erdoğan held the stance that the AKP government strived against all obsta-
cles, attacks and hoaxes brought about by opposing parties and external powers.
He accused the opposing parties of trying to put an end to Turkeys achievements,
for creating an atmosphere of fear to keep Turkeys chronic problems from being
solved and for creating conspiracy theories. He also added that they would not
give into the demands of a certain minority (Özel and Yolçu 2014: 349).
The results of the local elections and the presidential election showed that
the Gezi protests and the way Erdoğan handled those protests did not cause a
significant vote loss. The protests and the humorous content that attempted to
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degrade Erdoğans reputation and his influence on the public did not produce
the desired outcome. Many reasons contributed to this result. One of the
main reasons could be the fact that many people do not make political choices
based on the protests or humorous content that supported those protests but
on deeply rooted beliefs, attitudes, tendencies or pragmatic benefits. The Justice
and Development Party has a large group of voters who are conservative people
who support AKP and feel a deeply rooted discontent with the Republican
Peoples party due to the Republican Peoples partys previous social policies
that affected conservative people. The Republican Peoples party, which was
founded by Atatürk, strived to create a modern and secular society out of an
emperorship where religion was a primary determinant of political and social
life. The Republican Peoples party ruled Turkey for years. In order to minimize
the effect of religion in politics and to avoid political reaction, this
party produced social policies that banned wearing headscarves at schools
and universities. People with headscarves could not work at government bodies
either. Conservative people that felt they had been suppressed for years
voted for the AKP with the hope that they would change those policies and
the AKP realized their demands. This group continued to support the AKP during
and after the protests no matter what other people said. The fact that people
tend to ignore content that contradicts with their beliefs and attitudes also
affected this process.
Another reason could be that Gezi protests were not covered in depth by the
media and the mainstream media reflected the governments agenda during the
protests. In accordance with this, many people, especially the middle-aged and
elderly people who did not follow the social media were not informed in depth
about the protests. As political humor is strongly tied to the contextual knowl-
edge that shapes it, these people could not process and interpret humorous texts
due to their lack of knowledge of the related political events. In other words,
these people and the creators of the humorous texts did not share a common
understanding about what happened and thus the message could not be
decoded effectively by the receiver. It was not possible for these middle-aged
and elderly people to comprehend the criticism reflected in the form of humor as
the elements in humorous content signify elements in social reality and could
only be interpreted in this framework. Media silence weakened the support that
the protests received and it got more difficult to degrade the governments and
the prime ministers reputation and gain floating votes in the local and presi-
dential elections that followed the protests. The results of the elections support
the argument that humor is a means to channel political resentments into a
harmless form by acting as a safety valve and this in turn serves to protect
regimes (Davies 1998: 85).
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Humor still continues to be used as a weapon. It seems that people who joined
or supported the protests still produce and follow humorous content as it gives them
a feeling of victory that they could not achieve in real life. As aforementioned,
humor actsas a means to feel better, superior and self-esteemed. It should be noted
here that humorous content being produced nowadays could be viewed as an
attempt to create hope in this division of the public as people lost their motivation
after the local and presidential elections. Tsakona and Popa (2011: 13) note that
humor plays a role in developing political consciousness necessary for challenge
and resistance and can be used as a morale boosting strategy by the oppressed.
Within the present framework, it would not be wrong to conclude that humor is
used for the purpose of maintaining the political consciousness that emerged and
peaked during Gezi protests and for maintaining the morale of the protestors who
faced the fact that a higher percentage of the population supported the government
they have been protesting against.
However, it should be noted here that the Gezi protests reflected the
discontent of millions of people with Erdoğans policies and ignoring these
peoples discontent and demands might cause unintended consequences. The
former Prime Minister, current President Erdoğan might be right in questioning
how Gezi Park events became organized quickly and got so wide-spread national
and international support in the blink of an eye; nonetheless, this does not change
the fact that quite a high percentage of Turkish people with different demo-
graphics but the same feeling of discontent with the policies of the minister
supported the events all over Turkey. It is the authors hope that a democratic
solution will be found to the contrasting demands and expectations of the
government and the protestors in the future.
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Bionote
Şenay Yavuz Görkem
Senay Yavuz Görkem is an Assistant Professor at Maltepe University. She completed her PhD
degree on corporate communication at İstanbul University in 2013. She has been lecturing at
Maltepe University since 1999. Her current academic interests include political humor and
digital activism.
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  • Article
    This study investigates the diffusion of a new political language based on humour and irony into Turkish politics. The Taksim Gezi Park Protests, in addition to introducing a new subject to Turkish politics, led to a new language that places humour at the centre. The Government’s neoliberal and authoritarian policies and tight control over traditional media shaped the resistance to be humoristic and indirect. People used alternative media to voice their dissent, mainly in the form of social media messages in addition to street performances, graffiti, videos and murals. This new wave of humour, which I prefer to call the “public square humour” emphasised creativity, improvisation and pluralism via the usage of traditional conversational humour mechanisms of the Turkish folk narratives. I investigate the effect of this new wave of humour on the professional politicians over the course of following years after the protests in an increasingly authoritarian political climate. I analyse the Twitter messages of four major party leaders and politicians who are active in Twitter, both qualitatively and quantitatively. With the methods of the discourse analysis I identify the political parties that embrace the new language of the political opposition. Finally, I conclude that Demirtas embraces the public square humour better and makes use of it to underline the transformation of HDP (People’s Democratic Party) from a defendant of ethnic politics to the representative of the new voice of Turkish political opposition.
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