Twitter Blocks Access To Certain Tweets in Turkey One Day Before Election
Yesterday, as the people of Turkey prepared for today’s national election, Twitter was busy with a project of their own: selectively censoring content in the country at the behest of the Turkish government.
In response to Twitter and Musk’s explanation of why they did so (they alluded to a “legal process” and said it was “to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey”), Disclose.tv and others raised the question of whether this means that any government can simply threaten to cut off Twitter in their country to get the company to then censor on their behalf:
Musk has personally met and spoken with Turkey’s incumbent President Erdogan multiple times over the years, going back to at least 2017.
His company, SpaceX was contracted by the Turkish government to launch their Turksat 5A and 5B satellites in 2021 – a launch which sparked protests over concerns about potential military applications. SpaceX is a major Pentagon contractor.
According to Reuters, today’s election is “seen as one of the most consequential in Turkey’s modern history,” with Erdogan “facing the biggest political challenge of his two-decade rule.”
“Polls show [challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s] support is near the critical 50% threshold,” says the same Reuters article. “The vote will decide not only who leads Turkey, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost of living crisis, and the shape of its foreign policy.”
Musk said yesterday afternoon that he would post a copy of the Turkish government’s censorship request:
We could post what the government in Turkey sent us. Will do.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 13, 2023
The entire day then went by without him doing so. Over 24 hours later, we’re still waiting.
Decensored News also made a request to Twitter’s “Global Government Affairs team” for full transparency about exactly which accounts and tweets were blocked in Turkey, but it, too, was not fulfilled.
The polls closed at 5pm in Turkey today (10am EST in the US), meaning that Turkish citizens and the world at large were not able to find out from Twitter prior to the election exactly what it was that they censored. Whether or not Twitter and Musk end up releasing that information at all remains to be seen.
According to recent reporting by Rest of World, Twitter has – per their own self-reported data – been complying with a higher percentage of “government orders for censorship or surveillance” under Musk than before, “especially in countries such as Turkey and India.”
They further explain:
Under previous ownership, Twitter actively resisted requests from many of these same regimes. For two weeks in 2014, the platform was banned from Turkey, in part due to its refusal to globally block a post accusing a former government official of corruption. . . . In July 2022, the company sued the Indian government over an order to restrict the visibility of specific tweets. After Musk’s takeover, however, Twitter complied with more than 100 block orders from the country, including those against journalists, foreign politicians, and the poet Rupi Kaur.
Musk went on to claim that this type of censorship is “par for the course,” drawing pushback from “alt tech” platforms like Minds and Gab (via CEO Andrew Torba):
Torba elaborated in a post on the Gab website, saying in part:
[Musk’s] statement is wrong for two reasons. First of all, even if everyone was complying with foreign government demands for political censorship it would not make it a correct decision. Secondly, not all internet companies are doing this. I would know. Dealing with demands from foreign governments to censor political speech on an American-owned American-run social media platform is something Gab.com deals with on a week-to-week basis. (…) Each time our answer remains the same: if the content is legal in the United States it’s legal on Gab and it’s not being removed. There is absolutely nothing that foreign governments can to do force an American company to comply with foreign speech laws.
By acceding to the Turkish government’s request to censor political content, Twitter and Elon Musk have opened the door for other nations to demand similar actions. This creates a concerning precedent that weakens the platform’s commitment to free speech. Other governments could now point to this compliance and exert pressure on Twitter to censor content that challenges their own political agendas, effectively stifling dissent and suppressing valuable discourse. Twitter’s excuse that “every internet platform does this” is not only disingenuous but also the wrong choice when it comes to protecting freedom of expression.
Had Twitter refused to comply with the Turkish government’s censorship requests, even at the risk of being banned from the country, it would have sent a powerful message about its commitment to upholding free speech. This principled stance would have demonstrated to the world that Twitter does not bow down to the demands of foreign governments seeking political censorship. By yielding to these demands, Twitter has inadvertently compromised its integrity as a platform that champions the right to express differing opinions.
His full statement can be read here.
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Update (5/15/23): Twitter provides an update on this weekend’s overt censorship in Turkey, one day before the country’s national election. They admit to restricting access to over 400 tweets:
We are today sharing an update on our approach in Turkey.— Global Government Affairs (@GlobalAffairs) May 15, 2023
We were in negotiation with the Turkish Government throughout last week, who made clear to us Twitter was the only social media service not complying in full with existing court orders.
We received what we believed to be…