Just hours after Elon Musk announced that NBC’s Linda Yaccarino would succeed him as CEO of Twitter (slash X Corp.!), the social network got tangled up in a high-pay-grade global mess—one that has ramifications for free speech, world democracy, and fair elections. In other words, about as knotty it will get for the bird site in its “extremely hardcore” era.
On Friday night, the Twitter Global Government Affairs account tweeted out a thread explaining that “in response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today.” The account further declared that Twitter had “informed the account holders” affected and clarified that the restricted content “will remain available in the rest of the world.” One can assume from this characterization that Twitter Turkey took actions similar to what Twitter India has historically done in the face of a government’s censorship demands—i.e., obscure a given tweet’s visibility within the country’s borders while allowing it to be viewed everywhere else Twitter operates.
But the timing upped the stakes here. The restrictions occurred on the eve of a highly anticipated national election, one in which incumbent Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced his strongest presidential challenge in two decades. Even more on the nose, Erdogan’s newfound electoral weakness this cycle stemmed in no small part from his disastrous response to the crippling February earthquakes that leveled much of Syria and Turkey while killing more than 50,000 Turks; in the immediate aftermath, one of Erdogan’s first responses was to entirely restrict Turkish citizens’ Twitter access, as the platform was inundated with criticism of the president that one would never find on Turkey’s state-sanctioned media.
Although neither Twitter nor Turkey disclosed any further details, an Indiana University social media expert told Insider that he’d tracked about “a half dozen accounts posting content related to the Turkish election that had been suspended.” A couple of these accounts, the Turkish Minute digital news outlet reported Saturday, belonged to two of the country’s “key voices”: Muhammad Yakut, a Kurdish businessman and accused criminal, and Cevheri Güven, a journalist. The former has previously been targeted for posting explosive allegations against Erdogan’s party on YouTube—most notably, that a botched 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan was a false flag operation orchestrated by the government as a pretext to purge its opponents and to consolidate state control over Turkish media. On April 19, authorities arrested a Turkish journalist for the mere act of sharing Yakut’s videos, and an Istanbul court ordered that Yakut’s YouTube channel be banned altogether. Just weeks ago, a warrant was issued for Yakut’s arrest after he posted some follow-up videos. Nevertheless, the businessman promised to share even more anti-Erdogan allegations online by Saturday, which likely spurred Turkey to take action on his Twitter account. Güven also posts YouTube videos about elite corruption, and he told the Turkish Minute that Erdogan’s government has tried to throttle his reach any way that it can: “It was made impossible to find my videos when people searched for them on YouTube in Turkey. Now comes the Twitter decision. Facebook has already been blocking my videos for the past two years.”
From what Twitter Global Government Affairs tweeted, it would appear that the Turkish government, whose head of state was preparing for a tough reelection, ordered that Twitter obscure accounts such as Yakut’s and Güven’s or lose the ability to operate within the country altogether—not a small issue for the platform, considering Turkey is its seventh-largest market. Indeed, that seems to be the tradeoff Elon Musk had in mind when acquiescing to the Turkish government’s requests; his much-professed devotion to “free speech” always carried the asterisk of “that which matches the law” of a given country, no matter how oppressive. There was also the fact that Turkey’s interior secretary had warned citizens on Friday to be wary of any “Western” influence on the upcoming elections, especially on digital networks: “I am one of the people most vulnerable to attacks and insults through foreign social media accounts. The United States is interfering in these elections.” Pissing off Turkey would have meant no Twitter access in a media market that favors Erdogan over his challengers to an almost cartoonish extent—and that may have been happy to blame the United States for election interference had Erdogan lost.
We have no idea whether that was the thinking behind the account restrictions, or whether that was part of the reason Musk hasn’t yet followed through on his Saturday promise to “post what the government in Turkey sent us.” The fact is, Musk is often happy to follow foreign governments’ requests to crack down on users they oppose (which is absolutely not “par for the course for all internet companies,” no matter what he may claim). This is evidenced by the fact that Twitter under Musk has approved censorship orders at a higher rate than it ever had before his takeover, especially in repressive places like Turkey and India. In the latter’s case, Twitter has bowed to government requests to censor unfavorable content from global view altogether—such as links to investigative documentaries—and to obscure Indians’ access to foreign governments’ official accounts. (Speaking of India, we’re approaching the anniversary of a high-profile lawsuit that Twitter’s former executives filed against the subcontinent for its rampant takedown requests. Neither Musk nor Yaccarino has commented on the still-ongoing case.)
For what it’s worth, it doesn’t appear that Erdogan’s successful censorship was able to swing the election in his favor; for the first time ever, he failed to crack 50 percent of the electoral vote and will have to contest a runoff on May 28. He’ll likely pull off reelection, but this newest scandal will only invite more global scrutiny of his electoral oversight, especially considering that his runoff opponent depends on Twitter for publicity; plus, more Turks are likely to download VPNs in order to hear from the very activists censored by Erdogan.
As for Twitter, its leader continues to demonstrate how seriously he takes his role of steward of a global information platform adhering to free-speech principles. Live updates regarding Thailand’s monumental elections, which also took place this weekend, were delayed in part because the administrators of an Asian poll tracker found themselves locked out thanks to Musk’s changes to Twitter’s account security. Pakistan’s dayslong blockage of Twitter, in response to mass rallies that gathered in support of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, came and went without any comment from Musk. In fact, his last public engagement with the international sphere seemed to have occurred Saturday with a quote-tweet boost of OpIndia, a hate-fueled, disinformation-heavy digital outlet with ties to India’s right-wing rulers.
Ironically enough, the last tweet that Twitter Global Government Affairs sent before Friday’s Turkey announcement stated that “as the town square of the internet, we believe in strengthening trust and the reliability of information as well as ensuring content moderation decisions—including government requests—respect the fundamental purposes of freedom of expression.” After this weekend, does anybody seriously believe that?
Update, May 16, 2023, at 12:52 p.m.: On Monday evening, the Twitter Global Government Affairs account tweeted out a thread with “an update on our approach in Turkey”: “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 a final threat to throttle the service —after several such warnings—and so in order to keep Twitter available over the election weekend, took action on four accounts and 409 Tweets identified by court order. … We will continue to object in court, as we have done with all requests, but no further legal action was possible before the start of voting.” The account then shared pictures of court documents from the relevant litigation, which appear to display, in part, a long list of tweets from accounts belong to Muhammad Yakut.
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