Twitter’s restriction of Turkish election content sparks fear of precedent

Twitter’s decision to censor critics ahead of the Turkish presidential election could set a “dangerous precedent” for other authoritarian regimes, experts said about the company’s action.

Last week, Turkey threatened to shut down Twitter access in the country unless it censored content from four accounts critical of the current government.

Twitter, which is fighting the country’s court orders, said it had no choice but to comply with the country’s request as it believes it received “a final threat to throttle the service” if it didn’t take actions against the accounts.

Elon Musk, who purchased Twitter last October, weighed in on the matter, tweeting last week: “The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?” 

Experts told The Hill they disagreed with Twitter’s decision and argued it sets a bad example for other authoritarian governments, which could threaten to shut down the social media platform if it didn’t comply with their laws. Other nations have already taken such action, including China, Iran and North Korea.

“I think that when tech companies or social media platforms comply with censorship requests from authoritarian or autocratic governments, they risk complicity in those regimes’ repression,” said Nathan Kohlenberg, a research assistant at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.

“This sets a dangerous precedent. It makes it more likely that other governments will make similar requests,” he added.

On May 12, two days before the Turkish election, Twitter’s global affairs account said that “in response to a legal process,” it would “restrict access to some content in Turkey” to ensure that the platform remained available. 

The election resulted in the need for a runoff, taking place this Sunday, between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

After backlash to the decision, Twitter followed up Monday by sharing more information about the court order and the company’s response.

The initial restriction spurred uncertainty for people in Turkey because of the lack of transparency about what content would be restricted, said Sayyara Mammadova, a research assistant for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. 

The potential impact of Twitter’s action was underscored by Twitter’s status as a top social media platform in Turkey, Mammadova said. 

Musk, who has described himself as a free speech absolutist, was criticized by prominent figures, including Turkish-born NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom.

During an interview with “CNN This Morning,” Kanter Freedom said Musk “picked business and money over his morals and principles.”

“I don’t want to hear about Elon Musk talking about free speech ever again,” he said. “He’s literally bowing down to a dictatorship.”

Kohlenberg said it’s very likely that Turkey would have shut down Twitter if the company hadn’t complied with the court orders, because it has done so in the past. 

Earlier this year, the Turkish government temporarily blocked Twitter in response to criticism of its handling of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in February that impacted the central and southern regions of the country, destroying buildings and killing nearly 45,000 people in Turkey and Syria.  

Kohlenberg added that elections in Turkey are unfair because they tend to favor Erdoğan, who has ruled the country since 2014 and previously served as prime minister. 

“They’re conducted in an environment that is highly biased in favor of the incumbent regime,” Kohlenberg said.

“And part of that bias is the control they have over editorial decisions. And this is true in print media, and it’s increasingly true online,” he added. 

Will Adler, a senior technologist in elections and democracy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said governments have various laws and they can ask social media companies to take down content they don’t like, but it’s up to Twitter to determine where it draws the line. 

“At what point is a platform like Twitter saying, ‘No, that’s a bridge too far; we’re not going to take that down, consequences be damned,’” Adler said. 

“There really should be extra scrutiny when the ruling party is asking to take down critical content in an election period,” he added. 

Kohlenberg said that Twitter’s decision was unethical given its stance to support free speech.

“I would say that companies that purport to defend free speech and democratic principles need to push back more strongly and refuse to cooperate even when that may, in the short-term, jeopardize access to their services,” Kohlenberg said. 

Karen North, a clinical professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said she agreed with Musk’s decision and saw where he’s coming from. 

North said she would rather have Twitter be available to the rest of the country — especially during an election — than go against court orders and have the platform blocked from millions of people.

“Do you block people who shouldn’t be blocked, and then you allow everybody else to communicate? Or do you stand on your values and say, ‘Everybody or nobody,’” she said.

North added that Twitter can afford to temporarily lose the four accounts and in exchange have millions of other voices still able to express themselves, including other critics. 

“I think having an impending election with the silencing of Twitter would be a disaster in terms of people having access to information and opinion,” she added.

Tags Censorship Elon Musk Elon Musk Erdogan freedom of speech Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey election Twitter

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