Musk bows to Turkey's autocratic government, censors Twitter before critical election
Elon Musk, a self-described "free speech absolutist," agreed to censor Twitter in Turkey on Saturday, the day before a critical election, at the request of the nation's autocratic government. The decision is a sharp break from how Twitter responded to the censorship requests of the current regime, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, before Musk bought the company. Musk has lucrative business dealings with the incumbent Turkish government through his company SpaceX.
Erdoğan is facing a serious challenge from opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has vowed to restore Turkey's democratic system. Before the election, polls showed Kilicdaroglu with a slight lead over Erdoğan, despite Erdoğan's extensive use of state power, including state-controlled media, to swing the contest in his favor. In April, "state broadcaster TRT devoted 32 hours of coverage to… Erdoğan’s speeches but just 32 minutes to those of Kemal Kilicdaroglu," according to a recent study.
Twitter announced the decision to censor content in Turkey in a vaguely-worded tweet.
Musk later pledged to "post what the government in Turkey sent us." As of this writing, however, Twitter has not released that information. Therefore, the scope of the censorship remains unknown.
The Turkish Minute, a publication run by Turkish journalists living in exile in Germany, provided details on some of the accounts being censored by Twitter. One account belonged to "Kurdish businessman Muhammed Yakut" who "had previously shared shocking revelations about the Turkish government." Yakut had announced that "he would provide details on Saturday about the true nature of a failed coup in 2016," which Yakut has previously claimed was staged by Erdoğan.
Another censored account belonged to "investigative journalist Cevheri Güven," who produces popular videos "in which he talks about the Turkish government’s corruption and shady relations." Güven blasted Twitter's move to censor his content, calling it "a disgrace to democracy and freedom of expression."
Social media is a critical source of information for the Turkish electorate because, according to Reporters Without Borders, "90% of the national media [is] now under government control." Journalists that are critical of the government face threats, intimidation, and prosecution. On Friday, shortly before Musk acquiesced to the Turkish government, Human Rights Watch stressed that as "election night draws near it is imperative that social media platforms and the wider internet remain accessible so the public can follow the work of independent election monitors and reporting around the vote count."
Musk's censorship will likely have a significant impact in the days ahead. In the first round of voting, it appears neither candidate will receive more than 50% of the vote. A second round of voting is likely to occur on May 28.
Before Musk, Twitter stood up to Erdoğan
In 2014, the Erdoğan regime shut down access to Twitter entirely in Turkey "after a series of leaks on social media helped fuel a corruption scandal ensnaring his government." Turkey also obtained an order "to take down an account with Tweets that accused a former government minister of corruption."
Twitter publicly blasted the government's actions and quickly filed petitions in Turkish court to reverse the takedown order and the ban. The takedown order was reversed two days later. In a blog post, Twitter said the decision was "an exceptionally strong win for freedom of expression, and it will be of paramount value for us in protecting Twitter’s users against other attempts at censorship in the future." A couple of weeks later, following other losses in court, Erdoğan rescinded the ban.
The Twitter executive who led the pushback against Turkey, Vijaya Gadde, was one of the first people fired by Musk.
In contrast, neither Musk nor Twitter has said anything criticizing Erdoğan's actions. Musk defended his decision to acquiesce to the government's demands, saying the only options were to "have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets." Musk argued that providing Turkish citizens with a version of Twitter that was censored to Erdoğan's specifications was preferable to having no access to Twitter at all.
Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, disagreed. Wikipedia was banned in Turkey for nearly three years, beginning in 2017, after it "refused to delete articles critical of the country's government." Instead, Wikipedia challenged the Turkish government's actions in court. In January 2020, Wikipedia won, and access was restored. Wales argued that Wikipedia's actions demonstrated what it "means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan."
A report by the publication Rest of the World, revealed that, under Musk's leadership, "the company has complied with hundreds more government orders for censorship or surveillance — especially in countries such as Turkey and India." In the six months following Musk's takeover in October 2022, Twitter did not report "a single request in which the company refused to comply." Twitter refused to comply with three requests in the six months prior to Musk's takeover and five requests in the six months before that. Last month, Twitter stopped sharing the censorship demands it receives from governments.
Musk's financial relationship with censorious regimes
In September 2021, Musk's space exploration company, SpaceX, signed a deal with the Turkish government to "to launch Turkey's first domestically produced communications satellite." After years of delays, the satellite was launched last month. The terms of the deal are not public, but one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, which was used to launch the satellite, costs $62 million. SpaceX is slated to help Turkey launch another satellite later this year.
Musk met with Erdoğan via video conference in December 2021 to discuss "satellite and space technologies," "autonomous electric vehicles," and "lithium batteries for Turkey's indigenous electric car TOGG." The pair also greeted each other during the 2022 World Cup.
Meanwhile, in India, Musk has complied with government requests to censor tweets about "a new documentary from the BBC that focuses on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delving into accusations that the politician allowed religious-based violence against Muslims." It has also blocked, at the government's request, "more than 120 accounts" critical of Modi. Before Musk’s leadership, Twitter "had been seen as one of the remaining avenues for Indian people to express dissent, after traditional media houses largely caved in to pressure from the government to toe its line."
SpaceX is currently seeking "a permit to launch satellite internet services in India under its Starlink brand." The company is also pursuing "statutory approvals from the government for landing rights and market access." Last year, Musk "acknowledged that Tesla was thinking about opening a factory in India" if the government would allow it to sell vehicles in the country.
In 2020, according to a report in Bloomberg, Musk's Tesla sought to leverage the power of China's authoritarian regime to suppress critical comments about Tesla cars on social media. Tesla allegedly "asked Beijing to use its censorship powers to block" posts from consumers claiming there were problems with Tesla's brakes.