Twitter Censored Accounts in Turkey Due to Musk and Erdogan Deals: Critics

  • Twitter is restricting unspecified content in Turkey before the country’s presidential election.
  • Musk has complied with 30% more government requests for censorship than his predecessor.
  • Musk’s SpaceX assisted the Turkish government in launching a satellite last month. 

Elon Musk’s reputation as a free speech absolutist took another hit on Saturday after Twitter sided with the Turkish government and censored the accounts of political opponents ahead of a contentious election.

In an announcement posted Friday evening, at approximately 6 a.m. in the country, Twitter’s official Global Government Affairs account declared the platform would “restrict access to some content in Turkey” in response to legal requests made of the social media site. 

Turkey’s presidential election — the most closely contested in years, The Washington Post reported — is set for May 14. 

“The day before a critical election in Turkey, Twitter appears to be acquiescing to the demands of the country’s autocratic ruler, Erdogan, and is censoring speech on the platform,” California Representative Adam Schiff tweeted in response to the news. “Given Twitter’s total lack of transparency, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Musk’s promises of free speech have again fallen away.”

Schiff’s office did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Targeted Turkish dissidents

The details of the legal request and which specific accounts were targeted were not made public. Still, Dr. Tuğrulcan Elmas, a postdoctoral researcher focusing on social media manipulation at Indiana University Bloomington, told Insider he tracked roughly a half dozen accounts posting content related to the Turkish election that had been suspended.

According to Elmas, accounts chosen for restriction were some the Turkish government has traditionally targeted because they had ties to political opposition or whistleblowers who have been critical of the country’s right-wing leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

One account, that of Kurdish businessman Muhammed Yakut, was among those restricted. Yakut had previously shared information about Erdogan’s governmental dealings and alleged the Turkish leader had been involved in the disappearance of his son-in-law, Turkish Minute reported last week. 

Yakut had also hinted at sharing background information before the election related to a failed 2016 coup in the country, Turkish Minute reported on Saturday, insinuating that Erdogan and his allies had staged the whole thing. 

While Yakut and other political opponents were censored, Elmas noted, one troll account known for impersonating a whistleblower named Ali Yeşildağ was not removed from Twitter — despite impersonation being against the platform’s terms of service and the account posting fake nude photos of politicians in Turkey that oppose Erdogan. 

The troll account not being banned, Elmas hypothesized, is reason to believe the account may be tied to the Turkish government as a propaganda tool, used to discredit Erdogan’s opponents by painting them out to be blackmailing each other.

“The fact that the government didn’t censor this account is kind of evidence of a false flag operation,” Elmas said.

Elmas told Insider that the four or five targeted accounts restricted on the social media site likely would not impact the election outcome since targeted users could still post content to YouTube and Facebook or use a VPN to avoid an IP-address-based ban.

“I think Twitter takes this path because the government demanded it,” Elmas said. “I think they also think that these bans can all be easily circumvented, so blocking accounts isn’t impactful, so they can just say yes to the government.”

Since his takeover last year, Musk’s Twitter has complied with more than 80% of government requests for censorship or surveillance of users, according to a report by the technology publication Rest of World — up from a compliance rate of about 50% before his leadership.

Musk’s defensive response

Observers were quick to seize on Musk’s decision to throttle Twitter accounts at the behest of the Turkish government, which has become more authoritarian since Erdogan took power in 2014, with some Twitter users declaring Musk a “free speech opportunist” in response to the news.

Musk, who has touted the social platform as a public town square, did not take kindly to the criticism. 

“The Turkish government asked Twitter to censor its opponents right before an election and @elonmusk complied,” Matt Yglesias, a Bloomberg columnist, tweeted on Saturday, prompting Musk to fire back in defense of his decision.

“Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias?” Musk replied. “The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, chimed in on the thread, saying: “What Wikipedia did: we stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won. This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan.”

Wikipedia was banned in Turkey from 2017 to 2020 over an article about state-sponsored terrorism, where the country was described as a sponsor of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups. After a lengthy legal battle escalated to the country’s highest court, the Turkish block of Wikipedia was lifted in January 2020.

Defenders of Musk were quick to label Wales’ comparison to Wikipedia as a false equivalency because the encyclopedia site operates as a nonprofit, while Twitter is a for-profit business — to which Wales responded: “If Elon is now saying “We don’t care about freedom of expression if it interferes with making money” then he should just say that.”

Twitter defended its actions on Monday, saying it was negotiating with the Turkish government last week.

The Turkish government “made clear to us Twitter was the only social media service not complying in full with existing court orders,” the platform’s global government affairs department tweeted.

“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,” Twitter added.


Elon and Erdogan

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Elon Musk, right, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, prior to their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. Erdogan's office did not immediately provide details on the meeting, however it comes days after a consortium of five Turkish businesses, including mobile phone operator Turkcell, launched a joint venture to design and produce a Turkish-made car, a joint venture was launched under Erdogan's urging. (Pool Photo via AP)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Elon Musk, right, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, prior to their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.

Pool Photo via AP

Twitter’s decision to throttle access to accounts from Turkey comes as Musk’s business ties to the country have solidified following increasing communication between Erdogan and Musk, Elmas noted, based on news coverage of their interactions.

The pair first met in 2017, Forbes reported, before sitting down in 2021 to discuss lithium batteries for electric vehicles and launching satellites. That year, Turkey signed its deal with SpaceX to launch its domestically produced communications satellite, Türksat 6A. In 2022, per Forbes, Musk and Erdogan shook hands at the World Cup. 

Last month, after years of delays, Turkey’s first domestic and national observation satellite was launched into space — with the help of a Falcon 9 rocket created by Musk’s company, SpaceX, local news outlet Türkiye Newspaper reported. While the deal’s financial details remain unclear, noted that a single Falcon 9 rocket flight costs roughly $62 million.

In February, Musk and Erdogan were also in contact after Turkey declined Musk’s offer to activate Starlink capabilities in the region after a deadly earthquake rattled the country and left more than 40,000 people dead. The country’s communications systems were not disrupted to the point of needing the Starlink system, Insider previously reported. 

Twitter was blocked in the region for about 12 hours following the earthquake, Scientific American reported, amid Turkey’s concerns of disinformation circulating on the platform. However, the outage may have hampered the initial emergency response.

“I’m sure this is just a coincidence,” users on Twitter posted, some sarcastically, circulating news of Musk’s business dealings with Turkey. In contrast, others argued his ties with the authoritarian country were evidence that the self-styled free speech icon “may not be cheap, but he is for sale.”

Musk and representatives for SpaceX, and the Republic of Turkey did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment.

May 16, 2023, 1.46 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to include a response from Twitter’s Global Government Affairs division.

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