Is Twitter bowing to censorship demands from authoritarian leaders in Turkey? Does this belie Elon Musk’s ‘freedom of speech’ ethos for the app?
Well, not really, but the latest censorship demands in Turkey, a week out from the nation’s election, do underline, once again, the challenges that social apps have in operating within the variable laws of each region.
To clarify the current state, late last week, Twitter complied with a request from the Turkish government to censor 4 accounts, and 409 Tweets, which were critical of the current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his leadership. These add to the hundreds of accounts that Twitter has already censored at the request of the Turkish government in the past, with Twitter even being banned in the region in 2014 for refusing to comply with Erdoğan’s take-down orders.
Back then, Twitter opted to stand its ground, rather than align with the requests of the ruling regime, even if that meant a full ban of the app. Which is exactly what happened – though eventually, Twitter was reinstated after winning a court injunction to oppose those requests.
But Twitter has been in conflict with Erdoğan’s regime ever since, and with new management taking over at the app, the Turkish government has once again put the pressure on Twitter to remove certain tweets and users, with only a week to go till the polls.
Twitter has complied – but only after battling these requests in court.
As per Twitter:
“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 communicated our concerns about freedom of expression directly. 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.”
So, really, Twitter’s saying that the real issue here is timing, with the Turkish government putting it in the position of either being banned entirely ahead of the vote, or complying with its request – with not enough time to appeal in between.
That’s essentially how Twitter chief Elon Musk has framed it. And while some have taken the opportunity to highlight Musk’s personal relationship with Erdoğan, and the conflicts that he has on this front, it does appear, in this case, that Twitter is taking the right action, based on the parameters of its operations.
Though this doesn’t seem to fully line-up with Musk’s ‘free speech’ approach, nor do Twitter’s similar concessions for the Chinese and Russian governments, or similar requests and actions in India and other regions.
But Musk has repeatedly noted that his stance on speech is relative to local laws, even as a ‘free speech absolutist’ himself.
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
So he’s not necessarily going against his pre-stated stance on this front – though in the past, Twitter has taken more definitive stances in court, even if it risked a ban or other disciplinary action as a result.
Should Musk be taking more of a stance? I don’t know, that’s up to each individual to decide how they feel about complying with local laws, and the role that Twitter plays in the information ecosphere.
If Twitter is indeed as influential as Musk himself claims, then maybe it is on him and his team to take a stronger stand in opposing oppression. But at the same time, this is not necessarily what Musk has said he would do, as his free speech push is aligned to the laws of the region.
Questions do, of course, remain over Musk’s various conflicts, as he looks to expand his other business, Tesla, in several regions that are under the control of authoritarian regimes.
Will that make it harder for Elon to oppose these governments in such situations? Should he?
It’s also worth noting that within Musk’s recent ‘Twitter Files’ expose, in which he highlighted how Twitter had been working with US government officials to identify concerning trends. Musk sought to frame this as a conspiracy of sorts, and an effort by the US government to silence dissenting opinions and thoughts – which, as has since been revealed, was not what was happening.
Yet in this case:
This is par for the course for all Internet companies – we are just going to be clear that it’s happening, unlike the others
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 14, 2023
I guess this is the main point, that Musk wants to ensure more transparency – so maybe he’s not saying that Twitter had acted wrongly in the past by cooperating with government officials on similar investigations, but that Twitter’s effort to keep it secret was dishonest.
That’s not really how Musk and Co. have framed such, but going on Elon’s statements, he is technically operating within the parameters that he’s set for Twitter 2.0 in not necessarily opposing government orders.
It just seems to conflict with his broader, louder, free speech push.
True free speech would not be controlled by the government – but as Musk notes, sometimes, internet companies do need to comply with local authorities to maintain operations. It’s also in their interests to work with government officials where possible, which may lead to actions that some of Musk’s supporters would undoubtedly consider censorship.
This will continue to be tested, and it’ll be interesting to see how Elon and Co. deal with such moving forward, on increasingly divisive issues.