As Turkey prepares for a presidential election(opens in a new tab) on Sunday that may have ricocheting effects on populations worldwide, Twitter is taking on its own criticism, restricting certain content(opens in a new tab) related to the election to reportedly keep the site functional in preparation for a predicted flood of posts — but onlookers are waving censorship red flags.
“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,” wrote the company’s Global Government Affairs account in a series of tweets on Friday night. “We have informed the account holders of this action in line with our policy. This content will remain available in the rest of the world.”
By Saturday, users were calling out the platform’s choice in cries of free speech censorship.
Twitter CEO Elon Musk responded to the immediate notes of concern in his own way, taking to Twitter to engage with users after the announcement. Musk prompted more worry, however, implying that the Turkish government had reached out to Twitter about the upcoming election in a reply to a user’s request for the reasoning behind the block. Musk wrote, “We could post what the government in Turkey sent us. Will do.(opens in a new tab)”
Musk also responded to Bloomberg columnist Matthew Yglesias, who accused the CEO and his platform of acquiescing to Erdoğan’s censorship demands, tweeting: “Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias? The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”
The hotly-contested election may decide the fate of the country’s longest-held incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power for the last 21 years. Erdoğan’s alignment with Turkey’s conservative and Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has solidified his presence as an authoritarian and nationalist figure.
In 2016, sections of the Turkish military, joined by citizens galvanized by social media coverage of the news, attempted a government coup(opens in a new tab) to unseat Erdoğan, but the deadly attempt failed to remove him from power. The country’s alignment with Russia has recently pushed Turkey out of favor with other global power holders, while at home the leader is bribing potential voters with the promises of free gas(opens in a new tab) and cell data(opens in a new tab).
This year, as Erdoğan faces off against his parliamentary-focused opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Turkish citizens are also voting with recent natural disasters (and the government’s response) in mind, after a series of devastating earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people and destroyed millions of buildings in central and northern Turkey. At the time of this writing, Kılıçdaroğlu is narrowly polling ahead of Erdoğan.
At the same time, human rights organizations have warned voters and onlookers of the potential for nationwide censorship(opens in a new tab) by Erdoğan’s government, with some warning of a widespread digital effort to undermine the election’s outcome.
“The Turkish government has accelerated its efforts to enforce censorship and tighten control over social media and independent online news sites ahead of this election,” wrote Human Rights Watch senior technology researcher, Deborah Brown, in a report on Turkey’s history of oppression and a rise in digital censorship tools(opens in a new tab). “The vote will test whether voters in Turkey can rely on social media for independent news and to express their views on the election and its outcome, despite government efforts to put companies under its heel.”