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Elon Musk suspended Twitter accounts of Erdogan critics during Turkish elections

The Turkish government issued court orders to Twitter demanding it ban certain users and censor posts in the run-up to the elections on Sunday, the company has said.

Twitter said it restricted content in Turkey on Saturday after receiving legal notices – which the social media company has since shared – that warned tweets shared by users in Turkey posed a threat to public order and national security.

“We received what we believed to be a final threat to throttle the service – after several such warnings,” it added in a statement released on Monday evening.

“So in order to keep Twitter available over the election weekend, we took action on four accounts and 409 Tweets identified by court order.”

The social media giant, which has radically changed its business model since being bought out by Elon Musk last year, said that it had objected to four of the five court orders it received from Ankara.

Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance, hold up their mobile phone flashlights while awaiting election results at a rally outside the Republican People's Party (CHP) headquarters in Ankara, Turkey May 14, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Supporters of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition alliance, awaiting election results in Ankara (Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed to win 50 per cent of votes in Sunday’s election and now faces an unprecedented second round runoff against challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on 28 May.

Twitter’s censoring of users in Turkey would appear to undermine Mr Musk’s pledge to turn the platform into a “digital town square” where freedom of speech can flourish.

Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber-rights expert and professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, said that before Mr Musk took over, Twitter had refused to block verified accounts of journalists and news organisations when challenged by governments.

“However, we are now witnessing a more obedient and government-friendly Twitter willing to withhold accounts and tweets to comply with local Turkish law,” he told Reuters.

“In the absence of due process, that is a dangerous game to play and sets a low precedent for protecting freedom of expression on Twitter.”

Last year, the Turkish government brought in its toughest online censorship legislation yet, which compels social media firms to hire government representatives and remove supposed disinformation upon court order or face an immediate 90 per cent throttle on bandwidth.

Twitter’s removal of content during the election came as press freedoms continue to atrophy in Turkey under Mr Erdogan’s two-decade-old regime.

Dr Tuğrulcan Elmas, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University Bloomington in the US, tracked roughly six accounts favorable to the opposition that were suspended. Speaking to Insider, he said that among them was Kurdish businessman and prominent Erdogan critic Muhammed Yakut, who has more than 250,000 followers on the site.

The government issued an arrest warrant for Mr Yakut on 6 May after he alleged the Turkish President played a role in the disappearance of his son-in-law, Turkish Minute reported last week.

The news site also reported that Mr Yakut had threatened to reveal information suggesting Mr Ergodan and his loyalists had staged the 2016 failed coup, which galvanised public support behind the country’s authoritarian leadership and prefaced a series of democratic backslides.

Following the announcement that Twitter had bowed to the government’s wishes and suspended accounts as millions of Turks went to the polls, Mr Musk was drawn into a spat with Bloomberg columnist Matt Yglasias, who tweeted: “The Turkish government asked Twitter to censor its opponents right before an election and [Elon Musk] complied.”

Mr Musk was quick to fire back, writing: “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?”

Mr Musk has met Mr Erdogan several times, most recently in 2021 when the pair closed a deal for SpaceX rockets to launch Turkey’s Türksat 6A communications satellite next year.

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