Free Speech

Don't Blame Elon Musk for Turkey's Authoritarian Twitter Censorship

Anger about social media censorship should be directed at repressive governments, not the companies they threaten.


Twitter CEO Elon Musk is facing a barrage of media criticism for acquiescing to demands from the Turkish government to censor content on the site. The acts of censorship took place last week, just days before the country's presidential election; unsurprisingly, the restricted accounts had expressed criticism of autocratic Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Given that Musk has promised to make Twitter a platform for free speech—indeed, his stated rationale for buying the site was to make it more protective of political expression—his kowtowing to Erdogan has struck many commentators as hypocritical. "Elon Musk Doesn't Care About Free Speech," declared The New Republic. NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom, a Turkish dissident who has frequently criticized the Erdogan regime, said "I don't want to hear about Elon Musk talking about free speech ever again."

Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown also chided Musk for "making a dictator's job easier." And Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted that treating freedom of speech "as a principle rather than a slogan" would have meant fighting back harder.

It's absolutely true that there's a certain incoherence to Musk's approach. He croons about free speech, while also pledging to follow applicable local laws. He has said he is willing to lose money on Twitter if it means protecting free speech, but he has also said that Twitter will not try to impose its values (free speech, one assumes) on the rest of the world.

Most countries, unfortunately, do not have free speech protections that are as robust as the U.S.'s First Amendment—and even in the U.S., social media companies have faced tremendous pressure from federal government agencies to censor speech. Musk is well aware of this, having green-lit the Twitter Files. Perhaps he should have anticipated that his various pledges—allow free speech, obey the law, be willing to lose money, don't impose values—would swiftly come into conflict.

But some of the criticism seems to suggest that Musk's decision to heed Turkey is some new low for social media platforms. Ryan Mac, a tech reporter for The New York Times, frets that Musk has provided "a blueprint for repressive governments everywhere."

"If Twitter doesn't censor the content you want, simply threaten to cut off the service," says Mac, summarizing the aforementioned blueprint. "Its owner just put it in writing."

This blueprint already exists: Musk is not remotely the first social media CEO to begrudgingly accede to an authoritarian government's demands.

In 2007, a Turkish court ordered the country's internet service provider to take down YouTube over videos that mocked Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. YouTube complied within hours, removing the videos in order to restore YouTube access to citizens of Turkey. In subsequent years, Turkey's government used similar threats to force Facebook, Periscope, and yes, Twitter, to comply with demands for censorship.

It's true that Wikipedia fought back against Turkey's demands for censorship, resulting in the site not being available in Turkey at all from 2017 to 2019.

"I'd have liked to see everyone resist more over the years, but Turkey is a pretty important market," says Will Duffield, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute. "Wikipedia is probably the most successful example of resistance, after taking the block for two years a Turkish court ordered it reinstated on human rights grounds. Musk seems to be punished as much for tweeting it out as for complying."

It's not just Turkey, of course. Social media companies have had to deal with demands for content takedowns all over the globe. During the 2000s, the version of Google that was available in China included all sorts of compromises with the Chinese Communist Party's tyranny. Eventually, Google stopped complying, so it got the boot. In 2018, Google had plans to relaunch its censored search engine in China, but when the details leaked, the company faced so much criticism in the U.S. that it had to abandon course.

The point is that these are not always easy calls. When a repressive government orders a private company to restrict content, it is the government—not the company—that has decided to violate the human rights of its citizens. The companies should resist wherever they can, but resisting to the point at which the government shuts down their service is neither a moral requirement nor a course of action that obviously maximizes freedom. It's perfectly legitimate to think that a CCP-approved version of Google—while far from ideal—is better for the people of China than no Google at all. In either case, the villain is the CCP, not Google.

Which brings us back to Musk and Turkey. Twitter claims that it has fought Erdogan's takedown request to the maximally practical extent.

"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," said a spokesperson for Twitter in a tweet. "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."

The spokesperson noted that the company will continue to fight the demands in court, and subsequently released the written orders for all the world to see.

Refusing to comply would have meant a total Twitter outage in Turkey on the even of its election. This is a development that should make everyone very angry with the Turkish government—Musk is not the correct object of scorn, though it's obviously fair to note he has not yet delivered on his promise of a free speech platform.

"The situation illustrates the dangers of letting autocrats control market access," says Duffield. "The best solution is to treat such demands as non-tariff barriers to trade. Our friends and allies should not demand that American firms neuter their products in accordance with local whims."