Twitter’s Censors Now Setting Their Sights on Turkish Journalists

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By Ian Miles Cheong | 9:12 am, September 27, 2016
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Twitter was founded on the principles of free speech. Its own executives once described the company as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and took credit for being instrumental in the Arab Spring.

More recently, Twitter has made numerous moves that have led many observers to doubt where it actually stands. From banning alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos over his spat with Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones to censoring “problematic” hashtags, Twitter apparently stands for free speech in principle — but not in practice.

The company, which is reported to be the target of a buyout by either Disney or Microsoft, has had to perform a balancing act between free expression and curbing abuse. In the wake of complaints about the company’s inability to deal with harassment, Twitter founded the so-called “Trust and Safety Council.”

The council is as Orwellian a concept as one can imagine, but not half as effective as any organization in the classic novel, 1984. The company has failed to address virulent anti-Semitism on the platform despite numerous complaints, and ISIS accounts run rampant. Hacker-activists affiliated with Anonymous had to step in to deface accounts operated by the terror network when Twitter failed to do anything about them.

This week, Twitter threatened to censor a journalist on the orders of the Turkish government. Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish reporter based in Washington, D.C., has been using the platform to provide coverage of current events in Turkey. Since the failed coup in Turkey earlier this year, the regime of Turkish President Recep Erdogan has detained and imprisoned more than 100 journalists and arrested thousands more for being critical of the government. Unable to jail Zeynalov personally, the Turkish government is trying to silence him in the only way they can: by getting Twitter to block his tweets from being seen by anyone living in the region.

Zeynalov posted a number of tweets on the matter, which have since gone viral thanks to western journalists and free-speech advocates. Twitter told him they were blocking his account on the grounds that he was “instigating terrorism” through his journalism.

When asked, Zeynalov explained that Twitter says it “has to comply with local regulations.”

Twitter’s possible capitulation to the regime’s demands to censor one of its own users stands in stark contrast to statements made years ago by the company’s executives. Former CEO Dick Costolo said in 2011 that the company would do everything in its power to protect its users from the UK government and refused to disclose the identities of anyone involved in the England riots to the authorities in spite of official requests by Theresa May, who was Home Secretary at the time.

According to Twitter’s own transparency report, the Turkish government made 2,493 demands for the censorship of 14,953 accounts and individual tweets in the first half of 2016 alone. The company complied with 23% of those requests. By comparison, the US government made 100 requests, none of which were complied with. The statistics might lead one to ask why Twitter is unwilling to act against actual criminals and terrorists, but readily caves to the demands of an authoritarian regime.

Twitter has yet to block the journalist’s account—either in Turkey or anywhere else. In a notice obtained by Motherboard, Twitter stated that it had not yet taken action to the court order and that it may file an appeal rather than comply with it.

“Twitter has not taken any action on the reported account at this time. One of our core values is to defend and respect the user’s voice,” read the notice. “Accordingly, we may consider filing a petition of objection if we find that there is an appropriate legal basis to do so. If you intend to file an objection to this order in the Turkish courts, please reply immediately to let us know.”

Zeynalov isn’t hopeful. He expects the company to follow through with the request at any time and block him. After all, the company has complied with a significant number of similar requests in the past. The journalist says he will continue to stand by his past reporting and his commitment to the freedom of the press.

Twitter could stand to learn something from him and return to its roots as a platform for free speech.