In his campaign to hold onto Turkey’s presidency, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a secret weapon: a social media crackdown partly inspired by Europe.
As the country heads toward a run-off between Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, his reform-minded rival, the Turkish leader’s increasing control of social media has become another tool to help him extend his 20-year reign.
Over the weekend, Erdoğan’s government ordered Twitter to block the accounts of roughly a dozen local opposition public figures over the weekend — a move that triggered a backlash against Elon Musk for complying with the directive.
In truth, Erdoğan’s efforts to control social media go back more than a decade.
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That push culminated in October when Turkey’s ruling party passed wide-ranging social media rules that, in part, mirrored similar legislation recently passed in the European Union. Both the Turkish and European regimes aim to clamp down on harmful online posts, stop the spread of disinformation and increase transparency around how the likes of Instagram and YouTube serve content to their users. The EU’s rules, known as the Digital Services Act, also include fines of up to 6 percent of a company’s revenue for potential wrongdoing.
Ankara’s rulebook often mimics Brussels’ policymaking language word-for-word. But it goes significantly further in restricting online speech in ways that favor Erdoğan’s effort to hold onto the Turkish presidency.
That includes prison sentences of up to five years if people post content online that spreads “information that is inaccurate” in ways that “disrupt Turkey’s domestic and external security.” Journalists could similarly face prison time for writing stories not favorable to Turkey’s ruling AK Party. And Kılıçdaroğlu, who secured 45 percent of Sunday’s nationwide vote, already has faced a criminal complaint under the new regime for spreading “fake news” about the government.
“There is a lot at stake around Turkey’s disinformation law,” wrote Alper Coşkun, a senior fellow at the the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. Erdoğan and his political party “should not succumb to short-term political interests and be tempted to utilize this legislation to suppress dissenting views.”
In response, Turkish government officials reject criticism they are taking over social media for their own political gain. Many refer to other online content rules — particularly those within the EU — as examples of how politicians elsewhere are also pushing back against tech giants in the name of reducing the spread of harmful content among local populations.
Similar laws to those within Turkey “are being implemented in many parts of the world, especially in developed countries,” said the country’s Directorate of Communications.
It’s unclear whether the country’s new social media rules tilted the scales in favor of Erdoğan in this weekend’s tightly fought first-round vote, which represents the greatest threat to the Turkish president’s rule since an attempted coup in 2016.
Yet the increasing control of what people see online marks a continuation of repeated social media bans that Ankara has imposed on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, often in ways that favor the country’s ruling party.
The government instituted a short nationwide ban on these digital platforms after a deadly attack in Istanbul in November. A Twitter-focused ban followed in the wake of Turkey’s massive earthquake February, which also led to 78 arrests after people shared “provocative posts.” Similar digital platform bans date back a decade, and mirror Erdoğan’s wider control of the media landscape to quell opposition voices.
Turkey joins other increasingly authoritarian governments, including those in Russia and Saudi Arabia, that have similarly borrowed heavily from Europe’s social media playbook, but have tweaked those rules to favor repressive regimes. Moscow, for instance, recently passed onerous legislation, which includes up to 15 years in jail, for those spreading “falsehoods” about the country’s military.
“The passing of the so-called disinformation bill is expected to assist the governing alliance in silencing opposition parties and critical media coverage,” according to a report on Turkey by Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that tracks global human rights issues.