Free Speech Warrior Elon Musk Weaker on Government Censorship Than the Twitter Execs He Fired

Twitter’s long history of fighting Turkish censorship has ended with Musk.
Image: Getty Images

Twitter bowed to the demands of autocratic Turkish president Recep Erdoğan over the weekend ahead of a contentious and close election in the country. When faced with criticism over the move, outgoing CEO Elon Musk, a self described “free speech absolutist,” claimed the capitulation was meant to keep Ankara from having Twitter “throttled in its entirety.”

On May 12, Twitter announced it was restricting access to some content in Turkey. Twitter didn’t specify which voices it decided to suppress, but reports from Turkey indicated that it was Erdoğan’s political opponents and some journalists who’ve been critical of him.


Musk has spent the ensuing days beefing with critics and generally proclaiming that he runs the free-est and bravest social media platform. “We’ve pushed harder for free speech than any other internet company, including Wokipedia,” Musk said in one tweet.

“Wokipedia” is a reference to Wikipedia, a website that famously fought Turkey’s censorship for two years before winning an important case in its Supreme Court. 

As many have pointed out, Musk’s claims that his version of Twitter cares more about free speech isn’t true; his commitment to free speech starts and ends wherever authoritarian governments tell him it should. There is actually a pretty decent example of a social media company that was more willing to stand up to authoritarian government censorship: Twitter before Elon Musk.

In 2014, when Turkey banned access to Twitter, the company challenged it in court. In a blog post explaining move at the time, former Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde wrote the action was a “disproportionate and illegal administrative act of access banning the whole of Twitter, we expect the government to restore access to Twitter immediately so that its citizens can continue an open online dialogue ahead of the elections to be held at the end of this week.” 

The company won in court two days after its challenge. A Turkish court ruled that “Freedom of speech and expression and the right to spread thoughts and opinions are fundamental rights and freedoms, which are under the Constitutional protection similar to all democratic countries … Governmental bodies should avoid all acts and actions which restrict such freedom of people.” Twitter was unblocked in the country soon after. Gadde, it should be noted, was constantly criticized by Musk for her apparent hatred of free speech and was fired immediately after he took control of the company. 


Then, in September 2016, the company refused a Turkish court order that demanded it censor 17 accounts, including that of D.C.-based journalist Mahir Zeynalov.

Twitter used to publish a transparency report that detailed the take-down requests it got from individual governments. In its most recent report, from the last six months of 2021, showed that Turkey issued a massive amount of takedown requests. “97% of the total global volume of legal demands originated from only five countries (in decreasing order): Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and India,” the report said. It should be noted that since Musk has taken over, the company has not published a transparency report (though Musk has tweeted repeatedly that the company is “rapidly improving transparency”) and has generally made it harder for researchers to access some types of information.

According to information from Lumen, which tracks government takedown requests, requests have gone up since Musk took over the company. In the first six months since his takeover, Twitter complied with 80% of government takedown requests. That number is up from 50%.

Twitter isn’t the only company that Turkey has repeatedly pressured into changing its policies and removing content. Erdoğan has used social media to help him stay in power, but has also banned Reddit, Wikipedia, Facebook, and other sites when he believes they’re helping those who would challenge his power. It’s so common that there’s a website, Turkey Blocks, that tracks what sites are live in the country at any given time.


Other companies and organizations, however, have fought when Turkey has asked them to censor information. “What Wikipedia did: we stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said on Twitter in response to Musk’s whining about limiting access to some tweets. “This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan.”

On April 29, 2017, Turkey blocked access to Wikipedia. As justification, authorities cited a law that allowed them to block a website that’s deemed obscene or a threat to national security. Rather than capitulate to Ankara’s demands, Wikipedia fought. After more than two and a half years, the Turkish Constitutional Court restored access to the site.

Wikipedia’s fight with Turkey was public. While it worked its way through the courts, its community banded together and hosted a decentralized version of the site in Turkey. Wikimedia’s lawyers filed a petition to the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the ban was a human rights violation.

Wikimedia took the lessons it learned in Turkey and began to think about the future in the United States. “The question of whether the Wikimedia Foundation should have a hot switch option, so that if a ‘disaster’ strikes in America, we could continue running Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons from other countries has been raised on this list several times over many years,” one longtime Wiki user and organizer, said on the Wikimedia-L, a highly active listserv about Wikimedia governance. “The [Wikimedia Foundation] and its employees are heavily invested in staying in Silicon Valley, and that will stay true unless external risks become extreme.”


Musk once claimed he wanted to purchase Twitter to ensure that speech remained free on the platform. His immediate bowing to Turkey without a public fight indicated just how dedicated to the principal he is, and when Matthew Ygelsias called him on this, Musk whined.

“Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias?” Musk said on Twitter. “The choice is to have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”

Dealing with censorious nations and autocratic governments is one of the trickiest things that social media companies do. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what the best course of action is when given the option between blocking an entire country or taking down a few offending posts. It’s not easy, but Musk seems to think it is, and that he’s doing it better than anyone else ever has.

But Musk does not seem to ever put up a fight when a government blocks access to Twitter or asks him for special treatment. In February, Turkey blocked access to Twitter in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed more than 11,500 people. A month earlier, Twitter censored links to a BBC documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after New Dehli asked him too. Here, too, Twitter’s previous leadership showed more courage. Jack Dorsey’s Twitter sued India over censorship; Musk’s Twitter blocks posts critical of Modi. While trying to get out of buying Twitter, Musk’s lawyer said that the India lawsuit was “risky” and that “while Musk is a proponent of free speech, he believes that moderation on Twitter should ‘hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates.’”

The election in Turkey was so close that it’s going to a runoff. In two weeks time, the people of the country will return to the polls to choose between Erdoğan and his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Twitter will, once again, be at the center of the conversation around the election. If the past is any indication, Musk will once again bow to Erdoğan’s demands for censorship during a critical election period.

Wikipedia remains up in the country, as does its decentralized mirror. Musk spent much of his weekend online comparing billionaire philanthropist George Soros to the fictional supervillain Magneto and making jokes about the Anti-Defamation League.