Elon Musk, “free speech absolutist,” complied with more than 800 government requests

Musk attacked for censoring Turkish opposition — but that's just one example of Twitter’s deference to government

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published May 16, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Elon Musk has called himself a "free speech absolutist." But the SpaceX and Twitter CEO has faced heavy criticism on his own social media platform for caving in to censorship requests from the Turkish government ahead of that country's contentious presidential elections. 

The uproar has drawn two elements of Musk's business dealings into the spotlight — SpaceX's contracts with the Turkish government led by autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the record-setting number of times Twitter has complied with government censorship and surveillance requests during Musk's tenure. 

"To ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today," the company announced in a tweet. 

SpaceX, meanwhile, was contracted to launch Turksat 6A, Turkey's first domestically produced communications satellite — although the launch date has been delayed and the project now appears uncertain. The satellite is a collaboration with several Turkish government agencies, reflecting the fact that Musk has had business dealings with Erdoğan's government since at least 2017.  

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales blasted Musk for his apparent hypocrisy, pointing to Wikipedia's years-long battle to secure victory in the Turkish courts. 

"We stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won. This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan," tweeted Wales.

Musk defended the move as the lesser of two evils, however, in response to a tweet from journalist Matthew Yglesias.

"The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?" 


In fact, this kind of controversy is nothing new for Musk-era Twitter. Despite the CEO's sloganeering about free speech principles, censorship on Twitter has gotten worse, or so found the tech news outlet Rest of World in its recent analysis, Twitter's self-reported data shows that the company has not said no to a single government censorship or surveillance request since Musk took over the company. 

Instead, Twitter has fully complied with 808 demands from Oct. 27, 2022 through April 26 of this year, bringing Twitter's rate of censorship compliance from about 50% in the pre-Musk era to around 80% now. Twitter also has not submitted a transparency report, so exactly what governments are requesting what kinds of data is now treated as a proprietary secret. Twitter also no longer automatically reports the number of copyright violation takedown notices it has received (which previously averaged about 100 a day), worrying some that the company's financial risks may be on the rise.

After his initial defense of the censorship of Turkish information, Musk pledged that he would at least "post what the government in Turkey sent us." 

Days later, as pointed out by journalist Jeff Legum, no such post has appeared. News site Turkish Minute has since reported the censored accounts include those of investigative journalist Cevheri Guven, who now lives in Germany, and of prominent Kurdish businessman Muhammed Yakut, who had previously promised to publish evidence over the weekend that Erdoğan had been behind an attempted 2016 coup in the country. 

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"Musk claims this is how things always are done. Turkey demands censorship and social media companies comply. This is a lie. Under previous management, Twitter fought Erdoğan's attempts to censor critics," Legum said in a Monday tweet. 

The move to censor Turkish content comes just days after Musk's announcement thaty he has chosen his successor and would be stepping down as CEO of Twitter within about six weeks. 

Although Musk did not immediately release the name of his successor, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Linda Yaccarino stepped down as NBC Universal's head of advertising, and Musk has since confirmed that she'll be taking the top job at Twitter. 

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brief Censorship Elon Musk Politics Recep Tayyip Erdogan Space X Surveillance Turkey Twitter