Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia has called out Elon Musk for treating free speech as a slogan and not as a principle. The comment is one of the many criticisms laid against the Twitter CEO in the last few days over the social media platform's dealings with the Turkish government, on the eve of the Mediterranean country’s general election.
The country was voting for 600 members of parliament as well as the first round of its presidential election. Incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003 first as prime minister and then as president, did not get more than 50 percent of the vote. It will therefore go to a second round against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on May 28. This has been a fiercely contested election campaign, and it appears that this has extended to social media censorship.
Several accounts critical of the Turkish government have been suspended, as reported by Business Insider, targeted for having links to the opposition or being whistleblowers of governmental affairs. Twitter under Musk has been a lot more compliant to the demands of governments, receiving 971 demands and fully complying with 808 – an increase of 30 percent from before the SpaceX CEO took over.
“In response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today,” Twitter’s Global Government Affairs account tweeted on Saturday. The reactions to this tweet had commentators across the political spectrum calling out Musk.
Writer Matthew Yglesias' comment about the censorship seems to have particularly irked Musk, who replied to him saying “Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias? The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?” Later that day, a defensive Musk continued to argue “par for the course for all Internet companies – we are just going to be clear that it’s happening, unlike the others.”
And that’s where Jimmy Wales came in. Quote tweeting the exchange between Musk and Yglesias, Wales succinctly pointed out what the Wikipedia foundation did when Turkey banned it for two years. They challenged the ban in court and, in 2019, won. The contention was around articles that accused the country of having links to terrorist organizations. “What Wikipedia did: 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,” Wales said.
Musk has called himself a "free speech absolutist" in the past, a fanciful claim that has been refuted on many occasions by the erratic CEO’s actions. A recent example was the infamous banning of the account ElonJet from Twitter on some spurious security claim and the subsequent temporary suspension of journalists who criticized him. Erdoğan and Musk have been growing close since at least 2017, with business deals between Turkey and the many companies owned by Musk such as Tesla and SpaceX. Last December, the two were seen in an awkward minute-long handshake at the World Cup.
This is not the first time that Twitter has bowed down to censoring accounts critical of governments. In January, the social media platform censored a BBC documentary critical of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi on behalf of the Indian government, and the censorship has now extended to opposition politicians, journalists, and popular government critics. Musk feigned ignorance of the issue at the time, writing on Twitter: “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”
Twitter is getting a new CEO next month, so she may pay more attention to these issues. Free speech commentators have claimed that Musk's admission has just made it easier for authoritarian regimes to get what they want. They just need to threaten to block Twitter and they can get away with curtailing free speech however they want.