Turkey’s control of the internet jeopardizes the election

(Istanbul, May 10, 2023) – Voters in Turkey will head to the polls on May 14, 2023 in a high-risk election amid fears that it will allow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to exert significant control over the digital ecosystem ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch said they undermined the outcome of the election in a question-and-answer document released today.

ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch examined potential threats to Turkey’s online environment in the parliamentary and presidential elections, in which President Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) face a significant electoral challenge. It details how the government, which has a history of silencing dissent online, has built a vast arsenal of digital censorship tools. The document also outlines what additional steps social media platforms and messaging services should take to meet their human rights responsibilities in this important election.

“The Turkish government has accelerated efforts to enforce censorship and tighten control over social media and independent online news sites ahead of this election,” said Deborah Brown, senior technology researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The vote will test whether voters in Turkey can rely on social media to get independent news and voice their views on the election and its outcome, despite government efforts to pressure businesses .”

The government should refrain from threatening or throttling social media platforms to prevent opposing views from spreading during the election. Social media platforms and messaging services should prioritize human rights over profits to respect voters’ right in Turkey to participate in democratic elections by resisting government pressure and implementing contingency plans against the curtailment.

In recent years, the government has escalated the prosecution of journalists, political opponents and others for criticizing the president and government online or simply for sharing or liking critical articles on social media. It frequently blocks websites and orders the removal of content expressing opposing views, and has been shown to block access to popular social networks during times of political unrest or when criticism is expected, such as after the devastating February 2023 earthquakes.

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In October 2022, new amendments introduced a vague criminal offense of “public dissemination of misleading information” and an expanded set of compliance measures to fuel the online repression campaign during the election. Social media platforms that refuse government demands for user data or content removal could face hefty fines and bandwidth throttling that would render their platforms virtually unusable in Turkey.

ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch called for the Turkish government to end its crackdown on civil society and ensure freedom of expression and privacy, especially before and during the elections. And any future Turkish government should reassess its legal framework and ensure it is meeting its human rights obligations.

Conversely, manipulative online behavior is widespread in political discourse in Turkey. In the run-up to past polls, major networks of fake accounts have been spreading pro-government views on social media. Online threats also targeted political parties participating in this election. Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has claimed he has information about a government plan to distribute algorithmically fake audio or video clips aimed at discrediting him.

Access to timely and accurate results from independent sources such as election observers is crucial, especially during elections. Civil society organisations, opposition parties and volunteers make extensive use of social media to disseminate the results of their monitoring activities, as well as digital tools to identify and investigate electoral irregularities. But on election day, the government could use its full range of online censorship powers to restrict access to social media platforms that disseminate information that competes with the government narrative.

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Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and remedy violations, including by addressing all aspects of their practices that contribute to undermining the right to participate in democratic elections.

Social media and messaging platforms have come under fire in several other countries in recent years for failing to address the use of their platforms to undermine participation in democratic elections. They have chronically underinvested in the resources needed to properly understand and address these issues, and in some cases have provided tools that can help undermine democratic elections.

ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch reviewed the policies of popular companies and found that only Meta and TikTok have outlined their approach to Turkey’s elections. YouTube and Twitter have general policies on elections, and Telegram has no publicly available policies on disinformation or elections.

Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 wrote to Meta, Telegram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube on May 1 to inquire about the resources they have invested in protecting human rights in connection with Turkey’s elections. Meta and TikTok provided links to newsrooms dedicated to their specific efforts around Turkey’s elections.

Expanding on its newsroom post, TikTok referenced its preparations for Turkey’s elections, which begin in August 2022. The company said it works with native Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic speakers to moderate content and track down local narratives that violate its policies. Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 have not received any responses to our detailed questions from any of the other companies.

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None of the companies are fully transparent about the resources they have devoted to Turkey’s election. Most have failed to spell out how they intend to deal with competing claims to victory and voter fraud to ensure their platforms and services do not contribute to the spread of misinformation about the outcome and undermine the integrity of the process.

Of particular concern is Twitter’s failure to label Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu Ajansı as “state-affiliated,” although Twitter has long had a policy of flagging accounts the company deems state-affiliated. That agency is expected to be a major source of voting results skewed in favor of the government on election day, including past claims of an AKP victory that may be at odds with findings from independent monitoring bodies.

Businesses should continue to resist threats from authorities when responding to content removal and data access requests, the groups said. This is particularly important for content shared by civil society, which is crucial for election observation and could have a negative impact on election results if blocked. They should have contingency plans in place to ensure the public has access to their platforms throughout the election period.

“Social media companies could face intense pressure to remove content that the government views negatively, including those of independent observers,” said Sarah Clarke, Director of ARTICLE 19 Europe. “It is critical for businesses to resist these pressures and do everything in their power to resist actions that would make them complicit in rights violations during this critical election period.”