(Istanbul, May 10, 2023) – Voters in Turkey will head to the polls in a high-stakes election on May 14, 2023, amid concern that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will exert considerable control over the digital ecosystem in an effort to undermine the outcome of the election, ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch said 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 outlines how the government, which has a history of silencing dissenting opinions online, has amassed a vast arsenal of digital censorship tools. The document also details 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 its 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 for independent news and to express their views on the election and its outcome, despite government efforts to put companies under its heel.”
The government should refrain from threatening or throttling social media platforms to prevent opposing views from circulating during the election. Social media platforms and messaging services should prioritize human rights over profits to respect the right of voters in Turkey to participate in a democratic election by resisting government pressure and putting in place contingency plans against throttling.
In recent years, the government has stepped up its prosecutions of journalists, political opponents, and others for criticizing the president and the government online or even just for sharing or liking critical articles on social media. It frequently blocks websites and orders removal of content that voices opposing views, and has a record of blocking access to popular social media networks at times of political unrest or when it anticipates criticism, as it did in the aftermath of the devastating February 2023 earthquakes.
In October 2022, new amendments introduced a vague “public dissemination of misleading information” offense along with an expanded toolkit of compliance measures to further the online repression campaign during the elections. Social media platforms that reject government demands for user data or content removal could face hefty fines and bandwidth restrictions that would leave their platforms effectively unusable in Turkey.
The Turkish government should end its crackdown on civil society and secure the right to freedom of expression and privacy especially in the run up to and during elections, ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch said. And any future Turkish government should reassess its legal framework and ensure it is compliant with its human rights obligations.
Conversely, manipulative online behavior has been common in political discourse in Turkey. In advance of past votes, large networks of fake accounts circulated pro-government views on social media. Online threats have also concerned political parties participating in this election. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has alleged he has information of a government plan to circulate algorithmically faked audio or video clips aimed at discrediting him.
Access to timely and accurate results from independent sources such as election monitors is particularly essential during elections. Civil society organizations, opposition parties, and volunteers rely heavily on social media to disseminate results based on their monitoring activities, as well as digital tools to identify and investigate voting irregularities. But on election day the government may use its full array of online censorship powers to limit access to social media platforms that circulate information that competes with the government narrative.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and remedy abuses, including by addressing any aspects of their practices that contribute to undermining the right to participate in democratic elections.
Social media and messaging platforms have come under scrutiny in recent years in several other countries 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 problems and, in some cases, have provided tools that can contribute to undermining democratic elections.
ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch reviewed popular companies’ policies 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 policy 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 to protect human rights in the context of Turkey’s elections. Meta and TikTok provided links to newsroom posts regarding their specific efforts towards Turkey’s elections.
TikTok expanded on its newsroom post and noted its preparations for the Turkish election that began in August 2022. The company stated that it works with native Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic speakers to moderate content and detect local narratives that violate its policies. Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 have not received responses to our detailed questions from any of the other companies.
None of the companies are fully transparent about the resources they dedicated to Turkey’s election. Most failed to outline how they intend to deal with competing claims of victory and electoral fraud to ensure that their platforms and services are not contributing to the spread of misinformation about the outcome and undermining the integrity of the process.
Twitter’s failure to label Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu Ajansı, as “state-affiliated” is of particular concern, despite Twitter’s longstanding policy of labeling what it considers to be state-affiliated accounts. On election day, this agency is expected to be a primary source of voting results skewed in favor of the government, including early claims of AKP victory that may contrast heavily with the findings of independent monitoring bodies.
Companies should continue to resist threats from authorities when responding to content removals and data access requests, the groups said. This is particularly important for content shared by civil society, which is crucial for election monitoring and might have an adverse impact on election results if blocked. They should establish contingency plans to ensure the public has access to their platforms throughout the election period.
“Social media companies may face intense pressure to remove content the government views unfavorably, including assessments from independent monitors,” said Sarah Clarke, director of ARTICLE 19 Europe. “It is crucial for companies to resist these pressures and do everything in their power to push back against measures that would make them complicit in rights abuses during this critical election period.”