Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said social media, which normally serves as an independent and reliable source of information, has played a central role in shaping the public debate as the country holds critical presidential and parliamentary elections today.
“… it is imperative that social media platforms and the wider internet remain accessible so the public can follow the work of independent election monitors and reporting around the vote count. Given the sorry state of Turkey’s mainstream media, the integrity of Turkey’s election depends upon it,” the rights group said in a statement on Friday.
HRW said Turkey’s mainstream media, where most people get their news, is overwhelmingly aligned with the government. The rights group said a recent study found that over the past month state broadcaster TRT devoted 32 hours of coverage to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speeches but just 32 minutes to those of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, his main rival for the presidency, which made opposition parties take to social media, depending on independent news websites and live streaming platforms to reach Turkey’s public.
HRW, however, said online platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others are also where vicious aspects of a highly divisive political campaign led by the government have played out. Over the past week, a Twitter account impersonating various Turks began circulating threats of a fake “sex tape” aimed at discrediting another presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, which contributed to his withdrawal from the race. After being exposed by an independent researcher, the account was temporarily deactivated, apparently by whoever operated it.
HRW said social media companies have been inconsistent and nontransparent in their approach to content moderation and account authenticity, which in the Turkish case contributes to muddying an already fraught political scene.
“Platforms should ensure they are devoting adequate resources to meet their human rights responsibilities, especially during elections.”
Just one day after HRW’s statement, Twitter restricted access in Turkey to certain account holders to ensure the platform “remains available to the people of Turkey,” seen by critics as giving in to Erdoğan.
The accounts that were restricted by Twitter include those of Kurdish businessman Muhammed Yakut and investigative journalist Cevheri Güven. The timing of these restrictions, coming only a day before a critical election in which President Erdoğan is reportedly trailing, has raised concerns that the move was politically motivated, potentially stifling voices of dissent and impacting the election’s outcome.