November 6, 2020 | Policy Brief

Turkey Fines Global Social Media Platforms in Desperate Bid to Stifle Online Dissent

November 6, 2020 | Policy Brief

Turkey Fines Global Social Media Platforms in Desperate Bid to Stifle Online Dissent

The Turkish government announced on Wednesday its decision to fine Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube 10 million liras ($1.175 million) each for failing to comply with a new law that gives Ankara sweeping powers to regulate social media content. The showdown is the latest sign of Ankara’s desperation to stifle online dissent as the country’s fragile economy teeters on the brink of a balance-of-payments crisis.

Turkey’s new social media law entered into force on October 1. It requires global social media platforms with over 1 million daily users in Turkey to appoint a permanent representative in Turkey who would be legally liable to take down offending content within 48 hours. It also mandates that companies store the data of Turkey-based users inside the country, raising concerns the government would access its critics’ private information.

The new law’s five-tiered sanctions for noncompliance include administrative fines of up to 30 million liras ($3.525 million), a ban on providing advertising services to Turkey-based businesses, and a 90 percent reduction in bandwidth. So far, none of the companies have appointed representatives, and Facebook has already informed the Turkish government that it will not be complying with the legislation. It is yet to be seen whether these companies will pay the fines issued Wednesday.

With these new measures, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aims to strengthen his chokehold on the dissemination of critical news about his government’s track record. As of 2018, the Turkish president’s family members and business cronies have come to control seven key media conglomerates that together own 21 of Turkey’s 29 dailies, capturing 90 percent of national circulation. Yet this led to a dramatic decline in readership, with the circulation of newspapers and magazines dropping by half within the last decade.

There has been a similar decline in television viewership. A 2018 survey showed that while the share of Turkish citizens who rely on television as their main source of news declined from 87 percent to 72 percent since 2015, the share of social media as the primary news source increased from 2 to 10 percent during the same period.

The growing popularity of social media, and the Turkish opposition’s effective use of online platforms to expose the Erdogan government’s corruption and mismanagement, continues to worry the Turkish president. Erdogan has called social media “the worst menace to society” and suspended Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp on national security grounds. In April 2017, he banned Wikipedia for almost three years for encyclopedia entries documenting both Turkey’s support for jihadists and leaked emails revealing his son-in-law and Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak’s involvement in embarrassing scandals.

Ironically, the Turkish government relies on social media and its troll and hacker armies to push out propaganda while harassing and intimidating dissidents and pressuring judges and prosecutors. Even Wednesday’s fines against social media companies first became public following a tweet by Turkey’s deputy minister of transport and infrastructure. In June, Twitter exposed and closed 7,340 accounts maintained by a network associated with the youth wing of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party involved not only in “state-linked information operations” but also “cryptocurrency-related spam.”

The refusal of social media giants to comply with the Erdogan government’s draconian measures so far is heartening. As Yaman Akdeniz, Turkey’s leading cyber-rights professor-cum-advocate, warned Wednesday, compliance would turn these platforms into “the long arm of the Turkish judiciary.” As Ankara follows the path of other autocratic regimes from Iran to Venezuela in muzzling social media, American platforms should avoid becoming Erdogan’s accomplices and continue to expose and shutter state-linked information operations that intimidate and threaten dissidents.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CCTI, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CCTI. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Cyber Turkey