The second half of 2017 saw an unprecedented number of Twitter accounts banned in Germany along with France thanks to an increase in removal requests through governments, NGOs, along with some other entities, according to data gathered by BuzzFeed News. The data also reveal which demands through the Turkish government have led Twitter to block hundreds of users for what appear to be political reasons.
Twitter refers to the process of blocking accounts (along with individual tweets) in specific countries as “withholding.” All content through withheld accounts in Germany, for example, cannot be seen by Twitter users in Germany, although remain accessible to all some other users.
Twitter regularly publishes a transparency report in which the item shares the number of requests received through different governments, as well as through “trusted flaggers/reporters” such as NGOs along with some other social or industry groups in Europe which help report violations of the EU’s Code of Conduct against online hate speech. The company’s policy for withholding accounts along with tweets says the item will take action in response to court orders, or requests through government officials along with law enforcement which meet the company’s criteria.
Twitter’s transparency report lists statistics about accounts along with tweets which were withheld — although the company has never published a list of the specific accounts the item has muzzled, along with the item almost never comments on individual decisions.
In order to gain insight into the withholding program, BuzzFeed News built a data set of more than 1,700 Twitter accounts observed to have been withheld in at least one of seven countries — Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, along with India — between October 2017 along with early January 2018. Because Twitter publishes no official list of such accounts, along with because many historically withheld accounts have since disappeared through the platform, the data set can be incomplete. the item does, however, appear to be the the most detailed along with globally diverse list of withheld accounts ever published. (For an explanation of how the data was collected, see the “How we got the data” section at the end of This kind of article.)
BuzzFeed News’ data along with analysis offer an unprecedented glimpse into Twitter’s collaboration with national groups along with governments — democratic along with authoritarian alike — along with provide a stark reminder of Twitter’s ability to shape political conversations, along with of governments’ attempts to influence which process. the item also illustrates which the Twitter experience for users can be not the same through one country to the next, along with which a range of accounts ranging through malicious to harmless be blocked, especially when the item comes to reading opposition voices in Turkey or viewing Nazi along with white supremacist content in France along with Germany.
within the second half of 2017, German authorities along with trusted flaggers significantly increased the number of requests submitted to Twitter to block specific accounts along with content, along with which the company complied with hundreds of these requests.
At the end of June last year, just 35 Twitter accounts had been withheld in Germany, according to the company’s transparency report.
although by mid-October, just a few weeks after the German federal election, BuzzFeed News was able to identify more than 0 accounts withheld within the country, a massive increase. (Click here for the code behind BuzzFeed News’ analyses.)
Both Twitter along with the German agency responsible for producing requests to remove content declined to comment on the spike in blocked accounts around the election. However, a source familiar with Twitter’s policies told BuzzFeed News which globally the company typically sees a spike in requests for account along with content removals around elections, within the wake of terrorist attacks, or during periods of civil unrest. Twitter has operated its withholding program since 2012. (The company withheld its first account in November which year, when the item blocked a neo-Nazi group through being seen in Germany.)
Like Germany, France went on a withholding spree within the fall of 2017. Through the end of June, Twitter had withheld fewer than 25 accounts in France. although by mid-October, BuzzFeed News had identified more than 0 accounts withheld there.
BuzzFeed News identified 119 accounts which have been withheld in both Germany along with France together, by far the most common combination of any two countries within the data set. An examination of the usernames, bios, along with some of the content posted by the accounts withheld in those two countries found which a significant portion of them espouse Nazi along with white nationalist ideology along with related imagery. France along with Germany each have relatively strict hate speech laws, although accounts can also be blocked in those countries for running afoul of legislation unrelated to hate speech.
More than 100 withheld accounts within the data set overall have included swastikas, “Nazi,” or “Hitler” in their username or bio. (Additional accounts have used allusions to Nazism, such as “14/88” along with “ϟϟ.”)
Rather than ban these accounts outright, Twitter chose to withhold them when authorities made requests to do so. This kind of aligns with the frequent criticism which Twitter has allowed these groups to flourish on its platform, along with also fits with the company’s stance first articulated in 2011 which “we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content,” unless laws in specific countries prevent the company through doing so.
“Twitter together with Facebook have become the long-arm of the Turkish law enforcement machinery.”
Another country of note within the data can be Turkey, which stands out for its use of the content withholding policy as a means to silence opposition voices on the platform. Twitter’s own transparency reports also show which between 2014 along with mid-2017, Turkey made more requests to remove accounts or content than any some other country — by far.
“Twitter together with Facebook have become the long-arm of the Turkish law enforcement machinery,” Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber-rights activist along with law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told BuzzFeed News.
Twitter has not yet released transparency data for the second half of 2017. although the most recent data indicates which Turkish authorities inundated the company with more than 2,700 removal requests within the first six months of 2017 alone. (Twitter withheld 204 accounts along with 497 tweets in response to those requests.) Turkey has in total made at least 11,887 requests to withhold accounts or specific tweets since the creation of the program, according to Twitter’s transparency reports.
A review of more than 700 accounts withheld in Turkey found which more than 0 belonged to those connected with militant pro-Kurdish movements as well as accounts affiliated with exiled Islamic Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government blames Gülen along with his followers for having a role within the failed 2016 coup, along with also declared his movement a terrorist organization.
Another notable group of accounts on the withheld list are journalists. The third-most-well-known withheld account identified by BuzzFeed News belongs to Ekrem Dumanlı, who was editor-in-chief of the Gülen-linked newspaper Zaman until Turkish authorities commandeered the publication in 2015.
which year, Akdeniz coauthored a letter to Twitter which called for the item to stop blocking accounts along with tweets in Turkey. He can be particularly critical of withholding entire accounts, as opposed to specific tweets. “Once an account can be withheld everything which can be written through or shared through which account, past, present along with future can be withheld. So, in my view which amounts to censorship,” he said.
Twitter declined to answer questions sent by BuzzFeed News, along with did not comment on the data set along with related findings. the item also declined to explain why the item does not list specific accounts withheld in different countries. The Turkish government agency which makes requests to remove accounts along with content did not respond to multiple emails or phone calls, or a request via Twitter. The German body responsible for account removal requests also did not respond to multiple emails along with phone calls.
A Twitter spokesperson pointed to Twitter’s transparency report along with cited its “country withheld content” policy available online.
“Many countries, including the United States, have laws which may apply to Tweets along with/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid along with properly scoped request through an authorized entity, the item may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country through time to time,” the policy states.
Withheld around the entire world
The country with the most withheld accounts within the data set can be Germany with 758, followed by with Turkey with 721, along with France with 261. BuzzFeed News also identified 78 accounts withheld in Russia, 11 in India, 4 within the United Kingdom, along with 2 in Brazil.
The most well-known “withheld” account identified within the data belongs to Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who has more than 3.5 million followers. He can be withheld through users in India.
Rahim’s account was blocked in early September at the request of police within the state of Haryana, according to the Times of India, shortly after the spiritual leader was convicted on two counts of rape. Apart through Rahim, at least a few of the 10 some other withheld accounts in India identified by BuzzFeed News make a reference to the disputed region of Kashmir in their Twitter bios.
The second-most-well-known account within the data, with more than 1.4 million followers, can be Twitter’s very own @PeriscopeCo, which has been withheld in Turkey since March. At the time the item was reportedly blocked due to a copyright/trademark complaint filed against the service by a Turkish ad agency which was already operating under the name Periscope.
The most well-known account which’s withheld in multiple countries belongs to “Amy Mek,” who can be withheld in both Germany along with France. The account’s bio identifies her as a psychotherapist through the US, along with her timeline can be full of anti-Muslim videos, images, along with messages. She has also shared fake stories such as the fabricated claim which the leader of ISIS told people to vote for Hillary Clinton. Often the account shares videos along with gives false or misleading descriptions of them. The frequency of its posts along with some other details have caused some to accuse the item of using a fake name along with identity, along with of being a Russian sock puppet. The Mek account was once quoted within the fresh York Times.
After CNN’s Jake Tapper shared a link to a story which raised questions about its authenticity, the Mek account responded by offering to appear on his program. Tapper did not respond to the offer.
The Mek account did not respond to direct messages through BuzzFeed News asking to speak with This kind of article. The account, however, has tweeted many times about being withheld:
When Twitter decides to withhold an account, its owner can be notified by email about why along with where the item’s being restricted.
Accounts which are withheld often tweet about their status when they are first notified. BuzzFeed News also identified which the word “withheld” has appeared in at least 105 bios of accounts which have been blocked in specific countries. The majority of the accounts use This kind of text (with their specific country) in their bio: “This kind of account has been withheld in: [country name].” which can be the same language which Twitter uses to inform users which an account has been withheld in their country, suggesting many users copy along with paste the item into their bio.
Some accounts wear their status as a badge of honor, while others cite the item to protest what they see as unfair censorship.
According to the data Twitter has published in its transparency reports, as well as examples gathered through some other sources, the company rejects many official requests to block accounts or tweets. For example, late last year the Russian government contacted the platform to demand which the item remove the account of OpenRussia, the leading opposition party whose leader was recently blocked through running within the upcoming Russian presidential elections. Twitter was provided having a court order along with informed OpenRussia of the demand. although Twitter took no action against the account. (OpenRussia has since transitioned to a fresh account, @MBKhMedia.)
Twitter’s withholding program for the most part operates under the radar. although the item recently attracted a measure of attention when some US users claimed they saw fewer Nazi along with white nationalist accounts in their mentions after changing their Twitter settings to say they are based in Germany. Author along with Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan went viral having a tweet telling people they could disappear Nazi accounts by changing their settings.
BuzzFeed News also found which the item’s apparently possible for an account which has been withheld to have its ban lifted. As of early January, nine accounts which BuzzFeed News had previously identified as being withheld were found to have been “un-withheld” — made visible to all users regardless of location. the item’s unclear why these accounts were unblocked, along with Twitter might not comment on specific accounts. BuzzFeed News reached out the owners of several active accounts on Twitter although did not hear back.
Additionally, 193 accounts which were identified as being withheld in an earlier scan were no longer accessible as of early January — in some cases because they had been fully suspended, along with in others because they had deleted their accounts. Another 84 accounts were, according to Twitter’s website along with data, “temporarily unavailable because [the account] violates the Twitter Media Policy.”
On Dec. 18, Twitter began implementing what the item said were stricter rules against accounts which spread hate. The fresh policy means the company can be today fully suspending certain types of accounts which the item may previously have only withheld. Soon after the fresh rules took effect, for example, Twitter banned @theAmericanNazi, @NaziParty45, along with @FuckthoseJews through its platform.
Blocking the opposition in Turkey
In Turkey, the president, the courts, along with the national telecommunications authority together appear to have created a state apparatus for mass blocking.
When protests against the Turkish government erupted in 2013 in Gezi Park along with elsewhere, Twitter emerged as a powerful tool in helping organize along with draw attention to the action. A year later, the service found itself within the government’s crosshairs when users began tweeting documents along with accusations alleging corruption against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with others in his government. Erdogan responded on the campaign trail by saying he might “eradicate” the service.
“We today have a court order,” Erdogan said. “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
Not long after, along with less then two weeks before the country’s 2014 elections, twitter.com was reported to be down in Turkey. Twitter was also blocked in 2016 within the wake of the coup attempt against Erdogan, along with after ISIS posted a gruesome online video of the item killing what the terrorist group claimed were Turkish soldiers.
Prior to 2014, Turkey had made only 16 requests to Twitter which the item block accounts or specific tweets, along with all of those requests were rejected by the company. Then, within the first six months of 2014, the government made 186 removal requests, which resulted in Twitter withholding 17 accounts. Since then, the number of requests along with withheld accounts (along with tweets) have continued to grow.
BuzzFeed News worked with two Turkish journalists, Engin Onder along with Can Puruzsuz of 140journos, who have reported on Twitter withholdings in which country to analyze the list of more than 700 accounts within the data set. They found which the biggest portion of the withheld accounts in which country are linked to two groups: pro-Kurdish movements such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, along with those connected to Fethullah Gülen. Both have been officially declared terrorist groups by the current Turkish government. (The PKK can be also listed as a terrorist group by the EU along with US.)
Of the 719 accounts reviewed by the journalists in December, 386 were determined to be pro-Kurdish or PKK, along with 242 were pro-Gülenist accounts. Another 58 were identified as being aligned with leftist or left-leaning organizations. The Gülenist accounts have by far the most total followers: nearly 10 million. (The next-most-followed group, the pro-Kurdish accounts, by comparison had only 2.5 million total followers.) The Turkish journalists said they did not identify an individual pro-government account which had been withheld within the country.
Akdeniz, the Turkish law professor, also reviewed the list along with agreed with the journalists’ conclusions. He said he believes the item accurately represents the types of accounts being withheld within the country.
For example, the Twitter account of NBA player Enes Kanter can be withheld in his home country. Kanter can be a follower of Gülen along with has more than 535,000 Twitter followers. As a result of his alignment with Gülen, along with allegedly because of his use of an encrypted messaging app, Kanter became the subject of an arrest warrant in Turkey. which warrant may have been the legal document used by the government to have his tweets withheld within the country. (Kanter also had his passport canceled last year by the Turkish Embassy.)
some other withheld Gülenist accounts include journalists, writers, along with academics linked to the movement, as well news-focused accounts created to disseminate articles about the movement to followers. The withheld Kurdish accounts include journalists, activists promoting Kurdish causes, along with news accounts, according to the analysis performed for BuzzFeed News.
Activist groups inside along with outside of Turkey have criticized Twitter for the number along with nature of accounts being withheld. Turkey can be a prime example of “how an authoritarian government suppresses domestic criticism by violating international laws along with uses global companies for the item,” Efe Kerem Sozeri, a researcher who has been documenting Turkey’s censorship of Twitter, previously told BuzzFeed News.
A 2017 report through the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found which use of Twitter as a news source in Turkey can be on the decline, along with cited the government’s heavy hand as a factor.
“Social media companies like Twitter should not be aiding governments which exert political pressure on their citizens.”
Twitter’s transparency reports provide examples of the company fighting the government in court over demands to withholds accounts or tweets. The reports also detail times when the company unwithheld accounts after the government failed to follow up with the necessary court orders to back up their initial demand for removal.
In 2014, for example, the company reported which the item “un-withheld three accounts along with 196 Tweets following the acceptance of several objections which Twitter filed within the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.”
along with in 2016 the Twitter said the item unwithheld an account belonging to “a high profile political party in Turkey” after the government failed to follow up with the necessary court order.
The main government agency responsible for blocking internet content along with services in Turkey can be the Information along with Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA), a telecommunications regulator. Once a government ministry makes a demand, ICTA issues the item to Twitter. Then the government has 24 hours to secure a related court order, according to Akdeniz. The failure to secure the necessary court order can be often cited by Twitter as the reason for unwithholding an account or tweet(s).
ICTA did not respond to interview requests sent by email along with on Twitter, along with calls to its headquarters went unanswered.
Akdeniz said the increase in withheld accounts along with content in Turkey can be part of a larger tilt toward censorship within the country. He added, “Social media companies like Twitter should not be aiding governments which exert political pressure on their citizens.”
How we got the data
Starting in early October, BuzzFeed News tried to identify as many “withheld” accounts as the item could. To do so, we used Twitter’s search interface, its API (its “application programming interface” provided to developers), the Lumen database of removal requests, along with some other resources.
So far, we’ve found 1,714 users who, based on Twitter’s own API, have been withheld in at least one country. While This kind of represents the most comprehensive list of withheld accounts ever made public, the item’s unclear how representative the item can be of the entire universe of withheld accounts. Twitter at times also withholds specific tweets through certain countries; This kind of data set does not address those.
To start, we seeded a database with users listed in Twitter users’ personal blocklists, such as This kind of one published by @NaziBlocker. Many of the users on these lists are not withheld in any country, however. To broaden our database, we also added usernames mentioned in Lumen’s database of legal complaints along with removal requests, accounts we found through manual research, along with users listed on “Cemetery of Free Speech,” a website (no longer accessible at the time of publication) which tracks accounts along with tweets withheld in Germany.
Then, we fed these lists of users through Twitter’s API, which provides data about each account — including, crucially, an attribute named “withheld_in_countries.” For accounts which were, indeed, withheld in at least one country, we then used Twitter’s API to find all of the users which the account followed, along with then checked whether any of those accounts had been withheld.
We continued This kind of process until we could find no more withheld users. In all, we examined nearly 800,000 accounts.
Our database of withheld users can be, unavoidably, incomplete. Some withheld accounts, for instance, may have been deactivated (by Twitter or the user) or unwithheld before we could identify them. along with our approach to finding accounts likely has its own blind spots.
We encourage readers to send us examples of users we may have missed. To submit an example, click here. ●
Jeremy Singer-Vine can be the data editor for the BuzzFeed News investigative unit along with can be based in Washington, D.C. His secure PGP fingerprint can be E2B0 63DB 0601 D634 1E9E F9AE 9F24 768F 9B4A EFB0
Contact Jeremy Singer-Vine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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