How Twitter Works With Governments to Censor Accounts, According to BuzzFeed

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Twitter headquarters in San Francisco.
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In a new investigation headlined "An Inside Look at the Accounts Twitter Has Censored in Countries Around the World," BuzzFeed says it has "has identified more than 1,700 Twitter accounts that have been blocked in at least one country" following requests from "national groups and governments."

The report by Craig Silverman and Jeremy Singer-Vine, published this morning, notes that Twitter regularly issues a "transparency report in which it shares the number of requests received from different governments" but it doesn't release a list of the "specific accounts it has muzzled." So BuzzFeed built its own dataset, which it just released as a Google Sheets spreadsheet—noting that not all of the accounts are still "withheld," to use Twitter's term, while others have been removed entirely. The spreadsheet covers accounts "observed to have been withheld at some point in at least one of seven countries—Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and India—between October 2017 and early January 2018."

What you may not have realized until now is that it's possible for a specific Twitter account to be blocked in a specific country but still remain accessible to users in other countries. Twitter's ability to turn the visibility of individual accounts on and off on a country-by-country basis is one way that it attempts to comply with laws around the world. Silverman and Jeremy Singer-Vine write that their analysis offers "an unprecedented glimpse into Twitter's collaboration with national groups and governments—democratic and authoritarian alike—and provides a stark reminder of Twitter's ability to shape political conversations, and of governments' attempts to influence that process."

The wittholding numbers, according to BuzzFeed, are particularly alarming in 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 that between 2014 and mid-2017, Turkey made more requests to remove accounts or content than any 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 and law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told BuzzFeed News.

BuzzFeed acknowledges that Twitter's transparency reports provide examples of the company fighting government withholding requests—and also notes that Twitter declined to comment on BuzzFeed's cobbled-together database of censored accounts.

Read the full BuzzFeed story here.

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