half of 2017 saw an unprecedented
number of Twitter accounts banned in Germany and France
thanks to an increase in removal requests from governments,
NGOs, and other entities, according to data gathered by
BuzzFeed News. The data also reveal that demands from the
Turkish government have led Twitter to block hundreds of
users for what appear to be political reasons.
refers to the process of blocking accounts (and individual
tweets) in specific countries as
content from withheld accounts in Germany, for example,
cannot be seen by Twitter users in Germany, but remain
accessible to all other users.
publishes a transparency report in
which it shares the number of requests received from
different governments, as well as from “trusted
flaggers/reporters” such as NGOs and other social or
industry groups in Europe that help report
violations of the EU’s Code of
Conduct against online hate speech. The company’s policy
for withholding accounts and tweets
says it will take action in response to court orders, or
requests from government officials and law enforcement that
meet the company’s criteria.
transparency report lists statistics about accounts and
tweets that were withheld — but the company has never
published a list of the specific accounts it has muzzled,
and it almost never comments on individual decisions.
order to gain insight into the withholding program, BuzzFeed
News built a
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,
and India — between October 2017 and early January 2018.
Because Twitter publishes no official list of such accounts,
and because many historically withheld accounts have since
disappeared from the platform, the data set is incomplete.
It does, however, appear to be the the most detailed and
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 article.)
News’ data and analysis offer an unprecedented glimpse into
Twitter's collaboration with national groups and governments
— democratic and authoritarian alike — and provide a stark
reminder of Twitter's ability to shape political
conversations, and of governments' attempts to influence
that process. It also illustrates that the Twitter
experience for users is not the same from one country to the
next, and that a range of accounts ranging from malicious to
harmless be blocked, especially when it comes to reading
opposition voices in Turkey or viewing Nazi and white
supremacist content in France and Germany.
@Duffys44 and @SteveRo56399233 are withheld in Germany
and France, and @Adolf_Hess1488 is withheld in
Germany. They can be seen by Twitter users in all
the second half of 2017, German authorities and trusted
flaggers significantly increased the number of requests
submitted to Twitter to block specific accounts and content,
and that the company complied with hundreds of these
the end of June last year, just 35 Twitter accounts had been
withheld in Germany, according to the company’s
by mid-October, just a few weeks after the German federal
election, BuzzFeed News was able to identify more than 600
accounts withheld in the country, a massive increase. (
here for the code behind BuzzFeed News’ analyses.)
Twitter and the German agency responsible for making
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 that
globally the company typically sees a spike in requests for
account and content removals around elections, in the wake
of terrorist attacks, or during periods of civil unrest.
Twitter has operated its withholding program
2012. (The company withheld its first account in
November that year, when it blocked
a neo-Nazi group from being seen in
Germany, France went on a withholding spree in the fall of
2017. Through the end of June, Twitter had withheld fewer
than 25 accounts in France. But by mid-October, BuzzFeed
News had identified more than 200 accounts withheld there.
News identified 119 accounts that have been withheld in both
Germany and France together, by far the most common
combination of any two countries in the data set. An
examination of the usernames, bios, and some of the content
posted by the accounts withheld in those two countries found
that a significant portion of them espouse Nazi and white
nationalist ideology and related imagery. France and Germany
each have relatively strict hate speech laws, but accounts
can also be blocked in those countries for running afoul of
legislation unrelated to hate speech.
on data collected by BuzzFeed News between October
2017 and early January 2018.
than 100 withheld accounts in 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” and “ϟϟ.”)
than ban these accounts outright, Twitter chose to withhold
them when authorities made requests to do so. This aligns
with the frequent criticism that Twitter has allowed these
groups to flourish on its platform, and also fits with the
articulated in 2011 that “we keep
the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have
about the content,” unless laws in specific countries
prevent the company from doing so.
together with Facebook have become the long-arm of the
Turkish law enforcement machinery."
country of note in the data is 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.
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.
has not yet released transparency data for the second half
of 2017. But the most recent data indicates that
authorities inundated the company with more than 2,700
removal requests in the first six
months of 2017 alone. (Twitter withheld 204 accounts and 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.
review of more than 700 accounts withheld in Turkey found
that more than 600 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 and his followers for having a role
in the failed 2016 coup, and also
his movement a terrorist organization.
notable group of accounts on the withheld list are
journalists. The third-most-popular withheld account
identified by BuzzFeed News
to Ekrem Dumanlı, who was editor-in-chief of the
Gülen-linked newspaper Zaman until Turkish authorities commandeered
the publication in 2015.
year, Akdeniz coauthored a
Twitter that called for it to stop blocking accounts and
tweets in Turkey. He is particularly critical of withholding
entire accounts, as opposed to specific tweets. “Once an
account is withheld everything that is written through or
shared through that account, past, present and future is
withheld. So, in my view that amounts to censorship,” he
declined to answer questions sent by BuzzFeed News, and did
not comment on the data set and related findings. It also
declined to explain why it does not list specific accounts
withheld in different countries. The Turkish government
agency that makes requests to remove accounts and 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 and
Twitter spokesperson pointed to Twitter’s transparency
report and cited its
withheld content” policy available
countries, including the United States, have laws that may
apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our
continuing effort to make our services available to users
everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped
request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to
reactively withhold access to certain content in a
particular country from time to time,” the policy states.
on data collected by BuzzFeed News between October
2017 and early January 2018.
around the world
with the most withheld accounts in
the data set is Germany with 758, followed by with Turkey
with 721, and France with 261. BuzzFeed News also identified
78 accounts withheld in Russia, 11 in India, 4 in the United
Kingdom, and 2 in Brazil.
most popular “withheld” account identified in the data
Ram Rahim, who has more than 3.5 million followers. He
is withheld from users in India.
account was blocked in early September at the request of
police in the state of Haryana,
to the Times of India, shortly after the spiritual
leader was convicted on two counts of rape. Apart from
Rahim, at least five of the 10 other withheld accounts in
India identified by BuzzFeed News make a reference to the
disputed region of Kashmir in their Twitter bios.
second-most-popular account in the data, with more than 1.4
million followers, is Twitter’s very own
which has been withheld in Turkey since March. At the time
it was reportedly blocked due to a copyright/trademark
complaint filed against the service by a Turkish ad agency
that was already operating under the name Periscope.The most
popular account that’s withheld in multiple countries
belongs to “Amy Mek,” who is withheld in both Germany and
France. The account’s
bio identifies her as a
psychotherapist from the US, and her timeline is full of
anti-Muslim videos, images, and messages. She has also shared
fake stories such as the fabricated
claim that the leader of ISIS told people to vote for
Hillary Clinton. Often the account shares videos and gives
false or misleading descriptions of them. The frequency of
its posts and other details have caused some to accuse
it of using a fake name and
identity, and of being a Russian sock puppet. The Mek
account was once quoted in the New
CNN’s Jake Tapper shared a link to a story that raised
questions about its authenticity, the Mek account
offering to appear on his program. Tapper did not respond to
Mek account did not respond to direct messages from BuzzFeed
News asking to speak for this article. The account, however,
has tweeted many times about being withheld:
Twitter decides to withhold an account, its owner is
notified by email about why and where it’s being restricted.
that are withheld often tweet about their status when they
are first notified. BuzzFeed News also identified that the
word “withheld” has appeared in at least 105 bios of
accounts that have been blocked in specific countries. The
majority of the accounts use this text (with their specific
country) in their bio: “This account has been withheld in:
[country name].” That is the same language that Twitter uses
to inform users that an account has been withheld in their
country, suggesting many users copy and paste it into their
accounts wear their status as a badge of honor, while others
cite it to protest what they see as unfair censorship
to the data Twitter has published in its transparency
reports, as well as examples gathered from other sources,
the company rejects many official requests to block accounts
or tweets. For example, late last year the Russian
the platform to demand that it
remove the account of OpenRussia, the leading opposition
party whose leader was recently blocked from running in the
upcoming Russian presidential elections. Twitter was
provided with a court order and informed OpenRussia of the
demand. But Twitter took no action against the account.
(OpenRussia has since transitioned to a new account, @MBKhMedia.)
withholding program for the most part operates under the
radar. But it recently attracted a measure of attention when
some US users claimed they saw fewer Nazi and white
nationalist accounts in their mentions after changing their
Twitter settings to say they are based in Germany. Author
and Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan went
viral with a
people they could disappear Nazi accounts by changing their
News also found that it’s apparently possible for an account
that has been withheld to have its ban lifted. As of early
January, nine accounts that BuzzFeed News had previously
identified as being withheld were found to have been
“un-withheld” — made visible to all users regardless of
location. It’s unclear why these accounts were unblocked,
and Twitter would not comment on specific accounts. BuzzFeed
News reached out the owners of several active accounts on
Twitter but did not hear back. Additionally, 193 accounts
that 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, and in others
because they had deleted their accounts. Another 84 accounts
were, according to Twitter’s website and data, “temporarily
unavailable because [the account] violates the Twitter Media
Dec. 18, Twitter began implementing what it said were
stricter rules against accounts that spread hate. The new
policy means the company is now fully suspending certain
types of accounts that it may previously have only withheld.
Soon after the new rules took effect, for example, Twitter
banned @theAmericanNazi, @NaziParty45, and @FuckthoseJews
from its platform.
the opposition in Turkey
In Turkey, the
president, the courts, and the national telecommunications
authority together appear to have created a state apparatus
for mass blocking.
protests against the Turkish government erupted in 2013 in
Gezi Park and elsewhere, Twitter emerged as a powerful tool
in helping organize and draw attention to the action. A year
later, the service found itself in the government's
crosshairs when users began tweeting documents and
accusations alleging corruption against President Recep
Tayyip Erdogan and others in his government. Erdogan
responded on the campaign trail by
would "eradicate” the service.
now 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."
long after, and less then two weeks before the country’s
2014 elections, twitter.com was
to be down in Turkey. Twitter was also blocked in 2016
in the wake of the coup attempt against Erdogan, and after
ISIS posted a gruesome online video of it killing what the
terrorist group claimed were Turkish soldiers.
had made only 16 requests to Twitter
that it block accounts or specific tweets, and all of those
requests were rejected by the company. Then, in 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 and withheld accounts
(and tweets) have continued to grow.
Twitter Transparency Reports
News worked with two Turkish journalists, Engin Onder and
Can Puruzsuz of
who have reported on Twitter withholdings in that country to
analyze the list of more than 700 accounts in the data set.
They found that the biggest portion of the withheld accounts
in that country are linked to two groups: pro-Kurdish
movements such as the Kurdistan
Workers Party (PKK) militant group,
and those connected to Fethullah Gülen. Both have been
officially declared terrorist groups by the current Turkish
government. (The PKK is also listed as a terrorist group by
the EU and US.)
the 719 accounts reviewed by the journalists in December,
386 were determined to be pro-Kurdish or PKK, and 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 a single pro-government account that had been
withheld in the country.
the Turkish law professor, also reviewed the list and agreed
with the journalists’ conclusions. He said he believes it
accurately represents the types of accounts being withheld
in the country.
account of NBA player Enes Kanter is
withheld in his home country. Kanter is a follower of Gülen
and has more than 535,000 Twitter followers. As a result of
his alignment with Gülen, and allegedly
because of his use of an encrypted messaging app,
Kanter became the subject of an arrest warrant in Turkey.
That warrant may have been the legal document used by the
government to have his tweets withheld in the country.
(Kanter also had his passport
canceled last year by the Turkish Embassy.)
withheld Gülenist accounts include journalists, writers, and
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, and news
accounts, according to the analysis performed for BuzzFeed
News. Activist groups inside and outside of Turkey have
criticized Twitter for the number and nature of accounts
being withheld. Turkey is a prime example of "how an
authoritarian government suppresses domestic criticism by
violating international laws and uses global companies for
it," Efe Kerem Sozeri, a researcher who has been documenting
Turkey's censorship of Twitter,
told BuzzFeed News.
report from the Reuters Institute
for the Study of Journalism found that use of Twitter as a
news source in Turkey is on the decline, and cited the
government’s heavy hand as a factor.
media companies like Twitter should not be aiding
governments that exert political pressure on their
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.
2014, for example, the company
it “un-withheld three accounts and 196 Tweets following the
acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the
Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.”
in 2016 the Twitter said it unwithheld an account belonging
to “a high profile political party in Turkey” after the
government failed to follow up with the necessary court
main government agency responsible for blocking internet
content and services in Turkey is the Information and
Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA), a
telecommunications regulator. Once a government ministry
makes a demand, ICTA issues it 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 is often cited by Twitter as the reason for
unwithholding an account or tweet(s).
did not respond to interview requests sent by email and on
Twitter, and calls to its headquarters went unanswered.
said the increase in withheld accounts and content in Turkey
is part of a larger tilt toward censorship in the country.
He added, “Social media companies like Twitter should not be
aiding governments that exert political pressure on their
How we got
early October, BuzzFeed News tried
to identify as many “withheld” accounts as it could. To do
so, we used Twitter’s search interface, its API (its
“application programming interface” provided to developers),
database of removal requests, and other resources.
far, we’ve found 1,714 users who, based on Twitter’s own
API, have been withheld in at least one country. While this
represents the most comprehensive list of withheld accounts
ever made public, it’s unclear how representative it is of
the entire universe of withheld accounts. Twitter at times
also withholds specific tweets from certain countries; this
data set does not address those.
start, we seeded a database with users listed in Twitter
users’ personal blocklists, such as
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 and removal requests,
accounts we found through manual research, and users listed
on “ Cemetery
of Free Speech,” a website (no longer accessible at
the time of publication) that tracks accounts and tweets
withheld in Germany.
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 that
were, indeed, withheld in at least one country, we then used
Twitter’s API to find all of the users that the account
followed, and then checked whether any of those accounts had
continued this process until we could find no more withheld
users. In all, we examined nearly 800,000 accounts.
database of withheld users is, unavoidably, incomplete. Some
withheld accounts, for instance, may have been deactivated
(by Twitter or the user) or unwithheld before we could
identify them. And our approach to finding accounts likely
has its own blind spots.
encourage readers to send us examples of users we may have
missed. To submit an example,