Bahtiyar Duysak from Paderborn worked for Twitter in San Francisco. And freed the world from Trump’s tweets for eleven minutes. Was that on purpose?
Duysak wants to have a "quiet life" again for now and now sells used wind turbines Photo: Veit Mette
To meet the man who briefly took away one of the most important instruments of power from the President of the United States, you have to go to East Westphalia. Paderborn’s train station is manageable. Five tracks, regional trains from Bielefeld or Hanover stop here, only rarely an ICE. Washington and the White House are far away, California and the headquarters of the major Internet companies even further. A young man in a white track jacket and washed-out jeans waits outside the bakery in the station building. "Hello, I’m Bahtiyar," he introduces himself.
At the beginning of November, the news went around the world that Donald Trump’s Twitter account had been blocked. For eleven minutes, no one was able to see the messages that Trump types into his cell phone day after day and that radiate a bizarre fascination in their complete lack of filtering.
The account has almost 50 million followers, editorial offices around the world monitor it, stock markets react to individual tweets, governments analyze the news for consequences for international politics.
In the days that followed, Trump’s Twitter suspension dominated the U.S. media, the discussion rounds of political commentators, and the jokes of late-night talkers. As if they were a magic formula, Whoopi Goldberg repeated the words over and over during a television appearance, "Eleven minutes, eleven minutes." Even though Twitter quickly explained that it was a mistake, it briefly looked as if the company had given in to the demand of many Trump opponents to mute the president for his often inflammatory short messages.
All he wants: to live a "quiet life"
It took a long time for Bahtiyar Duysak to agree to talk to taz am wochenende after the first request in December. At the end of November, in a video interview with the Californian online service TechCrunch, he had made public that he, a 29-year-old German of Turkish origin, had been the one who had triggered the blocking as an employee at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. He spoke of an oversight; on his last day at work, he had simply not worked cleanly enough. His statements sounded very vague. He declined almost all media inquiries after that.
As if they were a magic formula, Whoopi Goldberg kept repeating the words: ‘Eleven minutes, eleven minutes’.
Before the meeting, he wrote in a message that he really just wanted to continue living "a quiet life." However, his posts on Twitter and Facebook also tell of the fact that he is flattered by the attention that his confession brought him. On Facebook, he posts a screenshot of a Google search for his name. It returns more than a quarter of a million hits. Many politicians don’t get as much attention as he does, he comments, followed by two smiley faces.
To tell his story, he suggests a Chinese restaurant in downtown Paderborn. There’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, the waiters largely leave you alone. In the hours that follow, there will be a lot of talk about what exactly Duysak wants to make public, how he phrases things. Sometimes he interrupts himself and remarks that it’s better not to write down what you’ve just said, it could give the wrong impression. "There’s so much that can go wrong."
He looks younger than he is. As he talks, he often plays with the zipper of his track jacket. And he keeps brushing his dark hair out of his forehead. Because the photographer is coming another day, he has left the gel out today.
No more than a quirky candidate
He has brought a friend with him to the meeting. He sometimes depends on his advice, he says. Fares Farah is Syrian, 34 years old, has been in Germany for ten years, and Duysak and he met while studying.
So how did he, Duysak, get from Paderborn to Twitter headquarters? "I wanted to treat myself to a longer stay in America because I had gone through my studies so hectically." After graduating from high school, he did an apprenticeship at the Mercedes dealership in Paderborn, then earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in Essen, after which he went to Birmingham, England, for a master’s degree in banking. He says several times, "I’m ambitious, I want to achieve something."
He flies to the U.S. in December 2015, when he is 26, Barack Obama is still president and Donald Trump is just a quirky candidate in the large field of Republican candidates. Duysak enrolls at a university near San Francisco, for a study-and-work program in business administration. "I wanted to get experience in Silicon Valley, and in that program, after a year of study, there was a work permit for a year." He is fascinated by the American promise of advancement. "There are many important companies founded by immigrants. In America, anyone can build something for themselves."
When he talks about his time in the U.S., Duysak drifts off into details. He still sits in front of a half-full plate; his friend goes to the buffet more often.
In the engine room of the digital revolution
After a year at the California university, he looks for a job. He lands at a service company that sends him to YouTube. The job is to determine which videos should be blocked in which countries, which clips should be preceded by advertising, and which should not be used to earn money for ethical reasons.
YouTube is part of Google’s Alphabet group. Duysak has now arrived in the engine room of the digital revolution. He likes it, even though the work often consists of nothing more than dull office routine. "But that’s also what fascinated me. They’re really just ordinary jobs with ordinary people – and yet you’re involved in big decisions that determine the rules of the Internet."
After a few months, he is contacted by Twitter. They are currently looking for employees with German language skills
After a few months, he is contacted by Twitter. They are currently looking for employees with German language skills, an acquaintance recommended him. Duysak changes jobs. He is hired by the service company ProUnlimited and joins a department that checks tweets and blocks accounts if they violate Twitter rules. A document confirming that Duysak worked there in this area from July 2017 is available to taz am wochenende.
"We did not specifically look for violations, but reviewed complaints from other users," he says. It’s about threats, harassment and insults. His job is to click through Twitter’s dark pages. The reported tweets are first processed by an algorithm, and only if the machine cannot make a clear decision is a new job added to an employee’s processing queue.
Up to 40 years in prison
"On my last day at work, a lot of very unlikely events came together," Duysak says. After hugging most of his colleagues to say goodbye, he wants to finish up any last tasks. He sees that one offending tweet is about something involving Trump, "but I thought for sure this is a fake account, there are countless of them." He would have to open an extra tool to verify the identity, he refrains. "I got a little sloppy there."
At least that’s his official version. Didn’t he after all see that it was the account @realDonaldTrump that he was blocking? Trump’s account has a blue checkmark visible to everyone to prove its authenticity. "It was simply a mistake," Duysak says. The fact that it was not intentional is also relevant under criminal law. You can go to jail for up to 40 years for cyberhacking in the United States.
He leaves his workplace around four in the afternoon. He can’t say whether a higher-ranking employee was still reviewing the blocking decision or whether it went into effect in real time. "Normally, you can’t do anything with high-profile accounts without the supervisor’s approval," Duysak says.
That Trump’s account is offline is immediately registered by several journalists. The suspension becomes breaking news, and many on the social networks speculate about the reasons – even after the account is back after eleven minutes. In a first tweet, Twitter speaks of a "human error by a Twitter employee. He said it would be investigated and everything would be done to prevent a recurrence.
Panic at Twitter headquarters
The incident is immediately a political issue. Some commentators see a security risk at Twitter. If something like this can happen by accident, can someone hijack Trump’s account and declare war on North Korea or Iran via tweet?
Panic broke out at Twitter headquarters in the hours after the suspension, the New York Times later wrote. Trump has paramount importance for the brand. He guarantees it worldwide attention, which virtually ensures the survival of the short message service in the competition with Facebook.
At the same time, the incident forced an unpleasant discussion on Twitter in the weeks that followed: According to the network’s rules, Trump should actually be permanently banned. He constantly insults political opponents, incites against minorities, and spreads false news.
And while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had indicated in the months before that the same rules applied to Trump as to all other users, he has to clarify in the days after the block: No, there are differences. Tweets with special news value are exempt from the deletion rules with which Twitter wants to combat hate on the Internet.
He quickly turns off his cell phone
Less than two hours after the first statement, Twitter wrote that it had found out that an employee from the customer support department was responsible for the blocking. He did it on his last day at work. Suddenly, the official version no longer sounds like a mistake, more like intent.
"And suddenly everyone was after me," Duysak says. That can make you a little paranoid. A few hundred people work at Twitter’s headquarters, spread over several floors of a block in San Francisco. The customer support department has its own floor. "Everyone there had realized that it had been my last day, since I had said goodbye to almost everyone."
It doesn’t take long for the first reporters to research his name. He turns off his cell phone, doesn’t answer messages that come in every minute. "I didn’t want to say anything about it at first, there was a lot at stake." Trump doesn’t respond until the next day, tweeting that a "rogue employee" blocked him.
The liberal part of the U.S. celebrates the anonymous Twitter employee as a hero. One woman tweets that she wants to marry him immediately – whoever he is – out of gratitude. Others are only half-jokingly suggesting him as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying, after all, that it cannot be ruled out that Trump will tweet the U.S. into another war at some point.
Star lawyers make overtures
But Duysak also sees the dangers of the excitement: A devout Muslim, he regularly attends a large mosque in California, volunteers there during the academic year. That’s easy to find on the web.
What if someone turns it into a story about a Muslim who had wanted to take revenge on the president for his anti-Muslim stance? Duysak would have a hard time fighting this public image.
Through acquaintances, several star lawyers contact him. They offer to represent him for a symbolic sum if he gets into legal trouble. "There are an awful lot of people who want to get in on the story to get themselves in the news." Which lawyer he chooses, he would not say. But so far, there have been no legal actions against him either.
A few days after his last day of work, he flies back to Germany. He missed his family. Many of his cousins live in Paderborn, his parents and his grandmother. The family has been rooted there for many decades.
Even in Indonesia they know him
Barely two weeks after his return, he decides to go public himself. He wants to control the image of himself.
His first appearance on TechCrunch and his explanation that he made a mistake go through the media worldwide. Even friends from Indonesia write to him that they saw him on TV. Twitter does not comment on his confession, no denial, no confirmation.
"I could have become a little Edward Snowden. But something like that comes with a high price, and I didn’t want to pay it."
He is relieved about how the German media reported: "The headlines often said: a German blocked Trump. People were proud of me, otherwise I probably would have been more the Turk." Countless women write to him to get in touch if he ever comes to their city. "But I never reply if I don’t know someone or can’t place them."
With all the encouragement he’s received from those who oppose Trump – hasn’t he considered being hailed as a hero? He played out that scenario, he says: "I could have been a little Edward Snowden. But something like that comes with a high price, and I didn’t want to pay it."
Moved back in with his parents
The U.S. is still the most powerful country in the world, he said, and the powerful there can cause you trouble in many ways – legally, economically. "For example, if I have a company later on that wants to do business in the U.S."
Bahtiyar Duysak is not the political activist many wanted to see in him. He sees himself as a businessman. He doesn’t want to obstruct anything.
This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always available from Saturday on the newsstand, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.
For the time being, he has moved back into his parents’ row house under the roof in Paderborn, but he has big plans. And that’s also why his friend Fares Farah is at the table all the time. Together, they have just founded a consulting firm, BFE Solutions. "There had been a plan ever since we studied in Essen that we would start our own business together at some point," Farah says.
In recent years, he has worked for a company that sold used wind turbines to Africa or Asia. Together, the two now sell solar panels, storage technologies and advise energy companies. The number of orders is still manageable. But it’s just getting started, Duysak says.
He was recently at a major startup trade show. Edward Snowden was on from Moscow, and Max Schrems, who wanted to force Facebook to adopt stricter data protection via a class action lawsuit, was sitting on the stage. Duysak came on after that.
With such a list of speakers, isn’t he also expected to take a political look at the Net? "No, they want entertainment from me." And again, he’s at the spin he wants the thing to have. "It’s a humorous story right now – and I want to keep it that way."