In May 2023, presidential and parliamentary elections took place in Türkiye, which constituted an important step in the process of democratization. On May 14, 2023, the first round of the elections failed to secure a majority for the presidency, but the parliamentary elections were completed and the majority in the parliament was once again held by the Erdoğan’s Party government. On May 28, 2023, the second round of presidential elections was completed and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected as the new President of Türkiye for a third term.
These elections were marked not only by the competition between candidates, coalitions and propaganda, but also by influence operations on social media, which made the competition not only at the ballot box but also in the digital world. The most used social media applications in Turkey are WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram. However, Instagram and X (Twitter) were used the most in the influence operations during the election period. In this post, we will examine the influence operations in Türkiye during the last election period and the impact of such threats on election security.
Concerns about election-related disinformation and misinformation exploded after the 2016 US presidential elections. The issue become an agenda-setter, with influence operations attacks in all elections held in Turkey since the 2018 presidential elections. Especially during election periods, the increase in fake social media accounts, misleading propaganda and public opinion manipulations have led to a lack of trust in elections and election results. By creating fake news and fake accounts with social media and other online platforms, an environment has been created where personal data is leaked, and political competition promotes the creation of different perceptions. Organized influence operations not only affected the political reputation of the opponents but also shook the belief in the democraticzation process.
How Influence Operations Happened
Election influence operations can be categorized under the headings of fake accounts, fake polls and misleading information. These developments started with the establishment of the six-table alliance: a unification of six political parties in Türkiye in preparation for the presidential elections to be held on February 12, 2022. This triggered speculation on social media especially X and Instagram, about the candidate to be chosen by the six-party alliance to run against the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On March 3, when the candidate of the six-table alliance had not yet been announced, IYI Party Chairperson Meral Akşener made a harsh statement that she was leaving the table because the candidate that the party deemed appropriate was not accepted by the other members of the table. Yet she returned to the table in less than 24 hours because of the pressure she was subjected to on social media, revealing how decisive it will be in the election process. On March 11, after a new alliance was formed and Sinan Oğan announced his candidacy, the situation started to take shape again through alternative scenarios. Starting from how the ministries will be shared, which institutions will be closed if which candidate becomes the leader, which alliances can be formed if there is no single leader, which alliances can be formed if there is no single leader, and the approaches of the candidates to the economy, claims circulated through social media accounts of unknown origin before the strategies of the candidates had been announced and their election messaging had taken shape. On March 31, when it was announced in the official gazette that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Sinan Oğan and Muharrem İnce would compete in the 2023 presidential elections, a major offensive operation started especially on social media regarding the rivalry between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Influence operations started as mutual attacks with the support of the youth branches of the government and the opposition, but in the final stages of the election, the opposition dominated social media. Even before the candidates announced their strategies, news started to spread that the elections were being interfered with through bot accounts. For these bot accounts of unknown origin, the opposition blamed the government and the government blamed the opposition. Social media has come to determine the election process to such an extent that the discussions there under the hashtags “continue” and “okay” have been carried over to the discussions between the candidates.
With the start of the election propaganda process, there has been a significant increase in news and information of unknown origin. There were cases of manipulating public opinion and giving false information about the candidates. Attempts were made to create a different perception of the election with information such as fake voter lists and survey results of unknown origin that would cast a shadow on the secrecy of the election. When the election propaganda process started, nearly a thousand fake accounts were opened with the names of candidates.
Another important form of information pollution was experienced with the publication of survey results. In March 2023, election polls were published even before the candidate of the sextet was chosen. According to the results of the polls that were circulating, it seemed that whoever the sextet nominated would win the presidential race. From March 31st, when the candidates were officially announced, to May 11th, when Muharrem İnce withdrew as a candidate, most of the polls showed that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu would win the election in the first round. In fact, in all the polls released after May 11, the gap widened even more, and it was considered certain that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu would be elected. With results showing Kılıçdaroğlu with 49.3 percent support and Erdoğan only 43.7 percent announced by the polling company, which usually announces the results of the polls in the last week of the election periods and knows the results correctly by a very small margin, celebrations about Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory started on many online platforms, including social media. Many people thought that the results were finalized before the election day.
Influence operations were not only directed at election results or propaganda, but also caused sensitive personal information about the candidates to be spread on social media accounts. The exposure of personal information reached such a level that one of the candidates, Muharrem İnce, announced that he had to withdraw as a candidate because of “reputation assassinations” against him. In his withdrawal speech, Mr. İnce stated that the personal information shared was not his, that the bank receipts were fake, that the sex tape released was a montage and that the Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organization was behind it all. This situation undermined the consistency of the election. These violations led to concerns that the election results were tampered with, not only before the election but also on the day of the election, as information that should have been kept confidential began to be published on social media, such as photographs of ballot box minutes and photographs of ballots. Claims were made that Kılıçdaroğlu won the election, but that an activity was carried out in favor of Erdoğan. Throughout the night of May 14th, the hashtags #ownyourvoteTürkiye and #YSKextendsappealdeadlines were trending topics on social media and a war environment was depicted on social media.
Aside from what happened on the night of the election, the last two months of the election were subjected to aggressive influence operations. In the rallies held during the election process, the question of whose rally had more participants became a question for every rally. Diverging claims and photos were posted on social media. In fact, images of rallies from other countries were spread on social media as if they belonged to a rally in Türkiye, and there were discussions about this situation.
The election propaganda process led to posts by one side pretending to belong to the other side. This form of propaganda, which is called asymmetric propaganda, revealed a novel way of carrying out propaganda activities, increasing the intensity of misinformation. With simple editing tricks, intense debates were carried out over situations that did not actually exist. Asymmetric propaganda targeted undecided and younger voters.
Due to warnings from candidates about fake videos produced with artificial intelligence, people did not even trust the videos they saw, and the hunt for videos produced with artificial intelligence started. In the last 10 days of the election, Kılıçdaroğlu fingered Russia and warned them to keep their “Hands off the Turkish state”. This situation further reduced trust in audio-visual sources. For every sound, image and video that emerged with a negative impact, montage reactions began, claiming that they did not reflect the truth and that a smear campaign was being carried out by manipulating images, videos and sounds. Some information produced by artificial intelligence that does not fully reflect reality was disseminated.
Threats to Democracy
During the election process, influence operations and speculations prevented the democratic process from taking place correctly. With the multifaceted social media propaganda during the process, a clear perception of the election result began to take shape in the majority of society before the real election result was known. So much so that it became possible to see the results of the polls in social media posts resembling a football match where fans follow the score from moment to moment. Even on the night of the elections, when the results were announced, there were reactions on social media to the official news source of the state due to the differences between the results published from two different news sources.
On the night of the election results, when the voters’ sense of trust was damaged, a different result environment emerged on social media and television channels. Even when the official results were finally announced, claims of errors in the election minutes and theft of votes were spread on social media, creating a perception that the process would continue and that nothing was over. After an extremely chaotic election propaganda process, this situation reached its peak on the night the election results were counted. It was a night the public could not believe.
While intended to prioritize freedom of expression, the election process was dominated by information pollution. The perception of democracy suffered great damage. The outcome was watched in an extremely insecure environment. . Since the media, which plays an important role in democracies, is under the influence of the government, trust in the mainstream media has decreased, and only social media is trusted for information. However, the ease of dissemination of information of unknown origin on social media and the breadth of its sphere of influence have made it very difficult to access accurate information. The misinformation, fake news and manipulative posts on social media created an environment far from democracy.
Türkiye went through a challenging period during the last election. In addition to social and psychological disruptions such as economic difficulties and the Kahramanmaras earthquake before the election, there was a period dominated by perception management due to influence operations, especially on social media. When the propaganda period first began, social media influence operations were actively used by both the government and the opposition. However, by the final stage of the election propaganda period, the opposition had an active dominance on social media. By the end of this period, the government’s influence on social media had diminished and the opposition began to respond to Erdoğan’s speeches using only the mainstream media. The government initially blamed the opposition for the attacks on social media. It claimed that the opposition was doing so with the support of the PKK and FETÖ terrorist organizations. So much so that, rationally speaking, there was a 20-year tired government, widely perceived as inadequate in responding to the earthquake and struggling with economic difficulties, and on the other side was an alliance that promised harmony and prosperity, with the Gandhi of Türkiye as the leader, where peace rhetoric prevailed. In such an environment, Kılıçdaroğlu was likely to be elected, and the information spread on all social networking platforms supported this. In the end, however, the election results reveal the inaccuracy of information and perceptions. Even before the official results were announced, voters had a hard time with the unfounded news, one-sided victory celebrations and the shadow cast over the credibility of the election process. This made voters less tolerant of the chaotic atmosphere in the last week of the election. In fact, the chaos and lack of stability within the promised six-table alliance inevitably made voters long for the past.
In general, the people of Turkey prefer a charismatic leader. However, with the impact of Erdoğan’s 20 years in power, social fatigue and boredom during the last election period led to a feeling that Erdoğan would lose the elections. The fact that this situation was supported by influencing operations on social media led to the certainty of a Kılıçdaroğlu victory. However, as the election entered the final period, Erdoğan’s declining influence on social media and his use of the mainstream media to respond to every issue by citing himself as a source have strengthened the pro-Erdoğan sentiment among a certain segment of the society. On the other hand, the opposition’s attempts to maintain its influence on social media and the creation of information pollution with news of unknown origin throughout the entire election period caused social disgust. The social media influence of the opposition, which was good at the beginning, became one of the most important factors that caused it to lose in the final stretch. Even in Kahramanmaraş, where the government was certain to lose, the election was completed with 75% of Erdoğan votes. Perhaps the government’s electoral strategy of distancing itself from influence operations in the last stages of the election was the source of its success, who knows?
This problem resonates not only in Türkiye, but worldwide due to the contradiction between what is created on social media and the actual election. These influence operations cause many different negative consequences such as distorting the will of voters, preventing freedom of expression, targeting minority groups, and interfering in personal spaces. For democracies to function, it will be necessary to increase political and educational efforts to ensure security not only in the physical but also in the cyber world. The influence operations experienced during the last election period in Türkiye may affect our democratic processes, but it is always possible to cope with these threats by acting consciously and adhering to democratic values.