The upcoming Turkish elections on 14 May, considered by many to be the most crucial crossroads in the history of Turkish politics, have already proved to be the most marked by social media during its pre-election process.
The escalating competition between the government and the opposition continues on many other fronts on social media, especially on Twitter, as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been ruling the country for 20 years, and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan both feel the real possibility of losing for the first time.
In the run-up to the elections, government-backed social media accounts have been targeting the opposition, with smear campaigns against the Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and Turkey’s third largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), according to an expert report published by Medyascope.
Anti-opposition defamation, fake news, rumours and negative opinions about the elections posted by accounts disguised as the opposition is on the rise, especially after the HDP, which will run in the elections with the left-wing Labor and Freedom Alliance, decided not to nominate a presidential candidate, giving Kılıçdaroğlu the edge on Erdoğan in the race.
The unexpected attention received by the Homeland (Memleket) Party, a minor party founded by ex-CHP members and competing in the elections with its own presidential candidate Muharrem İnce, is suspected to be implicitly sponsored by the government through social media accounts in order to divide the opposition votes.
NewsLabTurkey Director Sarphan Uzunoğlu drew attention to the ‘astroturfer’ accounts on Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp, which are centrally controlled and financed monthly or per campaign. Astroturfer accounts pretend to be part of mass grassroots movements and act in coordination with the ‘social media bots’ which are automated fake accounts, all aiming to manipulate the political communication processes, Uzunoğlu told Deutsche Welle.
“There is an intense bot network flow to Twitter these days, right before the Turkish elections which may be the most important test of Turkey in political communication and politics,” said Uzunoğlu, adding: “For now, most of these accounts have been created and are not actively posting; but you don’t have to be wise to see that these were created for the elections.”
Jailed former HDP Co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş also warned about the AKP’s plans to manipulate the elections on voting day recently. “The Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun and his team prepare to give early vote rates to create the impression that Erdoğan has won,” Demirtaş said.
Voters in Turkey are familiar with the AKP’s efforts to manipulate the results on the voting day from previous elections, allegedly in order to distract the opponent poll watchers away from the ballots. For instance, in the 2018 elections, the state-run Anadolu Agency, responsible for live-broadcasting the results, prioritised poll data entry in the electoral areas where the AKP was stronger, which made the AKP’s votes seem much higher than they were.
The Directorate of Communications is also responsible for the government’s social media operations in the pre-election process. The internet propaganda and manipulation team called ‘AK Trolls’ is claimed to be directly affiliated with Fahrettin Altun.
Another team of ‘internet trolls’ allegedly working for the AKP operates under Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. In January, CHP MP Özgür Özel argued that Soylu created a “troll army” with 8,000 people on a payroll for online targeting of opponents in Turkey and abroad.
While the impact of bot accounts on social media is increasing, the sharp increase in the expenditures of the Presidential Communications Directorate is also noteworthy.
According to a report by Birgün Newspaper, the budget of the Directorate of Communication for 2023 is 1.6 billion liras (over $83 million), as the expenditures of the Presidency increased by 274 percent compared to last year.
The Presidency spent 6.6 million liras (over $340,000) for representation and promotion in 2021 and 144.7 million liras (over $7,500,000) in the first half of 2022. For 2023, the institution is expected to receive a representation and promotion allowance of 327 million liras (over $16,900,000).
See also: AKP’s social media warfare-1: Anti-opposition conspiracies invade Twitter ahead of elections