As Turkey prepares for the second round of the presidential election on 28 May between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition unity candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the threat from cyber and influence operations remains high. Following reports of increased disinformation threats prior to the first-round vote on 14 May, three opposition media outlets alleged they were targeted in cyber attacks on the day of the election. One outlet even attributed an outage of its systems to a “foreign-based incursion”. 1, 2, 3
- Several state-linked threat actors, both domestic and foreign, likely have intent to disrupt and/or interfere with the electoral process or influence the election outcome through disinformation in the lead up to the 28 May run-off vote.
- Such operations will likely seek to sow discord among Turkish citizens and amplify false narratives, including casting doubt on the integrity of the election process.
- States will highly likely continue to conduct disinformation campaigns ahead of and during critical elections, as a tactic to promote their foreign policy objectives. Such campaigns have low costs relative to their potential rewards, particularly compared with direct election interference.
Ahead of the first-round vote, media outlets on 18 April reported that around 12,000 Russian- and Hungarian-speaking accounts on Twitter had reactivated and begun posting in Turkish, alongside other reactivated Turkish-speaking accounts, with multitudes of bot followers to amplify the reach of their posts. 4 The reactivation of previously Russian-speaking Twitter bot accounts now posting in Turkish highly likely points to concerted disinformation efforts targeting voters ahead of the second-round run-off and in the weeks to come.
Separately, opposition candidate Kilicdaroglu raised concerns over election interference from ministers and officials in Turkey’s Communication Ministry, and “dark websites” propagating deepfake content prior to the 14 May vote. He also rejected accusations by pro-government media outlets that he would turn Turkey to the West. 5, 6
Security researchers have previously reported on Russian state-linked media outlets seeking to sow division within Turkey concerning increased political and security co-operation with EU and NATO states. 7 Kilicdaroglu has this month also accused Russia of carrying out disinformation operations against voters in Turkey, attributing “montages, conspiracies, deep fakes and tapes” to Russian state-linked actors. 8 These comments followed candidate Muharrem İnce’s withdrawal from the presidential race after claiming he was subject to a “slander campaign”. 9 The Ankara public prosecutor’s office later announced an investigation into allegations of extortion involving a sex tape allegedly showing İnce that surfaced on social media.
Turkey’s “disinformation bill”, passed on 13 October 2022 and described by opposition figures as a “censorship bill”, criminalises “publicly disseminating, purely with the intent to cause anxiety, fear or panic, false information about the country’s internal and external security, public order and general health in a way likely to damage the public peace”. Non-governmental organisations ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch have expressed concerns over the introduction of the legislation ahead of the election, saying “the vote will test whether voters in Turkey can rely on social media for independent news and to express their views on the election and its outcome”. 10
What to expect
We assess state threat actors, both domestic and foreign, are highly likely to perceive Turkey’s media and social media landscapes as highly susceptible to disinformation operations, particularly over issues concerning Turkey’s geopolitical and economic relationships with regional states. Likewise, the threat of between one to three years in prison under the October anti-disinformation legislation likely indicates journalists and opposition-aligned media outlets are particularly vulnerable to prosecution if they carry out counter-disinformation efforts. Operations leveraging deepfakes of political figures in Turkey and abroad are likely to also continue to target the Turkish population in the coming weeks.
More broadly, both domestic and foreign state and state-aligned cyber threat actors will continue to target elections in cyber and information operations, to influence the outcome and sow discord among voters. The use of deepfake visual and audio as part of such campaigns is likely to exacerbate these threats, while cyber-enabled disruption to media organisations and election infrastructure is likely to remain a key tactic for groups seeking to undermine the election process and legitimacy of the vote.
Control Risks assesses Erdogan is likely to secure a new term as president on 28 May. However, monitoring the online and disinformation environment in the weeks leading up to the vote will be critical to staying abreast of potential changes in the political dynamic and any short-term impacts beyond the digital realm, including signs of public discontent moving to the streets.
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