Turkish elections 2023 in the shadow of disinformation


Research methods, ambiguous opinion polls, digital "political microtargeting" campaigns, fake news, and deceitful content, "asymmetric propaganda"... Turkey's ruling party deployed all available public and media power to entirely dominate the elections, which were held in two rounds within 14 days.

Türk bayrağı

The 2023 elections, in which we witnessed many facets of disinformation activities with a very high potential to change the voting tendencies of Turkish voters, were characterised by post-truth narratives that exacerbated the existing polarisation and appealed to emotions, which were used by both the government and some parts of the opposition. While lies, misleading statements and manipulated images and videos further stiffened the political discourse, the electoral process ensnared both the ruling party and the opposition coalitions in an "existence-non-existence" or "all or nothing" equation. In this article, we will focus on the most glaring disinformation activities that crystallised in dozens of different methods and manifested in thousands of different forms during the 2023 elections in Turkey.

In the run-up to the elections…

Struggling with many administrative and social problems, especially the inequality in income distribution, high inflation, and the cost of living, Turkey, awaiting the 2023 elections, was struck by two earthquakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 nine hours apart on February 6, 2023, with the epicentre in the province of Kahramanmaraş, followed by two earthquakes of magnitude 6.3 and 5.8 in the province of Hatay on February 20, leaving behind a catastrophe that spanned 10 provinces and a great disaster that killed more than 50 thousand people.

While the devastation in the aftermath of the earthquake put significant pressure on the ruling party, with allegations of a lack of oversight in the implementation of building safety and standards regulations, the amnesty for building violations granted by the ruling coalition (People's Alliance) in 2018 for buildings that were not constructed in compliance with the law, were illegal, or were built without any inspection resurfaced as a topic of discussion. Shortcomings in search and rescue operations during and after the earthquake, as well as significant difficulties in delivering aid to the affected areas, sparked a wave of outrage, particularly in the opposition camp.

With an earthquake, an economic depression, ongoing conflicts and wars in neighbouring regions, and freedom of expression, especially in the media, further curtailed by new internet and disinformation laws, was Turkey truly poised for an election process?

The Nation's Alliance, a broad opposition front led by the CHP and including a former prime minister and ministers who had split from the government, was expected to have the moral upper hand in the upcoming elections over the People's Alliance, which appeared frayed and jaded by wars, an attempted coup, the rising cost of living and, finally, the twin earthquakes.

The first flare of a large-scale disinformation campaign: Opposition’s Presidential Candidate Crisis

In Turkey, where 90 % of traditional media is controlled by the government, social networks were the only forum where the opposition could express its views and hold its own debates, despite legal and security restrictions. As such, these platforms, where the younger generation in particular actively participated, generated content and spent time, also provided considerable opportunities for political participation and debate. In addition to the army of trolls and disinformation campaigns, some government-backed or affiliated organisations recognised this platform and encouraged individuals who were distant from both the AKP and the opposition bloc. In particular, influencers who had amassed a large fan and viewer base in the gaming industry and content creation on Twitch, Youtube and Twitter, who had gained a reputation for entertaining performances and were coded as knowledgeable figures by Generation Z, exploited the vulnerability of young people by generating decontextualised, misleading content and misinformative posts that were ostensibly satirical of the opposition but in fact distorted facts and engaged in character assassinations. This negative attitude evolved from a non-negotiating, non-peaceful tone to an alienating and polarising line towards the electoral process, and finally to systematic, highly aggressive and hate-filled posts.

In the context of the opposition's failure to agree on a common presidential candidate and the "non-candidacy" of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, one of the strongest possible candidates, accounts that had long been manipulated by "astroturfing" tactics and had been swayed by, engaged in, shared and circulated these messages continued to spread messages and content on social networks, including hate speech highlighting his ethnic origin and religious beliefs and insults aimed at tarnishing his reputation.

What is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is a manipulation technique used in the media, particularly on the Internet (social networks and social media applications), in which an artificially created phenomenon is presented as if it were a spontaneous event with widespread support, with the aim of influencing public opinion. The aim is to create the impression that a political or social message or campaign is backed by a segment of the public (such as voters or a cohort of individuals), while concealing the true financial and ideological sponsors behind it. Astroturfing tactics include the use of popular hashtags, Twitter 'trending topics', the sudden emergence of Facebook groups as part of such campaigns, and advertising on social networks. The term 'astroturfing' is derived from the misleading advertising practices of Astroturf, a manufacturer of synthetic turf that is designed to look like natural grass. This manipulation technique disregards reality and creates a false perception through the use of fabricated content, without allowing natural processes to take place and giving the illusion of substantial support for the crafted message.

The culmination of this artificially heightened state of tension occurred on 4 February. During the "Build Your Future Youth Festival" in Istanbul, an incident occurred in which a young member of the audience interrupted a speech by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), by shouting "Don't run for the presidency, Kılıçdaroğlu". People in the area intervened to confront the young man. In the immediate aftermath of this event, a notable uptick in messages expressing disagreement with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's potential presidential candidacy was observed on digital media, including Twitch and Youtube, hashtag campaigns were launched and became a trending topic. However, when the young man met with Kılıçdaroğlu after the event, he stated in response to a journalist's question that he would consider voting for Kılıçdaroğlu.  

The same night and the following day, a group of young people, who were not members of the CHP but claimed to have voted for the party, assembled in front of the CHP headquarters, brandishing banners with the message "Don't run for the presidency, Kılıçdaroğlu" at different intervals. Otherwise, there were no significant social protests or actions specifically targeting Kılıçdaroğlu. In this context, it should also be recalled that the average of opinion polls conducted by polling companies in the run-up to the presidential elections consistently showed that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had a higher level of voter support than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Election atmosphere and asymmetric propaganda

Two months prior to the election, the Nation Alliance, which was led by the CHP and included centre-liberal, conservative democratic and political Islamist parties, nominated Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for the presidency. In addition, the Labour and Freedom Alliance, made up of Kurds, Greens and Socialists and led by the third-largest party in parliament, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu. Soon after, we witnessed an unprecedented scale of disinformation, notably in the form of widespread "asymmetric propaganda" by the ruling party and its representatives, which has never been seen on such a scale in the history of Turkey but has occasionally been seen in previous elections.

What is asymmetric propaganda?

Asymmetric propaganda is a tactic used by individuals or groups, including institutions, to disseminate messages that advance their own propaganda or interests. This is achieved by adopting the appearance or campaign strategy of their opponents, often through imitation or mimicry. This strategy is often used during election periods to erode the synergy and motivational dynamics of the target group, destabilise its unity and steer its focus in the desired direction through various forms of negative propaganda. The purpose is to alter the opinions of individuals within the target group or to create a sense of detachment, to neutralise the target group through extensive disinformation and to redirect them towards the opposing faction (i.e., the propagators themselves).

The Justice and Development Party was unable to develop a fresh and compelling narrative that could effectively engage the public and spread it among its cadres. As a result, it relied heavily on a remaining asset, namely security policies. It deployed propaganda tactics through the defence industry and security policies, effectively captivating the national pride of the population with unmanned aerial vehicles (İHA), armed drones (SİHA), military vessels and aircraft. In their quest to appease and consolidate the electorate through fear-based political tactics, they also did not hesitate to label the opposition and its candidate as a security threat.

In this new phase after announcing his candidacy, both Kılıçdaroğlu, who had already been tattered by astroturfing campaigns, and the political parties allied to him were linked to armed groups. Meanwhile, election pamphlets were distributed to voters in many cities in Central Anatolia. These pamphlets, which emulated Kılıçdaroğlu's campaign, contained issues that either were the opposite of Kılıçdaroğlu's stance or had nothing to do with his political campaign. Fake posters were also hung on outdoor billboards. These pamphlets and posters listed various vows that were not part of Kılıçdaroğlu's campaign, such as "granting autonomy to the Kurds", " encouraging same-sex marriages" and " halting the production of armed drones".

However, the Grand Istanbul Rally of the AK Party, which was held a week before the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential elections, was the apex. At this rally, which drew hundreds of thousands of people and was broadcasted to millions via public and private television as well as social networks, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan displayed a video that had been altered and provided his own commentary. In this altered video, a sequence depicting PKK leader Murat Karayılan and his entourage uttering the phrase "haydi" (let's go) was inserted into Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's campaign video "Sana Söz" (A Promise to You). This particular visual content was extracted from a digital video that the PKK made available on the internet in 2021. While the entire opposition, including Kılıçdaroğlu himself, strongly denounced the doctored video that was disseminated mere 48 hours prior to the election, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made another reference to the same tampered video during a discussion with youth at the Presidential Library. He asserted that Kılıçdaroğlu spoke "the phrase "haydi" (let’ go) in unison with the leader of a terrorist organization." Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated on TRT Haber on the 22nd of May, after progressing to the second round of the election, that "Kılıçdaroğlu had recorded videos with individuals in Kandil." Erdoğan persisted in the conversation when the individual facing him expressed confusion, reiterating, "Manipulated or not… Be that as it may, these recordings were made."

Asymmetric propaganda spills over into META ads

The asymmetric propaganda persisted not solely within the electoral sphere and conventional media, but also extended to Facebook and Instagram, where tens of thousands of TRY were spent to disseminate fake, manipulated, and out-of-context content to millions of users via the META ads service with “political microtargeting” method. 

What is political microtargeting?

Political microtargeting is the practice of delivering customised political advertising to users by leveraging their personal information and digital footprint, using sophisticated digital advertising modelling techniques. Through political microtargeting, politicians can deliver customised ads that are specifically tailored to the unique characteristics of individual voters. Microtargeting and traditional marketing differ in their approach to ad delivery, with the former relying on digital data to convey the ad. For example, a politician may be able to target voters within a specific geographic location and age cohort and deliver targeted ads about retirement policy only to that group. This approach can influence voter behaviour. Political microtargeting has gained notoriety through high-profile cases such as the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, which involved manipulation of the 2016 US presidential election, and the Brexit campaign in the UK.

For instance, in parallel with the above-mentioned moves against Kılıçdaroğlu, the Facebook page titled "Haydi...ama nereye?" (Let's go...but where?) was one of the accounts that generated content for black propaganda and disinformation, promoted fake posters and videos as advertisements, and circulated other manipulated content with the intention of deceiving voters.

An examination of the data of advertisements made through the "Haydi..ama nereye?" account in the Meta Ad Library, which provides insight into the advertising spending of political parties and organisations on Facebook, shows that more than 160 asymmetric propaganda and disinformation contents targeting the opposition were created in the last week and advertisements worth more than 167,000 TL were placed, totalling 205,000 TL by the end of the election process. Each of these fake, misleading, and manipulated contents was presented by META as personalised content based on the voters' Facebook and Instagram browsing profiles and was viewed by an average of 1 million people. Interestingly, META announced that it had established a group called the Turkey Election Operations Centre for election security and would work with 90 media and fact-checking organisations, including Teyit and Doğruluk Payı, to verify information.

Google searches provide a platform for disinformation.

Prior to and after the election, it was widely acknowledged and repeatedly observed by journalists and researchers that anti-Kılıçdaroğlu asymmetric propaganda, as well as fake news or other disinformation content produced by such methods, completely dominated the top search results on Google. 

According to Journo News Watch, Google promoted pro-government media by 81%. Google's algorithm prominently displayed President Erdoğan's statements at the top of search results, while thwarting the opposition despite significant user interest.

Emre Kızılkaya, vice-president of the International Press Institute, is one of the frequent voices drawing attention to this issue. In his article entitled "Propagating Anti-Kılıçdaroğlu Fake News, Google is Promoting Pro-Government Media by 81%", Kızılkaya presented empirical evidence that Google fails to offer diversity to news consumers and shows a clear preference for media outlets that support the government.


Events during the election process not only proved the unfairness of the competing candidates, but also revealed that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the strongest opposition candidate, was subjected to a massive digital and media blockade. Kılıçdaroğlu's messages that slipped through or were 'allowed' to break through this blockade mostly consisted of content that he never actually said, but was manipulated, altered, or distorted. The overwhelming majority of society heard Kılıçdaroğlu's voice not directly from him or through his campaign, but in a tainted and twisted form through asymmetrical propaganda methods. Eliminating this information disorder is imperative if Turkey is to meet its needs for a better, more inclusive democracy and freedom of expression. Otherwise, the elections will only perpetuate cycles that lead to further regression of democratic values for Turkish democracy, which has already gone through unique trials and challenges, as seen in this and previous elections.