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Turkey Elections: Deepfakes, disinformation ‘misdirect’ voters ahead of runoff

False claims and montage videos have featured heavily in campaign leading to Sunday’s presidential rerun.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at Justice and Development Party headquarters, Ankara, Turkey, May 15, 2023.

ISTANBUL — Claims and counterclaims, montaged videos and even fake sex tapes have blighted Turkey’s elections, leaving fact-checkers battling to unravel a mass of disinformation during the campaign. 

Voters return to the polling booths for a second time on Sunday to decide whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will extend his 20-year rule by another five years or if opposition challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu will become the country’s 13th president. 

A lengthy electoral campaign has seen politicians from all sides make unsubstantiated assertions, further obscuring the facts in what is widely seen as Turkey’s most vital vote in recent years. 

Probably the clearest example comes from Erdogan’s campaign in the form of a montage video purporting to show the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) backing Kilicdaroglu. 

The footage, first shown at an Erdogan rally in Istanbul May 7, claimed to depict de facto PKK leader Murat Karayilan and fatigue-clad fighters singing and clapping along to the opposition’s election song and was spliced with footage of Kilicdaroglu. 

Despite being an obvious fake, it has reinforced Erdogan’s message that the opposition is soft on terrorism due to the support Kilicdaroglu has received from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has its roots in Turkey’s Kurdish movement and Erdogan maintains is tied to the PKK. 

As recently as this week, Erdogan referred to the video as evidence of ties between the opposition and the PKK, which has waged a 39-year insurgency, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. 

“Kilicdaroglu shot videos with terrorists in Qandil,” he said during an interview with state broadcaster TRT on Monday, referring to the PKK’s base in northern Iraq. 

“Montage or not, they shot videos with them in Qandil and PKK members showed their support to Kilicdaroglu with videos,” he noted.

Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) has since lodged a criminal complaint against Erdogan over the claims. 

Fact-checking organization Teyit has examined dozens of claims made during the election campaign and found inaccuracies coming from all quarters. 

The nonprofit, which was established six years ago to verify or refute claims made in traditional news outlets and on social media, showed Kilicdaroglu repeating an often made claim about Erdogan’s wealth that it showed to be false. 

The claim comes from a speech Erdogan made in 1994 as he fought a successful campaign to become Istanbul mayor. 

For years it has been claimed that he brandished his wedding ring during the speech and pledged that if he achieved greater wealth, people could call him a thief. 

Teyit, however, showed Erdogan was holding a ring he said came from a supporter who had donated the jewelry toward his mayoral campaign. He made no claims about his own finances. 

Can Semercioglu, head of communications at Teyit, said disinformation as a phenomenon was present in previous elections but had become more pronounced during the current campaign. 

“In the 2023 elections we are seeing that disinformation is being voiced by politicians and used as a tool of political propaganda,” he told Al-Monitor. 

“In the rally squares, misinformation expressed directly by politicians takes precedence over the public’s right to receive accurate information. We can say that it is during an election period that disinformation is decisive,” Semercioglu noted. 

He added that promoting disinformation led to “voter misdirection” and could influence voting behavior. It also poses the risk of deepening polarization in Turkish society. 

Some of the false claims are easy to dismiss. Erdogan’s claim earlier this month that the CHP was in power at the time of the 1999 Marmara earthquake when, as with February’s quakes in southern Turkey, the government was heavily criticized for its poor response. 

Although the 1999 coalition government was led by a party formed by former CHP members, at the time it was Erdogan’s current ally, ultranationalist leader Devlet Bahceli, who was serving as deputy prime minister. 

Other claims are more tricky, such as Erdogan’s boast that a crowd of 1.7 million — around one-tenth of Istanbul’s population — attended his May 7 rally. Teyit estimated the likely number at 690,000. 

Fake images are said to have played a part in one candidate — Muharrem Ince of the Homeland Party — withdrawing his bid for the presidency days before the first round of voting. 

An explicit recording circulating online was quickly shown to be a fake, and Ince said it had been made using footage taken from an Israeli porn website. 

The disinformation spread on social media can also be bizarre at times, such as the claim that the opposition’s two-handed “heart” gesture originated with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. 

According to the International Press Institute, there has been an “unparalleled level of organized disinformation” during the election campaign. 

“Truth and factual information have come under a coordinated assault from multiple sources, with the government playing a central role in this troubling phenomenon,” Emre Kizilkaya, head of the institute’s Turkey committee, told the Reuters news agency. 

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