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Turkey’s opposition warns against deepfakes ahead of fateful elections

As the presidential race heats up in the lead-up to Turkey's consequential elections, the country’s main opposition party accuses the government of plotting a cyberwar against Erdogan’s top rival.
 Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and the presidential candidate of the Main Opposition alliance, speaks to supporters at a rally while campaigning for the presidential election on April 30, 2023 in Izmir, Turkey. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is holding campaign rallies across Turkey ahead of the countries May 14, 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections. The Kilicdaroglu-led Nation Alliance is representing six opposition parties in next month's election against Presi

ANKARA — With just 12 days to go until Turkey’s fateful elections and as polls give a knife-edge lead to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the country’s main opposition suggested on Tuesday that the ruling party was planning to try to sway the vote through deepfake audios. 

Speaking in an exclusive interview with private HaberTurk television, deputy chairman of the main opposition Ozgur Ozel said they received a tip that government officials were in talks with individuals on the dark web to release some deepfake audios ahead of elections. “Some preparations are underway. … We have received a tip [in regard] to the production of deepfake audios and dissemination of these fake audios through the dark web,” he said.

Ozel’s remarks followed a cryptic midnight warning by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who accused Erdogan’s communications czar, Fahrettin Altun, and three of his staff members of trying to strike deals on the dark web. 

“Only 2 days left until the 10 final days. Let me issue my final warning,” the main opposition leader tweeted. “The dark web world which you are trying to strike a deal with will lead you to fall into the hands of foreign intelligence. Pulling a Cambridge Analytica is beyond your capacity boys! This is my final warning.”

British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was at the center of a scandal in 2018 when it was revealed that the company used Facebook data to target voters for elections in the United States and United Kingdom.

Altun, in turn, responded to Kilicdaroglu in a strongly worded statement with similarly cryptic references. Slamming the main opposition leader’s tweet as “slander,” Altun wrote, "We know very well why you're making this statement, what you’re trying to prevent.”

Kilicdaroglu, who drew vast crowds in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast province of Van on Tuesday, stopped short of elaborating further on the details of his accusations.  

Hackers and fake audios

Yet citing a high-level CHP source, prominent investigative journalist Murat Yetkin reported Tuesday that the main opposition had received information indicating a government plot aiming at character assassination against Kilicdaroglu through cyberwarfare. In addition to fake audio recordings, Yetkin also conveyed the source’s claims of alleged deals between the government figures and hackers on the dark web to hack pro-opposition websites.

The reports have caused alarm among opposition supporters as the country is heading to one of its most fiercely contested elections in its near history. 

A series of polls gave a slight lead to Kilicdaroglu against Erdogan in the four-candidate presidential polls earlier this week, including a survey from pollster Gezici published by Turkish media on Tuesday. 

According to the poll, Kilicdaroglu is streaking ahead of Erdogan by more than 3%, but neither of the candidates can secure more than 50%, which is required to be elected in the first round of the presidential race. The poll of 3,991 respondents across 29 provinces between April 24-26 shows more than 6% of the respondents support fringe candidates Muharrem Ince and Sinan Ogan. 

As the polls suggest, Kilicdaroglu's support is gradually increasing — although to what extent voters can be swayed through manipulation remains unclear. 

Erdogan, who recently dialed up his belligerent rhetoric against Kilicdaroglu and the CHP-led six-party opposition bloc, often tries to paint his rivals as collaborators of outlawed groups as he faces the toughest re-election bid after his more than 20 years in power.  

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