In the May 2023 Turkish elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed to secure enough votes to win a majority in the first round outright, forcing a run-off election where he ultimately held on to power. Like other recent elections in Türkiye, this contest took place in the context of deep institutional biases in favor of the government deriving from systemic advantages that the regime has cultivated for two decades through legislation, regulation, and patronage. But fearing that its dominance in traditional domains of power would fail to deliver the desired result, the government took new steps in this election to control the domains in which it has been most vulnerable, including non-traditional media and cyberspace.
The disposition of traditional Turkish TV and print media was never in question going into this year’s national elections. Erdoğan’s government has spent years fitting tight reins on Türkiye’s state-run media workhorses, like the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), while forcing private independent outlets to sell to pro-regime cronies in the telecoms sector. This allowed the government to impose a near media blackout on the opposition: between April 1 and May 11, TRT devoted 49 hours of airtime to Erdoğan’s campaign, and nearly 29 hours to the campaign of Devlet Bahçeli, Erdoğan’s coalition partner, while covering opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign for a mere 32 minutes. Qualitatively, the coverage was wildly disparate as well. State media broadcasts were heavily peppered with promotional content for the government’s campaigns, including 9-to-12 minute-long heavily-produced segments with names like “National Power—Powerful Türkiye” and “100 Years on the Road to Democracy”, which aimed to tout the government’s achievements. TRT aired these segments a total of 157 times between the first and second rounds of the election. Meanwhile, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was forced to file a criminal complaint against TRT over its refusal to air their candidate’s campaign video. The handful of independent TV stations that did cover the opposition faced fines and suffered from cyberattacks in the weeks leading up to and immediately following the election.
The heavy pro-government bias of the traditional Turkish media ecosystem means that many Turks disregard it entirely and get their political news from social media and online journalists. Many online spaces were hotbeds of opposition support: the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF tracked dozens of the most engaged with Turkish Twitter accounts and found that the three most liked tweets during the month of May all came from Kılıçdaroğlu. (The most liked of all was Kılıçdaroğlu’s election night statement “we are ahead”, which received 1.2 million likes and 181,900 retweets.) With Turkish voters self-sorting by media consumption, and traditional media therefore mostly reaching committed Erdoğan supporters, the government tried harder this year than ever before to contest and control Türkiye’s online spaces, including both social media and independent journalism. To do this, the regime produced deceptive content using deepfake technology and deployed trolls to spread disinformation, all while still having the temerity to demand that Twitter itself block access to certain accounts and posts that it found inconvenient or threatening.
The most notorious and high-profile deceptive video promoted by the regime was played behind Erdoğan at one of the president’s largest campaign events and featured footage of a top commander of the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Murat Karayilan, using Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign slogan “come on” alongside a group of PKK militants who cheer him on. The video then superimposed Kılıçdaroğlu’s picture over the militants and played his campaign song to their applause. Erdoğan later repeated the video’s key message on a widely broadcast TV show, saying, “Kılıçdaroğlu has the man at the head of the terrorist group behind him. He says, ‘come on’ and the other one says, ‘come on.’” In fact, fact-checkers soon discovered that the PKK footage came from a video released online in 2022 that had nothing to do with Kılıçdaroğlu or his campaign. Erdoğan as much as admitted that the video was fake when he argued in an interview days later that, “It doesn’t matter [if] it was doctored or not.” The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) again filed a criminal complaint, but by that point, the video was so widespread online that it had become one of the top suggested results on Google for searches for “Kılıçdaroğlu”.
Besides promoting deceptive content online, pro-regime trolls also sought to pre-emptively spread doubt about reliability of the election results, either to lay the groundwork for Erdoğan to contest them in the case of an unfavorable result or to preempt claims by the opposition that the election had been stolen, or both. Tweets accusing the opposition of fraud or deception, or claiming that the doctored video was truthful in its allegations of opposition ties to militants, also achieved substantial engagement in the closing weeks of the campaign. They serve as a grim reminder that autocrats will amplify doubts about the accuracy of election results both to give themselves freedom of action to disregard unfavorable outcomes should they occur, and to suppress turnout and undermine faith in democracy generally to disregard unfavorable outcomes should they occur, and to suppress turnout and undermine faith in democracy generally.
Having mostly failed to secure an advantage in Turkish cyberspace, in the last days of the election Erdoğan sought to simply silence disfavored voices on Twitter and used Twitter itself to accomplish this. Erdoğan’s regime has blocked Twitter entirely in Türkiye at times, including as recently as February, when the regime blocked the platform to stop the spread of criticism of its handling of earthquakes that ravaged the eastern part of the country. In the days before the election, Turkish authorities demanded that Twitter block access in Türkiye to certain accounts and posts, threatening to block the entire platform if it did not comply. Twitter did comply, and CEO Elon Musk defended the decision, arguing that “the choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?” This was, of course, likely the preferred outcome of Erdoğan’s regime, since a complete block of the site would have forced the regime to publicly defend its heavy-handed censorship.
The efforts of the Erdoğan regime to compete in, and failing that, to restrict the online discourse around the Turkish election offer a valuable window into the tactics of autocratic regimes that maintain a semblance of democracy. Türkiye’s election in May was not marred by widespread violence or systemic ballot fraud, but that does not mean that it was fair. The government’s efforts to control narratives online represent a small portion of the autocratic toolkit in Türkiye, which includes not only the decades-long project to coopt traditional media, but also the politically motivated prosecution of opposition figures, several of who have languished in prison for years. These are the tactics of an autocrat working to ensure that elections are pro forma events that serve to confer legitimacy on a regime that has sought for years to make meaningful Turkish democracy a thing of the past.