Turkey: Elections Marked By Surge In Digital Rights Violations – Analysis


By Hamdi Firat Buyuk

Local polls, which resulted in a surprise defeat for Erdogan, saw a wave of digital rights violations, including disinformation campaigns, fake news, hacking and court’s access blocks, BIRN monitoring shows.

BIRN’s Digital Rights Violations Monitoring registered a surge in digital rights violations during Turkey’s March 31 local elections, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP experienced a major defeat at the hands of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, CHP.

Violations during the campaign included disinformation, fake news, hacking and court access blocks that often favoured Erdogan and his allies.

Major leaks of citizens’ personal data went almost unnoticed since all the attention was on the election campaigns.

Experts said the increase in digital rights violations in Turkey during the elections was to be expected, but was unfortunate.

“Similar to previous elections in the past decade in Turkey, disinformation was again widely present during the municipal elections in March 2024,” said Gurkan Ozturan, Media Freedom Monitoring Officer at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, ECPMF and one of the authors of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net Report.

Disinformation campaigns and fake news

BIRN’s 2023 digital rights violations report warned that rights violations and disinformation campaigns would likely escalate before and after the Turkish local elections, as they did before the 2023 general and presidential elections.

The BIRN report noted that disinformation on social networks was even being spread by Erdogan himself.

In 2023, he showed an election video made by the opposition alliance which had been manipulated to include leaders of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, thereby portraying alleged “terrorist” leaders as supporting the opposition.

Disinformation using social media and AI technologies to target the opposition was also the case in these elections, reaching new levels.

In January, videos generated by Artificial Intelligence targeted Istanbul’s opposition mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu.

Videos of the mayor, elected in 2019 and again in 2024 from the main opposition CHP, were shared on social media in which his voice was replicated, so he is heard praising Erdogan’s AKP.

“During the AKP period [in Istanbul], great steps were taken in metro [construction projects]. We stopped some of the metro [constructions] and continued some of them. I am happy because we have become the administration that took over the highest number of metro [constructions],” Imamoglu apparently said in the fake video.

Other politicians and political parties were also victims of fake news and disinformation campaigns.

“Similar to previous elections, when flyers with false information were spread ahead of elections, a fake election protocol between the main opposition CHP and pro-Kurdish DEM Party was circulated in social media. There were also attempts to spread disinformation about New Welfare Party, YRP members collectively resigning from their party in favour of their former ally, Erdogan,” Ozturan said.

BIRN Monitoring noted that, during the campaign, paid ads on social media networks targeting the politically Islamist YRP were spread by unknown persons. In the ads, conservative and Islamist voters are told that votes for the YRP mean votes for the pro-Kurdish DEM Party and the main opposition party.

The YRP broke its former alliance with Erdogan and entered the local elections alone, becoming a factor in Erdogan’s defeat.

On March 26, a fake election protocol between the main opposition CHP and the pro-Kurdish DEM Party was spread on social media just ahead of the elections.

The AKP claimed the CHP was working with the DEM in the local elections and urged citizens not to vote for it. The existence of the protocol was denied by both the CHP and the DEM Party.

Orhan Sener Deliormanli, head of Academy at the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, TGS, said the AKP had tried to create an alternative truth for its own favour.

“Post-truth is very common in Turkey, especially in the political field. Now, beyond lies, an alternative reality appears before us as a practical reality,” Deliormanli told BIRN.

Deliormanli recalled the use of troll armies by the AKP, after the party realised the importance of the social media following the Gezi Park Protests, which saw the first major revolt against Erdogan’s rule.

“Troll armies were established and young people in party organisations were employed there. These teams are spreading disinformation and they have very sophisticated methods because they have been doing it for years – for example, the video published by Erdogan in the last elections – and there were examples in this election as well,” Deliormanli said.

But he added: “However, in these elections, these increasing and sophisticated disinformation campaigns backfired because of other problems that the public faces, such as economic crisis, nepotism and corruption.”

Hacking and access blocks

Hacking of opposition politicians’ websites or official websites controlled by opposition mayors were also digital rights violations noted during the elections.

BIRN’s monitoring noted that the website of Zeydan Karalar, CHP mayor of the southern province of Adana, was hacked by unknown people.

The hackers placed a note reading: “Adana will get rid of Zeydan Karalar” on his website, as he was running again for the mayoralty on March 31. The note also included corruption accusations against Karalar. After the cyberattack, the website remained unavailable.

Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, which Erdogan and his allies did everything to recapture, but failed, witnessed a major hacking of its systems.

Screens on buses and bus stations were hacked by unknown people ahead of the local elections who placed a video in which members of the main opposition party are seen counting a large amount of cash.

The video was previously shared by pro-government media to target the Istanbul mayor and the CHP.

The mayor and the CHP said the money shown was used to purchase the party’s new headquarters in Istanbul in 2021, but the pro-government dailiesclaimed it was distributed to party members before a party congress in 2023.

On March 31, on election night, as ANKA News Agency started to announce the results to its subscribers, it experienced a heavy cyber attack on its digital systems.

The majority of these attacks against ANKA reportedly originated abroad. The unprecedented Distributed-Denial-of-Service, DDoS, attack surpassed 58 million page requests.

However, the perpetrators were unable to breach ANKA’s firewall and there was no disruption in the flow of data.

“The opposition parties, which already have little to no access to established media, were targeted also through online attacks against the politicians’ profiles, parties’ websites and the independent sources that publish news from a more critical angle. These attacks are an assault on media freedom as well as political rights,” Ozturan said.

Court access blocks to online content and news articles, usually on Erdogan’s AKP and its allies, also increased during the elections.

On March 14, Levent Uysal, a lawmaker from Erdogan’s ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, had the courts on his side when it comes to digital censorship, Free Web Turkey wrote.

“News about the Serbian citizenship of MHP Mersin MP Levent Uysal, who had previously blocked news about the claim that he was caught trying to take out a 45-million-euro loan with a fake letter of guarantee, was blocked with a [court] decision dated March 13, on Uysal’s request,” Free Web Turkey wrote.

The blocked news articles and social media posts by journalists Ismail Ari and Bulent Mumay were about Uysal’s “unlawfully obtained Serbian citizenship”.

Similarly, a court in Istanbul blocked access to 67 online news articles on March 13 that were blocked earlier, covering the activities of Erdogan’s son Bilal, his family and friends. The blocked articles covered their ties and activities within the state and business as well as corruption claims.

Only two days before the elections, on March 29, a news article at the PolitikYol website about an incident during the campaign of the AKP mayoral candidate in Edirne was blocked by a court following a request from the AKP.

In the incident, students put a question to the mayor about Turkey’s founding father, Ataturk. Following this, police stopped the students and checked their criminal records.

In addition to online content, a news agency website also became victim of court decisions. On March 12, a court blocked access to Mezopotamya News Agency – a regular target of the government on account of its focus on Kurdish issues.

The agency’s domain name, mezopotamyaajansi35.com, was blocked from access by the Erzurum 1st Criminal Court on the grounds of national security and protection of public order.

Major data leaks ignored

As the country focused on the elections, major data leaks went unnoticed.

In early March, it was revealed that citizens’ private data was being sold online on a Telegram group for only 150 Turkish lira, or about 4.6 euros.

The data include citizens’ phone numbers, addresses, health records, bank information and business records. Most worryingly, the data was being updated real time, harvesting data from E-Devlet, Turkey’s online government portal.

BIRN reported in June 2023 that the personal data of nearly 100 million people – Turks and foreigners alike – who live or once lived in Turkey had been stolen and offered for sale online, after E-Devlet was reportedly hacked.

In addition to the data leak from government portals, journalist Ibrahim Haskologlu shared video footage of a sale on the dark web in which unknown people appeared to sell 135 million Turkish cell phone numbers. The data was reportedly hacked from Turkish online government services website.

A Turkish defence company linked to the Armed Forces, TSK, also suffered a data leak. The Turkish Data Protection Authority, KVKK, on March 14 said Oyak Security and Defence Company had been subject to a ransomware attack on March 4.

Personal data such as ID information, legal background and bank information of the company’s customers, partners and staff was stolen. The number of people affected by the attack is not known.

“The massive data leaks that have been taking place in Turkey in recent years also remained of concern during the election period in 2024. Beyond the election process, this shows a general lack of digital security and understanding of privacy in the country,” Ozturan said.

He concluded: “While the government has been attempting to initiate a mass surveillance mechanism, this is also creating a major risk to millions of people in Turkey, beyond the breach of privacy.

“Unfortunately, the people of Turkey are forced to mind their private data themselves – but in the system that has been established in the country, it becomes quite a challenge to avoid this massive surveillance scheme.”

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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