Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate in the Turkish presidential election, has blamed Russia for alleged interference in the democratic process ahead of Sunday’s vote.
With the presidential race heating up—and the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chances for re-election looking increasingly fraught—both candidates have fired accusations at each other of using dirty tricks and disinformation in their campaigning.
The upcoming vote in a NATO member state is seen as crucial for the Western alliance. Moscow and Ankara have close political and economic ties, with Russia remaining Turkey’s largest supplier of energy.
Some see Erdogan’s personal relationship with his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin as the basis for that bond.
Officials and authorities in the U.S., U.K., several European countries and beyond have all made accustaions in the past. The Kremlin has consistently denied responsibility.
Newsweek Misinformation Watch has looked at some of the prominent examples of misleading, doctored or supposedly “deepfake” content that has plagued Turkey’s election this year, and the speculation about who might be behind it.
On Sunday, May 7, 2023, a controversial video was shown at a political rally headlined by Erdogan.
During the gathering, Erdogan asked the crowd: “Would my national and local citizens vote for these?” He then pointed at a large screen behind him.
Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan, İstanbul Mitingi’nde Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’nun reklam filmine, terör örgütü PKK’nın sözde lideri Murat Karayılan’ın “deep fake” teknolojisiyle montajlanmış görüntüsünü, CHP’nin seçim kampanyası filmi gibi gösterdi. pic.twitter.com/Hxw4I4UJVc
— Haber (@Haber) May 7, 2023
The video that then appears on the screen shows his rival, Kilicdaroglu, rallying the citizens to come to the ballot box, before another person appears in his place, dressed in a military uniform. Both parts of the clip are presented as segments from the same campaign video.
The second person in the footage is Murat Karayilan, one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—Kurdish militants classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U.
However, there is no evidence that Karayilan shared a platform with the opposition leader, while the video displayed at Erdogan’s rally appears to be misleadingly edited. The first part of the footage is likely sourced from a genuine campaign ad for Kilicdaroglu, published on May 1, 2023.
The second segment, however, was taken out of context, and can be traced back to a public address by Karayilan, in which he discusses the PKK’s 30-year campaign form independence, and which first aired in August 2021.
While some Turkish outlets and opposition supporters have called the clip a “deepfake,” that does not appear to be the case. Deepfakes are a specific type of misleading content created with the use of AI and machine-learning, as Newsweek has previously reported, while this is an example of basic digital editing.
Read more on how to identify and debunk deepfake material here.
Video Forces Opposition Candidate From Campaign
In a separate case, a compromising video allegedly featuring another opposition candidate, Muharrem Ince, has also made waves on Turkish social media, forcing the contender to announce an abrupt end to his campaign.
Ince denied that the video was real, claiming instead that it was a deepfake using footage from “an Israeli porn site.” Newsweek could not independently verify whether the clip was genuine, staged or a deepfake.
While Ince dropping out of the race may boost Kilicdaroglu’s chances, Erdogan’s main rival nevertheless expressed concern about misinformation and warned the Kremlin against interfering.
“Dear Russian friends. You are behind the montages, conspiracies, deepfakes and tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday,” Kilicdaroglu said on Twitter, without specifying if he was referring to the rally video, the explicit “deepfake,” or other content.
“If you want our friendship after May 15, get your hands off the Turkish state. We are still in favor of cooperation and friendship.”
Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu ally, People’s Republican Party (CHP) Deputy Chair Engin Koc accused Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party of preparing a deepfake video which shows the opposition leader meeting with PKK representatives.
Erdogan fired back, accusing Kilicdaroglu on state TV of using “an army of trolls,” without offering any substantive evidence for the claim.
“You are using lies and misinformation. You are devising schemes that even the devil would not have thought of,” Erdogan told the opposition leader on television, according to France 24.
While the Kremlin has strongly denied accusations of interference in the vote, stating “if someone provided Mr. Kilicdaroglu with such information, they are liars,” some indirect evidence does appear to show suspicious activity coming from Russia-based accounts.
In April, media reports indicated that “thousands” of dormant Russian- and Hungarian-language Twitter accounts had been reactivated to post content relating to Turkish politics.
“About 12,000 Russian- and Hungarian-speaking social media accounts were activated as Turkish and now follow all political parties and leaders. About 10,000 of them have been activated in the last two weeks,” Ahmet Turan Han told news website Middle East Eye at the time. Han is the general manager of political consultancy and research company Datailor.
If confirmed, this would not be the first time that the Kremlin’s hand had been caught meddling in other countries’ political affairs.
An independent investigation by a U.K. watchdog found that the British authorities failed to acom on Russian interference in Britain’s politics for years. U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report in 2019 found that Russian operatives attempted to influence the outcome of the U.S. 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.
A Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) report in 2020 said that from 2014 Moscow began targeting countries beyond the eastern Europe and had expanded tactics to include cyberattacks and online disinformation campaigns. Elections and political processes in Italy, Germany and Spain were among those targeted, the CSIS reported.
And while it may not be the case here, experts warn that AI-generated content, including deepfakes, poses a very real threat to the democratic process worldwide, not least in the upcoming U.S. elections in 2024.
Newsweek reached out to the Kilicdaroglu campaign, Erdogan’s office and the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.
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