Disinformation casts its shadow on Türkiye's local elections

Disinformation casts its shadow on Türkiye's local elections

By: emincan yüksel&
March 29 2024

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  Disinformation casts its shadow on Türkiye's local elections

Banners featuring Istanbul's Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu (center), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left), and Murat Kurum, the mayoral candidate of AK Party (AKP), adorn a street in Istanbul, Türkiye, ahead of the March 31 local polls. (Image source: Reuters/Umit Bektas)

The Republic of Türkiye is set to hold local polls on Sunday, March 31, with many hopes of future political upheaval pinned on the upcoming nationwide contest. However, as the country heads for the municipal elections, a wave of disinformation is shaping its political discourse. 

From activities of incumbent leaders and contesting candidates to promises made during previous election campaigns, false and misleading claims have a wide net of subjects that have caught the attention of many on social media. Attributing false statements to politicians, misrepresenting visuals, use of AI-generated content, among other means, is how those spreading disinformation narratives are trying to influence Turkish voters, who will cast their ballots in 81 cities — 30 metropolitan and 51 other provinces.

While Türkiye's three largest cities—Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir—are all among the most closely-watched constituencies, the poll results of Istanbul are being considered the most important. It is in Istanbul, the country's largest populated city, where the opposition's "brightest hope" and incumbent Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu will take on Murat Kurum, a leader of the AK party and minister in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's cabinet till 2023, and other party candidates.

İmamoğlu first shot to nationwide fame when as the candidate of the National Alliance, of which his organization—the Republican People's Party— is a part, defeated the AK Party candidate in 2019 municipal polls. İmamoğlu defeated his opponents in Istanbul not once, but twice, when the results of the initial polls were annulled, and re-election took place in the city. Imamoglu's victories overthrew 25 years of rule by Erdoğan's AK Party in Istanbul. The city has, therefore acquired the center stage as disinformation spreads over the country ahead of the polls. Much of the false and misleading claims also focus on İmamoğlu and Erdoğan-backed Kurum.

In 2019, Ankara and Izmir were also won over by candidates from the Republican People's Party (also known as CHP) or the Nation Alliance, thus underlining why the upcoming elections are important. During the 2023 general Türkiye elections, which saw Erdoğan re-elected as President, Logically Facts debunked mis/disinformation narratives spreading before and after the polls. Once again, we take a close and detailed look at false claims and narratives that aim to influence voters and their decisions. 

Misinformation around Ramadan

Amid the ongoing Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a claim (archived here) involving Murat Kurum's visit to a students' housing for Suhoor (an essential pre-dawn meal during Ramadan) is circulating widely on social media. The claim was accompanied by visuals of Kurum cooking eggs for the students at midnight. However, in such posts, several social media users claimed the AK Party candidate didn't cook the eggs, and was only pretending to cook them over an unlit stove. 

Such alleged actions by candidates draw lots of attention and scrutiny in Türkiye, which is a Muslim-majority nation. However, upon examining original videos and images (archived here) of the event in question from different angles, it becomes clear that Kurum did actually cook the eggs for Suhoor. The viral photo was captured or manipulated, in a way that the flame under the utensil is not visible clearly. 


A comparison of the viral image with the original photo shared by Kurum.
(Source: X/Murat Kurum)

'Orwell's quote' on economic mismanagement 

A video featuring Kurum distributing soup to the public in Istanbul was circulated on social media (an archived post can be viewed here) with a quote falsely attributed to George Orwell's dystopian novel '1984.' The alleged '1984' quote reads, "First, they will make you need a bowl of soup, then they will ask for your vote by giving you a bowl of soup." This misattributed quote implied that the AK Party first mismanaged the economy and was now trying to win votes by making citizens dependent on handouts. 

Screenshot of a post sharing the alleged quote. (Source: X)

However, this quote is not actually from '1984'. Our research shows that Orwell never pinned these lines in any of his published works. In fact, we could not trace the origin of the quote to any well-known author. 

Attempts to sway Kurdish voters

The last local elections of 2019 underlined the significant role played by Kurdish voters. The support of the Kurdish population was a key factor in the transition of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality's leadership from AK Party to CHP candidate Imamoğlu.

In the upcoming local elections, Imamoğlu's need for the support of the Kurdish population in Istanbul is even more critical, particularly after the Kurdish-supported DEM Party announced its own candidate for the city. 

In this context, social media users have claimed online (archived here) that İmamoğlu praised a Kurdish song containing anti-Turkish sentiments in a TV program. However, a detailed examination of said Kurdish song "Wey Dil," performed by artist Rojda, reveals that the song does not contain any negative expressions towards Turks, martyrs, or Kurds. İmamoğlu had called the song moving. 

Similarly, claims (archived here) calling visuals of DEM party flags being waved at a public meeting organized by İmamoğlu edited and fake are also going viral. However, the photo shared to claim that a CHP flag, and not a flag of the rival DEM party, was raised at Imamoğlu's rally is not original. The original image does establish that a DEM flag was waved at the CHP gathering.

A comparison of the viral image with the original photo with the DEM flag.
(Source: X/Screenshots

Such untrue claims are seen as attempts to influence the opinions of Kurdish citizens and shape their voting behavior. 

Failed and fulfilled post promises

Several social media users also claimed that during a debate, Kurum said that İmamoğlu fulfilled "87 percent" of his promises from previous elections. However, Kurum had made a slip of the tongue and had immediately corrected himself to say that his rival "did not fulfill the promises."

Furthermore, disinformation surrounding Kurum's responses during a TV program to questions about the actions he did not take and the promises he did not keep during his term as a minister, when he spearheaded the Ministry of Environment, Urbanisation, and Climate Change from 2018 to 2023, is also spreading widely online. Edited videos (archived here) are being shared to imply that Kurum did not respond to such questions during the program, which also saw İmamoğlu in attendance. Contrary to these claims, our research shows that Kurum did respond to the questions and explained how he worked, especially for Istanbul, as a minister. 

Erdoğan-İmamoğlu rivalry

Erdoğan allegedly criticizing İmamoğlu (post archived here) for his lifestyle also became the subject of disinformation. The President allegedly said, "He lives in a luxury house while the citizen lives in a dilapidated one. Our poor people will hold him account in the elections." However, Erdoğan did not make such a statement, and the claim originated from a satirical X post.

Claims of animosity between Erdoğan and İmamoğlu are based on the belief that the latter can challenge AK Party's rule in 2028 if he wins the local polls. Many see İmamoğlu as a strong opponent to Erdoğan, who served as the Mayor of Istanbul between 1994 and 1998. 

However, Erdoğan still holds significant sway over a large Turkish population, and any statement attributed to him can play a decisive role in shaping voter behavior. Hence, debunking political disinformation narratives — targeting or supporting the President, his party members, or their rivals before the polls is essential. 

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Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before