Part 4 of the Blogseries about the elections in Turkey in May 2023. Find part 1, part 2 and part 3 here.

In this post, we will discuss the social media strategies of the opposition parties until the elections from November till May both based on interviews and online ethnographic work by presenting social media activities and materials of the political parties and leaders.

Different Platforms, different Strategies

Different social media platforms require different strategies and tactical interventions due to their structures and user profiles. Although Twitter is used in Turkey predominantly for political purposes and for receiving news, the other platforms, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, have more heterogenous users from different segments and political ideologies. According to the Digital 2023 Global Statshot Report, there are 62.55 million social media users in January 2023. The research showed that 57.90 million use Youtube, 48.65 million use Instagram, 32.80 million use Facebook, 29.86 million use TikTok and 18.55 million use Twitter in early 2023. However, 31% of Turkish users stated that they use the instant messaging application Whatsapp as a source for news.

It is not possible to extract messages for researchers to measure its effect. TikTok is an increasingly popular social media platform at the moment with 29.9 million active TikTok users aged 18 and above (Tiktok statistics and trends, 2023). Half of the respondents draw attention to the potential power of TikTok for the elections as TikTok is used by younger people as well as by lower- and middle-income people, which makes the platform attractive for the opposition. TikTok has a more heterogenous user profile and the experts stated that they find it more democratic as it enables to create videos easily, make ordinary users’ content visible and viral and engages with others due to its algorithmic success. However, till March, most of the politicians and political parties in Turkey were not using TikTok actively. This may be attributed to the inexperience of the politicians about how the platform works and what kind of content could be produced.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been using TikTok with the username rtedijital since September 2022, the account mostly shares videos of Erdoğan from his speeches, opening ceremonies and election meetings. Although Kilicdaroglu was using TikTok since 2021 as well, he announced that he will be actively participating and answering to the questions of youngsters on a video on TikTok in April, the account does not only share his speeches and election meetings but he also records his own videos talking directly to the users. The other candidate Muharrem Ince from the Memleket Party also posts on TikTok since 2022, while the Ata Alliance candidate uses TikTok very actively. The participants noted that TikTok could work as an efficient and fast trend setter and producer of culture. The influencers as well as the ordinary users could produce their own videos that may reach lower and middle class people and younger people, as the Turkey Workers’ Party social media strategist explained:

Twitter is dominant in politics in the case of Turkey. Facebook has an older profile, Instagram has a younger audience, but politicisation is much lower. Twitter has become one of the platforms of the opposition. We assume that both the opposition and the ruling party will invest in Twitter. The tactics of aged politicians to target younger voters seem insincere. Thus, for showing sincerity, it was critical to learn the platforms’ approach, culture and language. We have been watching and examining TikTok for a while, we have an account but we do not use it actively, but we will use it soon. Our next plan is using Discord, which is becoming very common among the younger electorate. If I have a ranking among the platforms, the first is Twitter, then Instagram and Facebook. Our aim is to add TikTok. Youtube is important for producing visual content. TikTok is a great culture producer, as platform for the popularisation of a song or for going viral with a video. You can see content which is going viral on Tiktok on other platforms as well. TikTok has its own hegemony, thus the opposition political parties should evaluate it in this sense. Twitter will be the leading platform but other platforms focusing on visuals should not be underestimated.

The respondents agreed on the role of Twitter on Turkey’s politics, but they noted that its outreach is limited. Mostly, it is the influencers, who manage to reach larger audiences and their messages get more attention and views, as a media studies scholar expressed:

Twitter is the most politicised platform in Turkey, the users are media literate, comparatively urban and predominantly politicised dissidents and the perception is that a limited segment of the society uses Twitter. Many people have registered on Twitter to understand Gezi and get news about the protests. However, a wider electorate follow news and politics on Instagram and Youtube. Facebook has still considerable importance and appeal for a heterogeneous audience while Twitter appeals to dissident audiences. However, we should also consider the ripple effects of Twitter. In other words, a topic which becomes a trending topic on Twitter, appears in the posts of influencers on other social media platforms and even is covered by mainstream media, so it is not possible to say that it is an ineffective platform. The other platform which is not used effectively is TikTok and I cannot believe that the only politician who uses TikTok effectively is Mustafa Sarigül. I cannot really understand why they do not use TikTok, which gives great opportunities for populist politics and for appealing to a wider audience.

The Videos from the Kitchen

Before the announcement of Kilicdaroglu as the candidate, he started to post several videos from his modest kitchen in an informal chat on 17 April 2021. In his speeches, he replies to the claims of the government and draws attention to the economic crisis and the skyrocketing food prices as the main problem of the country, arguing that the government tries to create artificial agendas to cover up the economic downturn and mismanagement. More than half of the experts mentioned the series of kitchen videos as a example of a successful communication strategy, as they were wide-reaching, emotionally resonant and realistic. Bulent Mumay says that:

Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Umit Ozdag are a few of the politicians who use social media effectively. Kilicdaroglu makes videos that both my father and my nephew watch and attract different generations and social segments. He gives the message : “I am one of you”. He tries to create the impression that “I am the leader of everyone” beyond the ordinary profile of the CHP’s Women's Branch or Jacobin nationalist voter stereotypes, which are often attributed by the AKP.

Nation Alliance and its candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu started their presidential media campaign actively after his official declaration as a candidate. As the videos attracted millions of viewers and the broader public's attention through other media outlets, he continues to share videos from his modest kitchen and he hosts other politicians from the alliance as guests. Last week, he hosted the former Economy Minister and the leader of Deva Party Ali Babacan. One of the banners in the AKP’s Istanbul rally read: “We want a leader who works like a bee, not a leader who doesn’t come out of the kitchen like a wife.”, sharing the pictures from his videos taken from the kitchen.

This sexist comment garnered severe criticism from womens’ rights groups and politicians. Kilicdaroglu responded with this banner with a tweet with a calm tone saying that: “We are proud to share a life. Now put this photo on your banner. Dear young devout women: Those who propagated you ‘you will lose your gains’ for months sold all your rights for 3-5 votes. Mr. Kemal never touches your gained rights.” The female Turkish politician and leader of the IYI Party supported Kilicdaroglu with her tweet sharing the photo of Kilicdaroglu serving tea in his kitchen with her husband. “I am proud of our 13th President Kemal Bey and my husband to see him in the kitchen. Because there is no women’s work or man’s work. There is human’s work, sharing and supporting. We will remind the ones who try to make us forget on 14th May.”

Promise, Springs will Come Back Again

The Nation alliance and the CHP launched their presidential campaign at the end of May. Their slogan is “Promise, Springs will come back again” taken from the lyrics of a popular song of 1990s. The slogan refers to the elections that will be held in spring and focuses on hope, respect and love in response to the populist and divisive rhetoric and style of the People’s Alliance. On 4 May, Kilicdaroglu shared another election video with the folk song “Haydi Türkiye Let’s Win (Come on Türkiye)” and the video has different versions with the leaders of the Nation Alliance. Each video focuses on different slogans, hope, abundance, happiness, justice, equality.

Iyi parti (Good Party), led by Meral Aksener, also started their election campaigns with the slogan “Turkey will write history”. Their social media team focuses on the problems of Turkey and share documentary-like videos, which remind people that important events happened during the AKP rule and share the most memorable interviews with the citizens, past speeches of Erdoğan and the controversial events that occurred during the AKP's rule. On the other hand, the Saadet (Felicity) Party, which was popular with their creative videos in the past elections, choose to follow a more integrative strategy with the Nation Alliance and Kilicdaroglu. While they post their own content, they also systematically share the videos shared by Kilicdaroglu. On 10 May, they shared an animation video titled “our mission is the first round”, the video with the concept of Mission Impossible, shows 5 guys robbing the state’s banks, and citizens come together under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu to save it. The animation got millions of views and thousands of shares in a few hours and was shared by both Karamollaoglu and Kilicdaroglu.

Muharrem Ince, the leader of the Memleket (Homeland) Party, uses social media very effectively and targets the younger population and Kemalist nationalist voters. Social media seems to play a significant role in the rise of support. However it is a matter of curiosity if the support on social media will turn into votes or not. The political programme “Mevzular: Açık Mikrofon” on YouTube led by social media influencer Oguzhan Ugur contributed to the popularisation of Ince. The comments below his videos were all positive, which indicate that they get great support from social media users. However, some commentators state that this support could be an organised social media campaign, that is supported by both Ince as well as AKTrolls to divide the opposition votes strategically. Also, social media influencers like Jahrein were supporting Ince in his comments. However, he stated that he does not support him anymore and will vote for Kilicdaroglu. When we look at the profiles of social media users supporting Ince, they are mostly very young and attack the opposition.

Two other parties who attracted the attention of young people on social media are the left wing Türkiye Isci Partisi (Turkey’s Workers Party) and the ultra nationalist anti-immigrant Zafer (Victory) Party. The Zafer (Victory) Party gained support and popularity on social media like other populist parties in the world, but differently from the AKP; even some of the Ümit Özdag’s tweets started to get more attention than Erdoğans in 2022. Ümit Özdag promises to expel Syrians from Turkey to Syria and got support from some young people on social media. However, the leader party which supports Sinan Ogan and Ata Alliance during the elections reveal lower activity and visibility compared to the period before the elections. On the other hand, Türkiye Isci Partisi (The Workers' Party of Turkey), as a component of the left-wing the Labour and Freedom Alliance decided to promote their own candidates in some cities. They got attention and support with the participation of MP Baris Atay in Mevzular: Açık Mikrofon on YouTube.

The main party of the Labour and Freedom Alliance, the Party of Greens and the Left Future (Yeşiller ve Sol Gelecek Partisi) did not have a presidential candidate and supports Kilicdaroglu. Although their supporters show high activity on Twitter, they seem to follow a more sterilised and localised strategy, just to consolidate their own supporters and avoid the claims of the AKP that tries to link the Nation Alliance with PKK. However, the jailed ex-chairman and ex-presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, who was detained after his election campaign against Erdoğan, with the slogan ‘We will not let you be President’, has continued to post tweets during the campaign from prison. He openly showed his support to Kilicdaroglu and declared that he will vote for him. As a leading figure for Kurds, his tweets would be influential over the decisions of Kurdish voters to vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's main rival.

The Cambridge Analytica Warning from Kilicdaroglu and The Latest Attacks to the Opposition

On 2nd May, the opposition’s presidential candidate and Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu posted a tweet warning AKP officials, giving the names of the president of the Republic of Türkiye Directorate of Communications Fahrettin Altun,, Turkuaz Media Group’s Ceo Serhat Albayrak and their teammates Cagatay and Evren. He claimed that the officials are trying to manipulate the voting decisions through dark web activities. He also mentioned the Cambridge Analytica scandal and warned them not to engage in these kinds of activities just 12 days before the elections. He drew attention to the potential security risks from the foreign intelligence services.

This tweet brought the public's attention to possible manipulative activities and information operations on social media by the officials. It was claimed that the manipulative operations used by Cambridge Analytica targeted the undecided voters, who may be more vulnerable to manipulation. For the ruling party AKP, the undecided voters are also critical to win the elections. Approximately 5 to 6 million people will vote for the first time in the 2023 elections and the surveys show that they are more undecisive than the rest of the population. 80% of young people do not prefer to vote for the AKP. (Türkiye'de ilk kez oy kullanacak 6 milyon genç, 2023).

On the other hand, it is important to note that social media platforms like Tiktok, Facebook and WhatsApp started to work with Teyit, a Turkish fact-checking organisation, before the elections to fight fake news and disinformation. However, although Twitter seems to have the most politically engaged users in Turkey, there is still no official explanation from Twitter if they collaborate with any factcheckers or if they will implement any measures about fact-checking and content moderation, despite the criticisms that the platform was confronted with about growing hate speech and misinformation after Elon Musk’s takeover and his downsizing policies.

Amid these discussions, an unexpected move came from President Erdoğan on the manipulative activities. The president showed manipulated footage of Kilicdaroglu’s election campaign video on a large screen to 1.5 million supporters in his Istanbul rally on Sunday. The video shows that the militant Kurdish organisation Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its current leader Murat Karayilan take part in the election campaign video of the opposition, with the slogan "let's win and let’s go to the ballot box together”. The fact-checkers confirmed that the footage was manipulated and created deliberately by combining two separate videos and backgrounds.

The AKP’s strategy seems to focus on attacking the opposition by linking them with terrorism and terrorist groups (Dogrulu Payi, 2023). Although some media claimed that this video is an example of a “deep fake, a video file created with artificial intelligence”, the video seems to be created by montage as a cheapfake technique, rather than a professional and realistic deepfake which require sophisticated tools, methods and skills (Ünker & Sparrow, 2023) . Still, cheapfakes can mislead the targeted segments of the public with less media literacy and pose significant threats to democratic politics and participation.

On 7th May, the same day of Erdoğan’s massive Istanbul rally, the CHP's Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu’s election bus was attacked with stones by a group of young people while he was giving a speech at his rally in Erzurum. İmamoğlu blamed the Governor and the Mayor of Erzurum for the attack and accused the security forces of not preventing it. He refused to leave the city until he got news about the health of the 15 people injured in the events. After the attack, Kilicdaroglu also posted a tweet on Erzurum events:

There is a militarist (ruling) coalition consisting of mafias, militants, SADAT supporters, drug dealers, who killed Sinan Ateş, gangs of five, and (Hizbullah). These are the people who attacked our Mayor Ekrem today. Their aim is to scare our people. Turkey is the country of the reasonable majority. The majority will end this evil. My dear citizens. Focus on May 14 (elections). Do not be angry, do not be offended. Love your people, embrace your heart. Get well soon, my son Ekrem. Bringing change to the country has a price, and we are all ready to pay it. (İmamoğlu’s election bus attacked with stones, 2023).

The events created a stir and backlash on social media and led popular celebrities and social media influencers to criticise the attack and to show their support clearly from their accounts. Some of them posted about the events with the hashtag #Let'sfinishinthefirstround!, showing their direct opposition to the ruling government and support for the opposition. On the other hand, both the Interior Minister and Erdoğan denied the claims, and accused the main opposition vice presidential candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu of being the “provocateur” and defended the security forces for their stand. Also, the hacker group Anonymous warned the opposition against possible hacker attacks on election day with the aim of cutting the information flow and advised them to take necessary measurements against these attacks.

At the end of our blog series, we will discuss the social media activities of the parties in Turkey and we will wait to see the results on 15th May.