Istanbul, Turkey – A soft-spoken parliamentarian, it’s easy to overlook Fatma Benli in a busy cafe until she starts recalling the disinformation campaign that nearly derailed her election bid two years ago.
The small room we’re in begins to shudder as the sitting MP for the ruling AK Party passionately explains that she could have lost were it for fake news and online narratives.
“There was fake news circulating on every major social media platform,” the 44-year-old told Al Jazeera, reeling off a litany of examples where she and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were repeatedly attacked in spurious social media posts.
“Facebook, Twitter, it came from all sides.”
With just days to go until Turks head to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections, millions of voters are once again being bombarded with a deluge of fake news reports which could sway the biggest election in nearly a century.
President Erdogan and his ruling AK Party are expected to narrowly win the June 24 poll, but experts say it could be a tight race due to fake news, with dozens of fake stories emerging every day, many of them disseminating anti-government propaganda.
Mehmet Atakan Foca, the editor-in-chief of Teyit, a Turkish myth-buster and news verification website, said the abundance of fake news “was having a direct impact on the quality of Turkish democracy.”
“We’ve seen an uptick in fake news stories on social media, and this could be because people are unknowingly sharing false information, but also because of political and propaganda purposes.
Fake news stories touch on a broad range of subjects, from unproven cancer cures to celebrity hoaxes. But fake political stories have drawn wide scale attention because of the possibility they can influence people’s perceptions and sway elections.
In a survey following US President Donald Trump’s shock electoral win in 2016, Pew Research found that 64 percent of adult Americans believed fake news stories caused a great deal of confusion, with nearly one in four saying they shared fabricated news stories – sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally.
“It’s now reached a point where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for voters to spot fake news from real news, with dozens of fabricated news stories appearing on [social] media platforms every day,” Foca added.
Boasting more than 50 million Facebook users from a population of 78 million, Turkey is the social media giant’s ninth biggest market, making it an easy target to distribute specious content.
Foca said recent elections, including last year’s tightly contested referendum, were targets of the malicious digital campaign, with all major candidates falling victim to the strategy.
“We don’t know whose behind the spread of fake news, but it could be people who are being paid to spread misinformation,” he said.
Spurious news stories targeting the ruling AK Party, the main opposition the CHP, and all six presidential candidates had already gone viral, with a doctored image of presidential hopeful Meral Aksenar with Fethullah Gulen sitting side by side being shared thousands of times.
Gulen, a US-based cleric and businessman, is a deeply unpopular figure in Turkey after being blamed by the government for the failed coup bid on July 15, 2016.
“There’s a lot of misinformation regarding the candidates and the voting process, and this could really undermine voter trust and confidence,” Foca added.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has tried to ally fear, saying fake news constitutes less than one percent of what is on site, but critics say that’s wildly misleading.
For a site with nearly two billion users, they argue even one percent is a huge number.
A Facebook spokesman told Al Jazeera that the network had undertaken new measures to limit the impact of Fake News but it “won’t be able to completely prevent” the spread of misinformation when millions of Turks go to the polls.
“[We] won’t be able to completely prevent people putting false news [on the platform, but we are] going after fake accounts, disrupting the economics of false news, increasing ads transparency, building new products and supporting quality journalism and news literacy.”
The spokesman added that the site had gone into partnership with outside fact-checkers to sort honest news reports from made-up stories that played on people’s passions and preconceived notions.
“People want accurate information on Facebook and that’s what we want too.”
Erkan Saka, a blogger and academic at Istanbul Bilgi University, blamed the government’s crackdown on established news media following the failed coup attempt for the rise in fake news.
Following the coup attempt, the Turkish government closed at least 16 TV channels, 45 daily newspapers and 29 publishing houses, many of which were previously accused of supporting Gulen’s movement.
“The rise in fake news can be attributed to the government’s repeated attacks on established news media, which has undermined the credibility of professional journalism,” Saka said.
Several independent newspapers have been coopted by the state, with many young Turks and savvy internet users resorting to using VPNs to get access to banned websites, blogs and chat rooms.
However, Facebook and Twitter were still a major source of news for many users, he said, with around 89 percent of Turks using social media as a source of news.
“Because of the media shake-up, sites such as Twitter are playing a devastating role in the spread of fake news.
“This could explain why the government is adopting a approach towards Twitter, rather than Facebook, because it’s far more critical of the government and in the public domain,” Saka said.
Last year, Turkey filed more requests to remove or block content from Twitter than any other country in the world, according to the latest transparency report published by the company.
A total of 4,294 content removal requests were filed by Turkey’s government agencies including police and other institutions. Russia came second with 1,292 requests.
“A lot of opposition groups and activists have lost trust in Facebook, blaming a perceived close proximity between the state and the social media site.
“Several prominent pages and groups have been shut down in the past, stifling conversation and discussion, so some dissident groups have resorted to other sites such as private messaging boards – which while secure … are known to peddle conspiracy theories.”
Erdogan has repeatedly insisted Turkey has the most free media in the world, but the country has consistently ranked poorly on press freedom indices.
“The government is fuelling the rise of fake news by making independent and critical media inaccessible,” Yaman Akdeniz, the founder and director of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties, told Al Jazeera.
“Over 175,000 websites are currently blocked, in addition to over 100,000 URLs, including news items, with it becoming increasingly difficult for voters to obtain accurate information.
Earlier this year, a close ally of Erdogan bought one of the country’s largest media conglomerates, the Dogan group, for $1.2bn, in a sale which included two of the country’s four biggest newspapers, Hurriyet and Posta, meaning more than 80 percent of total national circulation was now in the hands of businessmen close to the government.
“Social media has become the last battleground for the government,” Akdeniz said. “Meanwhile, mainstream media has become fake news.
“Look at [the newspapers] Sabah, Hurriyet, watch TRT and other channels … they all have the same headlines and serve the same function. The government is using all of its resources to win this election, and social media platform could be crucial to the opposition to counter the state narrative.”