Turkish officials warned about Russian intelligence

Turkish officials warned about Russian intelligence

The alliance of the ruling Justice and Development Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) recently made controversial changes to the electoral law. Opposition parties are concerned that the changes could further taint fair and free elections. These concerns stem from domestic worries, and foreign interference in elections does not appear to be a concern - at least at the public level. 

Recent elections in the U.S., Germany and France have been marred by reports of actors trying to influence the electoral process. It is extremely difficult to trace these actors but the general consensus points to Moscow.

The recent FacebookCambridge Analytica scandal has revealed how data collected from Facebook users was used to influence voter opinion. The links to Moscow of Alexander Kogan, who orchestrated the harvesting of the data, raises further suspicions about Russian involvement.

While Turkey has been talking about elections for the last couple of months, with snap polls set for June 24 discussions on elections are now set to intensify. The lack until now of any debate about possible Russian interference is very interesting. After all, Russian manipulation of the public in the West through the spread of fake news has been high up the agenda in European countries for the past couple of years.

Some may explain the lack of discussion by the apparently good level of relations between Turkey and Russia. Indeed, Turkey’s leadership is always sure to present the most positive part of relations and refrain from making public the many divergences that run deep both in bilateral and regional issues.

Putting up a good public face with Russia not only influences the view of the public about Moscow, but it also carries the risk of doing so with state officials. That is why security and intelligence officials have warned public institutions and officials to be very cautious when dealing with their Russian counterparts, refraining from being too open when it comes to sharing information. The impression that Turkey and Russia are enjoying excellent relations at the highest level may be misleading as far as the opinion of public officials at the lower levels of government goes. Russian efforts in Turkey to get increased access to information from different parts of the government also seems to have prompted such a warning, according to my sources who do not want to be identified.

But while the state establishment is sensitive about public officials, it is not showing the same sensitivity when it comes to the public at large. In other words there are no efforts to raise awareness in the public about fake news and possible perception manipulation efforts by foreign actors. It seems that actors affiliated with the government are so busy shaping domestic opinion that they probably do not want to raise public awareness about the importance of having a healthier and more efficient filter to differentiate fake news.

But this is a double-edged sword. An efficient tool can turn into a detrimental weapon. Electoral meddling from the usual suspect Russia, or even from Turkey’s Western allies, is not some delusional scenario.

The government has in recent years introduced laws granting state institutions widespread ability for internet surveillance and the right to take rapid, drastic measures. But that in itself - which is also criticized for lack of transparency and compromising fundamental rights - may not be sufficient to avert manipulation operations and cyberattacks, particularly before and during elections.

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