Turkey elections: how likely is an information blackout?

 A supporter holds a Turkish national flag in front of a poster of Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of his campaign rally in the Sultangazi district of Istanbul, on May 12, 2023.
A supporter holds a Turkish national flag in front of a poster of Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of his campaign rally in the Sultangazi district of Istanbul, on May 12, 2023.

As people in Turkey are getting ready to head to the polls, concerns are growing over potential information blackouts during the crucial election days.

In fact, President Erdoğan isn't new to shutting down the internet during times of crisis. The last instance comes from February when the government blocked Twitter exactly when people needed it the most—as they were coping with the devastating aftermath of the earthquake that shook both Turkey and Syria.

Experts now recommend citizens get a trustworthy VPN service prior to the election days to be able to face potential disruptions. So, how likely is it for the internet in Turkey to go dark?

Turkey's grip on the internet

"Turkey hasn't had a history of shutting down the internet during elections so far. However, there have been some 20 incidents of nation-scale information blackout since 2015," said Alp Toker, founder of internet watchdog Netblocks, during a Twitter Spaces event on May 12.

"We know that there is a kill switch effectively that enables authorities to switch off telecommunication networks."

Besides blocking Twitter in February, the government also restricted several social media platforms following the Istanbul blast which killed at least six people and injured over 80. A soar in Turkey VPN usage followed as people were trying to access the apps and keep the information flow going.

According to the internet shutdown tracker put together by VPN provider Surfshark in partnership with Netblocks, at least eight cases of internet disruptions that occurred in Turkey in the past were related to political turmoil.

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As Toker explained, around political elections there are two moments, especially at risk of information blackout: when people go to the polls and when the results get counted.

This year Turkish presidential elections are particularly relevant for the country, with Erdoğan facing the most united opposition in years—the Financial Times reported.

Starting on May 14, they run on a two-round system so that the risk of the internet going dark is extended for a longer period, too.

Hence, experts urge citizens to download a reliable secure VPN app before the big day.

"Circumvention does work. We just need to find a trustworthy solution," said Toker.

How a VPN can help

Short for virtual private networks, a VPN is security software able to spoof users' IP address location so that they can appear if they are browsing the web from a completely different country within seconds. VPN services also encrypt all the data leaving a device for helping users enjoy better privacy when online.

Born as a way for people to secure their personal data when surfing the web, its circumvention skills are the main reason VPN use soared worldwide last year.

At least eight cases of internet disruptions occurred in Turkey in the past were related to political turmoil

"VPNs are starting to be a digital survival kit during shutdowns," said Gabriele Dackaite, External Communication Officer at Surfshark.

At the same time, as both online censorship and VPN usage rise dramatically across the world, governments have been increasingly cracking down on circumventing technologies—human rights advocates at Freedom House reported.

"Turkey is among the countries worldwide to have imposed restrictions on VPNs in the past," said Dackaite, citing an incident in 2016 when Turkish ISPs were forced to block access to Tor Browser and some VPN providers.

Experts then suggest downloading different services so that users can hop among them in case of blocks.

We invite people to check our guide on the best free VPNs to make sure to use just reliable freebie apps.

Also, Surfshark is committed to supporting journalists, NGOs and activists in Turkey and elsewhere internet freedom is at risk, so it urges whoever is in need to reach out.