Army of Spin
Following in Putin's footsteps, the Turkish government is gearing up for full-fledged information warfare.
The foreign media image of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government has shattered over the past 18 months, and in response Turkey has ramped up an aggressive international information blitzkrieg. The campaign is made up of two fundamental elements: condemnation of allegedly duplicitous Western coverage, and a concerted effort to communicate the government’s message internationally. The onslaught is intense and the tone is becoming increasingly bitter.
The words of a recent piece by Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Erdogan newspaper Yeni Safak, reflect the mood: “What we have been experiencing for the last two years is a global struggle. This is why they have declared war against Turkey and its calculations for the future…. If you have plans to be a great country then you will find the whole world opposing you.”
They may sound ludicrously bombastic, but such sentiments are widely shared among senior government officials. Convinced that the foreign media is a propaganda weapon deployed by the West, many call on patriotic Turks to rally behind the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the name of national sovereignty. This sense of embattled defiance is important to understand, and reveals much about the resentful mindset gripping the state. Joel Simon, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), wrote earlier this month about his recent meeting with President Erdogan, who, he said, surprised him by striking a “combative posture,” denouncing foreign media coverage as (in Simon’s words) “biased, intrusive, and tendentious.” In recent public speeches, Erdogan has repeatedly denounced “foreign media groups” as well as the local “treason networks” alleged to be collaborating with them. Needless to say, this is a long way from the democratizing, self-confident Turkey that many in the West hoped was emerging just a few years ago.
A series of domestic setbacks have focused the Turkish government’s mind on its international perception. The first was the eruption of the nationwide Gezi Park protests last summer, which caught it off guard amid an intense, unfavorable foreign media gaze. The second was its slow but spectacular fallout with the movement of erstwhile ally Fethullah Gulen, which led to the revealing of a huge corruption scandal and robbed the government of one of the main English-language outlets it had relied on for favorable coverage. The third was the spread of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which put Turkey under intense pressure to join the U.S.-led coalition. As pro-government columnist Yildiray Ogur saw it, the American effort to enlist Turkish participation was accompanied by a “media campaign full of ignorance, distortion, and disinformation.”
In recent months, the New York Times has become a particular bête noire. In October, one of its stories on an Islamic State recruiting effort in Ankara touched a raw nerve. The Times’ Turkey correspondent Ceylan Yeginsu was demonized in the AKP press and ultimately fled the country in response to a series of death threats. These tactics have a long history in Turkey, and experienced journalists can recall being routinely labeled “English spies” in Ankara while covering the darkest days of the Turkish military’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 1990s. It’s depressing that such methods are still being used today, but it’s somewhat ironic that the New York Times is now on the receiving end. This, after all, is the paper that has been one of the staunchest defenders of Erdogan’s AKP, repeatedly publishing editorials describing Turkey as a “vibrant democracy” even as the government’s authoritarian steps were becoming increasingly brazen.
But that was then. Today, the government feels itself under attack by the same foreign outlets that it once so successfully wooed, and has unleashed its own media offensive in response. The state-run Anadolu Agency (until recently presided over by Erdogan’s former press advisor) has accelerated its much-publicized international expansion; online English translations of government-friendly newspapers have proliferated; pro-Erdogan social media trolling has escalated, and countless new websites aimed at foreign observers have sprung up. Much of this activity is supported by a network of rising pro-AKP businesses that rely on the government to secure lucrative contracts (and to avoid punishing tax inspections).
After their break with the Gulen movement, Erdogan and the AKP also moved to secure a more reliable English language newspaper mouthpiece. The result is Daily Sabah, a new publication affiliated with the mass circulation Sabah, which was owned by Erdogan’s son-in-law until he sold it to an equally loyal company last year. Essentially composed of thinly veiled government press releases, Daily Sabah is actually quite useful as an English-language window into the AKP’s thinking — a slicker version of what so many Turks read every day.
In some ways, the Turkish government’s information war echoes the propaganda blitz unleashed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, recently described by Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss as the “weaponizing of information.” Both campaigns also occur at a time of heightened skepticism in the West itself toward traditional media as well as government. The former’s role as an information gatekeeper has collapsed in the face of the proliferation of alternative news outlets and social media narratives, which the Turkish and Russian authorities are keen to exploit.
There is, however, a crucial difference. Today’s Kremlin is engaged in a nihilistic bid to sow confusion among the “enemies of Russia,” based on the almost postmodern conviction that objective truth is irrelevant and the importance of facts has evaporated in favor of narratives. As Pomerantsev writes, for Putin, “the point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone,” but to disrupt Western narratives and to blur the borders between fact and fiction. The Turkish government, on the other hand, may well want to disrupt the Western narrative, but it is also desperately keen to persuade and win the minds of Western observers. Indeed, alongside the standard conspiratorial material, Daily Sabah is also full of voices earnestly appealing to the “the West” about what it gets wrong about Turkey.
Unfortunately for them, the results of this campaign don’t look especially promising. Despite the AKP’s best efforts, the general perception abroad of Turkey’s ruling party and president continues to deteriorate. Rather than the democratic warrior of yesteryear, Erdogan now mostly appears in the foreign media as a figure of ridicule — an increasingly erratic authoritarian popping up to make wacky statements every few weeks. The president himself is even starting to turn this international skepticism to his advantage, as evidence that the West is implacably hostile to Turkey and its fearless, truth-telling leader — a useful populist line ahead of next June’s crucial parliamentary elections.
But if you follow the conspiratorial line to its logical extent, perhaps this perceived hostility shouldn’t be surprising. If the Western media really is engaged in a sinister conspiracy to slander and undermine the Turkish government, its mind must already be made up — regardless of Daily Sabah’s earnest efforts to shift the conversation. In that case, one wonders why the AKP’s new army of propagandists bothers trying to convince Western opinion-makers at all.
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