There is a lack of a coherent and comprehensive strategy, if not complacency, to neutralize and fight back at the multi-billion dollar propaganda machine of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has consolidated his control of the Turkish media and weaponized it to attack and slander people, ethnic and religious groups and even entire nations with fake news and fabricated stories.
Erdoğan’s intensified bashing of the US, Germany and the Netherlands in recent months in a conspiracy frenzy that is a total disconnect from reality is just a taste of more to come as he feels increasingly isolated and frustrated over the failure to advance his Islamist project abroad. His marching orders to the media to viciously rail against his domestic opponents have already poisoned Turkish society and fanned xenophobic euphoria and are now spilling over to the Turkish and Muslim diaspora in other countries.
That blatant interference must be tackled head on before it takes a further toll on the psyche of Turks and Muslims who are being groomed to hate with a venomous narrative coming out of Erdoğan and his propaganda machine. This is certainly not a problem unique to Western allies, either. Turkey’s partners ranging from the Arab world to Asian countries have received their own share of Erdoğan’s bashing and bullying through systematic media campaigns run by his media empire. The fact that Russia, China, Egypt and the Gulf states have not been spared Erdoğan’s fury at one time or another shows Erdoğan’s wide brush in painting his enemies with hurtful remarks that will put a stain in history.
Words certainly matter, and Erdoğan’s rhetoric is not just empty talk. It has real consequences as shown on various occasions from vigilante violence targeting foreign travelers in Turkey to the outright branding of international election observers as terrorists. It is time to get a grip on this dangerously developing situation in Turkey and urgently act to thwart Erdoğan’s destabilization efforts through political warfare.
Here is a roadmap on how to counter Erdoğan’s disinformation campaign:
First, one must acknowledge that efforts to engage the Turkish media to help correct the perception that has already been created by Erdoğan’s propaganda machine is a futile attempt because of his suffocating grip on the Turkish media. With the exception of a few low-circulation newspapers and networks that have very limited penetration into the Turkish audience, the media is kept on a tight leash by Erdoğan, who was not even ashamed for holding the world record by jailing 283 journalists and seeking to arrest 135 more. The government has already shuttered almost 200 media outlets in the last year alone and seized the personal and corporate assets of media owners. The remaining media have no incentive to run truthful, credible and consistent stories. From a series of fake interviews to running false stories without bothering to check sources, it can be concluded that the media have no interest in exerting efforts to provide factual information on critical matters as long as it is controlled and influenced by Erdoğan.
Nevertheless, setting the record straight and refuting allegations quickly help provide ammunition to the non-Erdoğan media as well as a few independent and critical outlets that have started broadcasting from exile despite huge financial and logistical challenges. The modus operandi of Erdoğan’s propaganda machine aims to shape first impressions with lies and continues to repeat the same lies in the hope that it will eventually stick. Since first perceptions are important and often difficult to alter, one should concentrate on putting out information about Erdoğan government plots in advance rather than waiting for after the fact, when the damage has already been done. In other words, while efforts to neutralize the impact of fake and false news coming out of the Erdoğan camp should not be abandoned, the priority ought to be naming and shaming his government actions before the Turkish president and his propagandist media get a chance to take a first shot at framing events the way they like.
Second, the majority of the Turkish public, having been subjected to systematic propaganda for years, is under the illusion that Erdoğan is the only savior who has the stamina and courage to stand up against what the government calls imperialist powers that are determined to invade and dismember Turkey. Therefore, any embarrassing exposé whether that would be in the form of corruption or a major blunder in foreign policy would easily be sold to the public as yet another conspiracy by outside powers. Erdoğan will shift the blame to scapegoats as he has been doing throughout his political career as opposed to acknowledging accountability. Using his media power, he was able to sell authentic phone recordings that showed him instructing his son to stash millions of dollars in December 2013 as if it were a fabricated wiretap.
In any case, many Turks would merely shrug off the allegations of, say, a multi-billion dollar graft scheme of the president’s family enterprise, offshore accounts and assets as revealed in the Panama Papers or sexual fantasy toys of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak in the Red Hack-leaked emails. That illusion would be hard to break unless the public really feels the shrinking budget pinch from the worsening economic outlook that is already under way. Any counter-measure to Erdoğan’s disinformation campaign should factor this reality into the calculations.
The third and perhaps most important move against Erdoğan would be to deprive him of the ability to sell himself as great leader who commands respect and admiration in international fora. Despite attempts to portray himself otherwise, Erdoğan really cares about his global standing and how he is treated in his relations with other countries. He uses every means and venue to boost his image so that he can sell that to the Turkish audience. That includes phone calls to leaders of important countries. His insistence on having high-level summits with the EU leaders, lobbying hard to get in a picture with world leaders such as the US president at high-level meetings shows his hunger for photo opportunities. If he gets snubbed and denied the means to brag, that would undermine his credentials and weaken his claims of grandeur in the eyes of his supporters.
The fourth measure would be to limit Erdoğan’s ability to finance his propaganda machine by going after businesspeople, opportunists and committed Islamists on whom Erdoğan relies for support in exchange for kickbacks, contracts and business incentives. Media moguls such as Ethem Sancak, Aydın Doğan, Turgay Ciner, Ferit Şahenk and Ahmet Albayrak effectively handed over the control of their media affiliates to thugs who act as caretakers for Erdoğan and serve at his pleasure in fueling the propaganda machine because they want to keep their businesses in other fields and personal assets safe. Given that they have sizable assets and investments outside of Turkey as well, they must be reminded of the fact that the cost of their alliance with Erdoğan may very well outweigh the benefits. Punitive measures such as travel bans and the freezing of assets that target media owners who help Erdoğan spread disinformation and fuel extremism in Turkey would be a chilling message.
The fifth move should take aim at Erdoğan’s chief strategists and propagandists in waging political disinformation warfare. That may include some key members of Parliament or leading mayors from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his advisors and communications specialists in the government, directors who oversee the state-run media as well as operatives in the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) who coordinate psychological warfare through media outlets. His aide Yiğit Bulut, his spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, the heads of the state-run news outlets Anadolu and broadcasting network TRT Şenol Kazancı and İbrahim Eren, respectively, Nuh Yılmaz, the media advisor at the intelligence agency and Melih Gökçek, the mayor of Ankara who does Erdoğan’s dirty bidding are the first names that come to mind. Putting these operatives on notice with punitive measures would help intimidate bureaucrats who are closely associated in running Erdoğan’s propaganda machine because they would realize there is no impunity for their actions. Both for government employees and media owners, the punitive measures could be expanded to include family members and relatives as well depending on how far Erdoğan is willing to take this fight.
Sixth, Erdoğan is abusing freedoms and exploiting vulnerabilities in Western democracies to expand his propaganda machine network. Most TV networks have been freely broadcasting his messages to Turks in Europe and other places. For example, news, entertainment programs and TV series help shape Turks in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands’ perceptions, undermining the efforts at integration exerted by host countries. Erdoğan’s networks not only give falsified information about Turkey but also comment on issues of the host countries, which in many cases are not subtle but rather border on outright interference. For example, Erdoğan calling the main German political parties such as the CDU, SPD and Greens enemies of Turkey or branding the Dutch government as Nazis who oppress Turks living in the Netherlands were being recycled 24 hours a day by these networks. The licensing, permits and registration of these networks in reaching out to diaspora Turks via satellite or other means can be re-examined to send a message to the Erdoğan government that this meddlesome act won’t be tolerated.
Seventh, the growing threat of Erdoğan’s trolls on Twitter, Facebook and social media accounts, often masked behind fake names, must be addressed as well. It is estimated that some 12,000 trolls were hired by his government to manipulate the news, recycle false stories, promote conspiracies and attack Erdoğan’s critics. Many are on the payroll of municipalities run by Erdoğan’s AKP. At one point, this army of trolls was managed by Mustafa Varank, an aide to Erdoğan, according to a leaked February 2014 telephone conversation between him and Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye. The trolls flood discussion forums, post comments on news stories and often parrot the same government narrative in an effort to downplay, challenge and beat out competing narratives. The ringleaders of this troll army must be exposed and held to account.
Last but not least, Turkey’s allies and partners should stop appeasing Erdoğan’s regime in the name of engagement because the continued interaction and cooperation further empowers the Erdoğan regime, enabling him to claim the vanity that he values dearly. He must be regarded as a spoiler who exploits disarray among allies and partners and turns their weaknesses into his strengths by leveraging divisions in the anti-Erdoğan ranks. It is time to call a spade a spade and confront this 21st century dictator forcefully. Unlike Russian disinformation campaigns, this presents a clear and present danger for the NATO alliance from the enemy within. Erdoğan has turned Turkey into a liability for NATO, undermined the alliance sprit with full-blown accusations against member states, plotted false flags to drag it into his dirty proxy war in Syria and run a defamation campaign to discredit the NATO organization.
Let’s remember that Erdoğan does not like to play by the book and is prone to changing the rules in the middle of the game if that suits him. He has been known to dump the deal he struck at the table when it comes to implementing it on the ground. That makes him unpredictable in the sense that one expects certain behavior from a rational actor in international politics. He is more like a spoiler who is bent on using scorched-earth tactics as he has no exit strategy left that would allow him to gracefully retire from politics against the background of graft probes and the illegal arming of jihadists.
However, when one considers his roller-coaster behavior since he found himself and his family incriminated in major corruption investigations that were made public in December 2013 and soon after when his government was caught red-handed sending heavy arms to jihadists in January 2014, he has been on a rampage to destroy Turkey’s democratic institutions in order to stop the reckoning of his unlawful deeds, undermining the nation’s traditional ties with allies and partners. It is easy to anticipate his behavior from this profile of an angry man who wants to bully his way out by bashing others and smearing, threatening and blackmailing his partners. The time has come to say enough is enough.