Lost in translation: Crucifying Turkey in the new age media

GÖRKEM DIRIK * - PINAR TANKIR **
Published 24.05.2019 00:04
Lost in translation: Crucifying Turkey in the new age media

As Turkey's relations soured with the West over the past years, Western media outlets started to employ alleged tactics through media manipulation on Turkish politics as part of their strategy of depicting a sensational evil that is Turkey

New technological developments introduced avant-garde political tools that have shaped world affairs throughout the last century. This did not only revolutionize interstate and intrastate relations, but also transformed decision-making processes by offering and integrating new concepts of political communication and mass media into politics. Since then, the media has become one of the most influential tools in shaping the perception of societies on critically important issues.

The latter came with the widespread access to the internet and social media, which enabled ordinary citizens to mobilize each other by sharing once-confidential information. At first, this laid the bedrock for masses to hijack the gatekeeper role of the "chosen elites" with regards to crucial domestic and external issues. Having realized the transition of power sliding from their hands to the ordinary people, political elites adopted themselves to new strategies in their quasi-irredentist attempt to redeem their earlier stance and utmost political authority. As a result, political elites commenced designing world politics by actively portraying themselves via mass and social media.

As such, we see patterns of this when the Western media paints negative images of Turkey and many other countries to enhance their own strategic interests. It is definitely not a new phenomenon for countries to use mass media to manufacture polices and agendas. This article will look to analyze how the portrayal of Turkey shapes the types of cognition people have about a country that has faced vast security challenges since its inception. It is no doubt that international media coverage has an "agenda-setting effect on public opinion."

Thus many scholars have looked at how the mass media affects public perceptions and how negative connotations attached to a country can essentially gain the sustenance to influence policy. However today we also question not only the "watchdogs" of our time on its integrity but we also contend that a lot of the biases come from nations that have historically remained hostile toward Turkey. We ask ourselves whether this could be classified as a form of Orientalism re-emerging or perhaps are these negative perceptions fueled by post-colonial hostilities that have been deeply rooted in Western discourses since Turkey's inception as a republic.

Following the serene solemnization of obsequies of classical news dissemination (like printed newspapers), more contemporary and hasty tools such as TV broadcasting, social media and blogs have swiftly become an integral part of the policy-making process. Although ordinary citizens are now granted direct access to any information they need, such rapid and drastic amendments become counterproductive with regards to information pollution.

Incapable of filtering the received information, masses have become a facile target for social engineers to design attitudes at their will. In such circumstances, the mass media and other communication tools have actively and sometim​es wittingly been applied to politics. This introduced the notorious concept of perception management, which soon placed itself on top of the list for manipulating masses by distorting and exaggerating the truth. As such, societies could now be propelled to perceive paradise as pandemonium or, conversely, consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.

As aforementioned, news dissemination has shifted tremendously and as such we have seen a mass increase in information pollution. Globally distributed media has become a vivacious part of our cultures, once thought of as the "fourth estate" an independent political institution that keeps the citizenry informed by acting like a "watchdog" to deter the misuse of political power, however, it has absolutely taken a life of its own. Now it is rather a channel through which information becomes embedded into our cognition and thus becomes popularized and advances the interests of political elites and conglomerates that have betrayed and distorted the minds of many individuals. However the core issue relates to framing and context as it has caused an outpour of criticism regarding accountability.

When media outlets are not accountable for what they air or print, they betray their audiences, they no longer remain the conduit that was once held in high regard. Let it be clear that in no way are we claiming the absence of accountable media institutions but rather that its numbers are plummeting. Furthermore, we understand more so its ability to corrupt the minds of those through an abundance of information pollution.

As George Orwell said in his classic dystopian novel "1984:" "War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength," in this paradoxical phrase we see how in today's society slogans are used to weaken strength and independence of public minds, thus forcing them to live in continuous propaganda induced terror forcing everyday people to accept anything printed regardless of it being based on fact or not. Moreover we see that the lines can become blurred very quickly if framing and context are not handled accurately and with accountability.

Indisputably, such drastic transformations necessitated "faerie connoisseurs," specialized on misleading tactics, news distortion, exaggeration and fabrication at the disposal of political elites. These specialists, or spin-doctors, are assigned with the task of persuading masses to perceive the unacceptable as acceptable. In other words, spin doctors tend to find a way to legitimize critically important policies and thus stimulate an atmosphere of enthusiasm, excitement and sensationalism, all of which alleviate for them to bluff news and deceive the targeted audience regarding facts about critical policies.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of spin doctors are chosen from among former journalists as they are in line with the inner workings of the mass media. Also known as professional propaganda crafters, spin doctors soon became capable of steering an attitude toward a specific person or nation. To achieve this, they apply a strategy of altering the existing developments in the news to advance ideals in order to gain public support. Most importantly, they utilize a simplified language to provide uncomplicated explanations and imagery, which allow them to increase political power as well as mobilize masses.

The new doyennes of politics, they cautiously apply the cherry-picking approach in selecting propaganda objects. To this end, they professionally alleviate the intensity of sensational proposals given by political leaders, and conglomerates to replace their radically sound words with the utilization of relatively creamy statements, and project them as value-protectors. Thus laying the groundwork for politicians to become champions of propriety. Within this artificial framework, spin doctors attempt to redesign perceptions and alter social behavior by providing evil and savior profiles.

Distorting reputation

Furthermore, as Chomsky and Herman have demonstrated in "Manufacturing Consent" the media wields an unimaginable power which no doubt contributes significantly to the shifts in individual perceptions regarding cultural identities and in manufacturing policies. Globally distributed media has been a vital means through which global culture is communicated and popularized no doubt. Newer platforms of media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become a means of unifying groups that are geographically scattered or isolated and thus corrupt perceptions regarding nations, cultures and belief systems.

Framing and context nevertheless become important as inquiries of the media from an international perspective have the ability to affect the audience's perceptions of the cultures/countries involved in the issues they portray. The example we will use is the negative portrayal of Turkey in regards to allegations of the "Armenian genocide."

A New York Times book review published on April 2019 titled "Turkey's Killing Fields" is a prime example of how the media influences perceptions. The article uses phrases such as "Turkey's destruction of its Christian minorities," "slaughter," and melodramatic phrases to paint a specific image of Turkey's past. For example the allegations are dated back to a time in which Turkey was not yet a sovereign republic, yet the article is titled "Turkey's Killing Fields."

Additionally Turkish researchers such as Yusuf Devran, Associate Professor at Faculty of Communication in Yeditepe University, found the same to be true of the British media in its portrayal of Turkey in reporting about allegations of the Armenian genocide. For example Devran states that "the British media uses dramatic and striking phrases such as slaughter, massacre" as if there was consensus among all nations regarding the validity of the claims.

More recently Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, used such striking terms during an interview when he asserted that Washington wants to prevent Turkey from "slaughtering" Kurds as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Syria. This displays not only a lack of information on Mike Pompeo's part but a rather a disrespect to Turkey's ongoing troubles with the U.S.-backed terrorist group, the People's Protection Units (YPG), who pose grave security challenges to Turkey.

The issue is not the double standard present in Pompeo's statement but rather how terminology such as this creates negative perceptions of Turkey. Additionally in February 2018 a BBC article titled "Syria war: Turkey indiscriminately shelling civilians in Afrin" stipulates that vulnerable civilians are facing displacement and death because of the way Turkey's offensive was being conducted. This created a leeway to hype up the negative press surrounding the Turkish military operation. Which in and of itself was an obvious attempt to secure surrounding borders as to enhance Turkey's security concerns regarding the rise of terrorist activities on its borders. As aforementioned these negative stories exacerbated the already tense relationship that Turkey had with the West and spiraled into something that caused a devastating blow to the Turkish economy.

Twitter Spat

Adverse news trending in Western media circles can be very hazardous and is equated to being much more harmful to a country than hundreds of demonstrations throughout that particular nation. Take for example the so-called leader of the "free world," Donald Trump. In his tweet from August 2018, he states: "I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!"

After this tweet, Turkey's economic crisis intensified and the lira took a downward spiral and essentially plummeted 20% against the dollar. When the president of the free world chooses to manage a crisis via twitter instead of leadership and negotiation to help come to a resolve we must accept the immense power that these types of platforms have the ability to devastate countries. Trump's ill-advised action did not only impact Turkey but proved detrimental to American companies as well. Therefore, platforms such as Twitter can advance the interests of political elites and conglomerates and essentially aid in shaping the negative perceptions about Turkey and other countries alike.

Another tweet posted in January 2019 by Trump goes a little something like this: "Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining [Daesh] territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone..."

Aside from the grammatical errors present in that tweet, and aside from the fact that Trump really has no professional experience in international affairs his tweets essentially raged economic warfare on Turkey. Now I use these examples to highlight that, men who know nothing of international affairs should stay far from it and worry only about their hotels as well as the long list of criminal court cases that have arisen out of his presidency. Moreover this example also brings to light that phrases such as "devastate," "slaughter" used in the context of Turkey affect the perceptions of millions of people and paint Turkey and the Turkish people in a negative light.

Excavating the buried hatchet

Premeditated strategies do nothing but revive ancient hatreds and/or augment prejudices and stereotypes toward specific socio-cultural and religious ethos. In this regard, Turkey is far from being an exception, but perhaps the most colossal object that has been systematically vilified for one or another reason. Let us put aside the banality of old-fashioned Ottoman-centric demonization of Turks for a second, and move our attention to recent attempts by means of all the above-mentioned methods.

For instance, prior to every initiation of negotiation talks on the Cypriot dispute for the last 40 years, the reputable Western media outlets immediately launched their anti-Turkish campaign in order to delegitimize Turkey's rightful military intervention in Cyprus and to cripple Turkey's political influence in the process. This does not only put the "unbiased" reputation of such media corporations into question, but also bolsters anti-Western sentiments among the Turks. In such campaigns, the process starts off with the deliberate dissemination of distorted news, as such it gets reported that Turkey has infringed international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. It then continues with exaggerated numbers and fabricated information that thousands of civilian ethnic-Greeks were massacred by the Turkish Armed Forces.

Such demonizing efforts may go even further as reports in the Cyprus Mail state that Greek Cypriot prisoners had been buried alive near a river in Adana, a southern city in Turkey and that there are mass graves in the area of Kyrenia`s Botanical Gardens. These fabricated stories are based on no official and empirical evidence. The Western media choose to "nitpick" these stories and as such turn a "blind eye" toward massacres committed by Greek-Cypriots against ethnic Turks. (See Maj. Nihat Ilhan case)

Turkey's place in the hearts of many western countries has been a perplexing one in that it has historically had an identity crisis, geographically it was located between East and West, held secular beliefs and was reinventing its position in the minds of many of its Allies, however, it has always had historical underpinnings in the east and as such this made it an outcast.

As Turkey's relations soured with the West over the past years, Western media outlets started to employ alleged tactics through media manipulation on Turkish politics as part of their strategy of depicting a sensational evil that is Turkey. Without any background on the history of Turkey that was limited to their ideas of the "imagined community." Could these portrayals be an attempt to cast Turkey in the same league as the Russia-Hezbollah-Iran axis? Or could this be that the West sees Turkey moving away from NATO and the West and closer to the East?

* Op-Ed contributor and holds a Master of Science in Conflict Studies and Nationalism from the London School of Economics (LSE)

** Master's degree in International Relations and attended the University of Oxford, St Antony's College and specialized in Political Transformation in the Contemporary Middle East

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