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Separating fact from propaganda in post-coup Turkey

Turkey is awash in anti-American conspiracy theories.


Efe Kerem Sozeri


You already know not to believe everything you read on the internet. In Turkey, you can’t believe everything in some of the largest newspapers, either.

Since the coup attempt on July 15, pro-government Turkish newspapers have run a barrage of stories claiming the United States was behind the failed armed takeover of Turkey’s government. But the propaganda for “Turkey’s New Anti-Americanism,” as the New York Times editorial board called it, is widely supported by Photoshopped images and wild conspiracy theories that are featured on front pages across the country.

Yeni Şafak, an influential paper that supports Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (and once resorted to Facebook scam for popularity boost) published a photo of former U.S. Vice Chief of Staff General John F. Campbell with the headline, “THIS MAN DIRECTED THE COUP.”

Yeni Şafak’s story claimed that General Campbell is not only the organizer of the coup attempt but that he also managed “$2 billion [in] money transactions” from a Nigerian bank to coup plotters with the help of Central Intelligence Agency.

When the Washington Post asked Campbell about the claim, the retired general called it “absolutely ridiculous.” It was later revealed that Campbell was drinking beer in New York City with Fox News host Geraldo Rivera on the day of the failed coup. Despite all of these facts, Yeni Şafak did not retract its story.

Later, another conservative paper claimed that the U.S. Ambassador in Turkey, John Bass, was in Istanbul to meet with coup plotters a day before the attempt. An image, purportedly showing Bass and an unnamed man in uniform, spread like a wildfire on Twitter.

The official Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara quickly made a statement that the ambassador was at an official meeting with Turkey’s Ombudsman in Ankara that day—which can be verified at Ombudman’s official website—reminding journalists how they could have easily verified the claim before publishing it.

But even verification does not clarify the U.S. conspiracy theories among pro-government editors. The chief editor of the daily Akşam tweeted their front page with pictures of “10 CIA spies,” who, the paper claimed, planned the coup. He got 1,000 retweets for his U.S.-defying remarks. The controversial mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, demanded “an explanation” from the U.S. about the meeting over Twitter and got 2,500 more retweets.

This story is based on a hotel guest list of Wilson Center’s academic meeting in Istanbul. But apparently Akşam’s reporter mixed one of the guests, Christian Science Monitor’s Middle East correspondent, Scott Peterson, with another Scott Peterson who is on a death row in California for murdering his wife. Even after confirming via the inmate locator that convict Scott Peterson was still in prison in California, the paper amended the story the following day to claim that Peterson might have been brought to Turkey by the CIA as an “assassin.” None of the countering facts and condemnations from academics have so far pushed the paper to issue an apology.

The now-widely popular belief that “the U.S. was behind the Turkish coup” damages more than countries’ bilateral relations. The hype of U.S. conspiracy in the Turkish coup creates an easy target to blame and comes with a willingly misinformed population that prefers to avoid hard questions—such as Erdoğan’s years-long alliance with the movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan initially blamed for orchestrating the coup, and the intelligence failures right before the failed overthrow took place. Hence, it is no surprise that all of the anti-U.S. conspiracy theories are coming from pro-government papers.

Erdoğan certainly did not stage this bloody coup attempt; his failure was, rather, not recognizing and preventing it earlier. With his strong grip on Turkey’s mainstream media, the president will surely ditch his culpability and, by accusing the West for the coup, he will manage to consolidate his domestic power now more than ever.

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