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On a sunny afternoon in New York last Thursday, skywriters left cryptic messages over Manhattan.
Other messages read: “TRUTH : PEACE,” “STOP : PYD : PKK : ASALA : DAESH,” “RUSSIA + ARMENIA,” “# LET HISTORY DECIDE,” “101 YEARS OF GENO-LIE,” and a Web address, “FACT CHECK ARMENIA.COM.”
For a few sky gazers, the last two messages made the purpose of the show clear.
some skywriters just advertised an armenian genocide denial website over my dorm
— Matt Kenney (@JKSimmonsBieber) April 20, 2016
And for the more politically oriented, the attempt, accompanied with a dance troupe near the Brooklyn Bridge a day earlier, was a failed attempt to erase 1915 mass-killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians.
I want to meet the PR genius who convinced someone that skywriting “Fact Check Armenia” over NYC was a good strategy.
— Tom Breen (@TJBreen) April 21, 2016
Besides the outraged American-Armenians on Twitter, the performance didn’t receive much local coverage. A short report by News 12 Brooklyn claimed, “Turkish, Armenian communities walk to show unity” by interviewing only the Turkish organizer and hired dancers, but no one from the NYC’s Armenian community.
Editors of News 12 and the reporter, Dana Arschin, who claims to be a “Holocaust Educator,” did not return our requests for comment.
The organization that sponsored the skywriting and the dance performance is called The Turkish Institute For Progress. The organization’s website names Derya Taskin, whom News 12 interviewed, as the president and sole member, but it does not disclose its financial backers. Taskin’s office rejected our repeated requests for comment, as it did to other reporters.
Last year, the same group published a sponsored post on Reuters, claiming that Russia and Armenia undermine U.S. national security interests. Reuters placed a disclaimer over the text to make clear that it took no responsibility for the content and later deleted it. The article is, however, still available at its paid source, PR Newswire, which features more “news releases” from the group that claims FactCheckArmenia.com is “a website dedicated to exposing Armenian distortions and hypocrisies.”
FactCheckArmenia.com is in fact a genocide-denial website that aims to counter historical facts about Armenian Genocide, commemorated every year on April 24. Similar to the Turkish Institute for Progress and the Turkic Platform, which pays for ads for the site since last year, the website is not transparent about who backs the campaign, and its creators hide behind proxies to conceal their identities and ignore journalists’ questions. But they have enough resources to appear as ad results of a Google search for “Armenian Genocide,” to buy promoted tweets on Twitter, and to get featured in a photo gallery on Turkey’s official news agency, Anadolu Agency.
Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ support to the “genocide denial” campaign over Twitter, via the account @FCArmenia, hints at an official nature of this relationship. For example, this tweet by Turkey’s Houston Consulate taking pride in covering streets with posters prepared by the Fact Check Armenia:
Turkey’s genocide-denial campaign in the U.S. is maintained under the name of these small organizations, which gather around the Turkish American Steering Committee (TASC), where Taskin sits on the board. TASC is also instrumental for Turkish pro-government business investments in the U.S.
But the real financier of the broad lobbying effort is the Turkish government itself. A Washington Post article from 2010 states, “The Turkish government has spent millions on Washington lobbying over the past decade” for Armenian Genocide denial. A more recent account puts that tag about $5 million for annual lobbying efforts on record. Indeed, in 2014, the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., has paid $1.4 million to Alpaytac Public Relations company alone, according to FARA records released by the Department of Justice.
This year, the genocide-denial campaign got more aggressive after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s already strained visit to Washington, D.C., turned into a PR nightmare after journalists were physically assaulted by Erdoğan’s bodyguards at the Brookings Institute. Last week, full-page ads on Wall Street Journal promoted Turkey’s denial website, and earlier, billboards that claim Armenians are liars were placed near the Armenian Genocide memorial site in Boston. The billboards were promptly removed by Clear Channel after an area resident, Elizabeth Weinbloom, complained about it on Twitter.
As some skeptical Twitter users revealed, only a quarter of the followers of the @FCArmenia account appears to be real. Its number of followers increased from 2,000 to 42,000 since October—a boost similar to that of politically motivated scam accounts used by pro-government Turkish social media operatives—perhaps thanks to a ‘large scale’ social media campaign revealed in a job posting issued by Taskin’s staffing office in January this year.
Certainly, the millions paid by Turkey for the lobbying is not in vain: Obama did not, for the eighth time, refer to the Armenian Genocide as a “genocide” this year, breaking an electoral campaign promise he made in 2008. But as the lobbying occurs mostly behind closed doors, and since Turkey’s strategic importance does not need aerial stunts over Manhattan, the performance was meant for another audience: the people of Turkey.
In stark contrast to non-existent U.S. coverage and the rather negative international coverage, the skywriting over NYC was reported with pride and joy on Turkish media. State news agency assigned a photographer to cover the scenes of skywriting and the dance troupe, which Turkish pro-government papers reported as “Turkish festival in New York,” while PR agencies from Istanbul, posing as foreign press, reported the events as the “Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.”
With increasing censorship at home and concerning paranoia abroad, Turkey wanted a moment of attention; but other than the Armenian descendants it upset, most New Yorkers seem to miss the point of scribbles in the clouds.
Efe Kerem Sözeri is a Turkish freelance researcher who lives in the Netherlands. After studying political science in Istanbul, he moved to Amsterdam to study migrants' political behavior. Besides his academic work, he regularly writes on internet freedom and censorship in Turkey.