Conspiracies are depoliticising Turkey's earthquake crisis

Conspiracies are depoliticising Turkey's earthquake crisis

Disaster politics — As public anger over Erdoğan's response to the disaster grows, the focus on government culpability is being splintered by the promotion of conspiracy theories online and through state-owned media.

With the death toll from two huge earthquakes on February 6 nearing 45,000 in Turkey alone, public anger is mounting about the slow emergency response and failure to improve building safety. In a crucial year for the Turkish government, with the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic and a general election coming up in May, this could prove costly for Erdoğan and his party, who have ruled since 2002. However, the focus on government culpability has been splintered by the rapid rise of conspiracy theories.

Almost as soon as the dust settled on the collapsed buildings, fake news began to circulate. Videos of disasters from other countries, stock images of crying children and predictions about further earthquakes spread on social media, in private WhatsApp messages, and across state-owned media. Reddit users discussed a video animation suggesting the earthquakes were caused by US underground bombs. Meanwhile, Twitter users suggested that flashes of light seen during the earthquakes were evidence that they were caused by HAARP (High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program) – a US military research programme that has, in recent years, become the subject of a conspiracy theory by climate science denialists who believe this ‘sonic weapon’ is capable of controlling the weather. The HAARP theory was even discussed on pro-government news channels like Beyaz TV.

Such disinformation creates a climate of fear in a region where hundreds of thousands of people have been left without homes and reliant on aid. On top of that, there are still 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, and nationalists have been using the disaster to suggest they should be deported. Their views have been bolstered by fake reports of Syrians being smuggled into the country under the guise of aid, and fears of criminal gangs looting aid convoys.

In his book Conspiracy Theories in Turkey (2019), historian Doğan Gürpınar describes how conspiratorial thinking became embedded in the ideology of the new Turkish Republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Fears of national annihilation at the hands of both western imperialist powers and the demands of internal minorities calling for independence became staples of political paranoia, which saw a generalised ‘west’ in league with domestic actors trying to destroy Turkish national sovereignty. 

These fears usually imagine the US as the main actor trying to undermine Turkey, which explains why many are ready to believe theories of US-interference. However, Gürpınar tells Huck that the HAARP theory remains marginal in Turkey: “Maybe the severity of the earthquake and the real pain observed due to social media videos [prevented it spreading],” he suggests. “Reality trumped fiction and ideological penchants.”

Still, conspiracy theories (CTs) remain a vital part of the Turkish government’s propaganda. “CTs remain an effective means of depoliticising public debate,” he says. “The government needs conspiracy theories. Actually it’s dependent on them. Any opposition is a cabal of the enemies of Turkey.” Talking about CTs, then, is one way for the pro-Erdoğan media to avoid government responsibility for the destructive nature of the earthquakes.

Opposition parties, too, are demonised as a way of maintaining power. Ahead of the general election in May, six parties including the Republican People’s Party (CHP) formed an alliance called the Table of Six to stand against Erdoğan’s “one man rule”. However, Gulpinar says this only feeds into Erdoğan’s playbook. “The Table of Six feeds this conspiratorial logic as parties with completely different political leanings get together. Why? Just to overthrow Erdoğan. Conspiracy is apparent!”

Another major factor in the proliferation of CTs is the lack of press freedom in Turkey, which regularly makes the list of countries that imprison the most journalists. A crackdown on opposition media following the failed 2016 coup attempt forced many journalists into exile, while a recent report by the Open Society Initiative Sofia placed Turkey at 36 on a list of 41 European countries for media literacy (for media freedom, it came last). Following the earthquake the government also limited access to Twitter and fined broadcasters for negative coverage of the crisis.

“We know that misinformation increases rapidly in times of disasters and crises such as earthquakes,” says Mehmet Atakan Foça, founder of the Turkish fact checking organisation, who cautions against connecting the origins of misinformation to a single source. “There may be false information that ordinary social media users unknowingly spread, or false information deliberately expressed by politicians in their statements. However, it is possible to say that, in general, misinformation spreads on television and social media [the most used news sources in Turkey] in times of crisis.”

A reliance on social media to access information that can’t be gleaned from state-owned TV also means that conspiracy theories are often imported from the west. Alongside some Turkish Twitter users, the biggest backers of the HAARP theory are far-right, anti-vax American pundits like Stew Peters. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we saw the climate of chaos being weaponised by the extreme right to promote their xenophobic ideas, and the same is happening in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Syrian refugees have been a particular target of right wing nationalists in Turkey, with some secular nationalists believing that they are being used by Erdoğan to change Turkey into a religious and Middle Eastern society.

“These are hateful approaches, not conspiracies, but hate makes people easily believe in conspiratorial political positions”, Gürpınar says. “These perceptions make Syrians live as if they don’t exist. No knocks on the door, no voice.”

Turkish social media has been rife with images of people in official uniforms beating Syrians in the streets who they claim were looters. In one video, a group of Turkish men in Kahramanmaraş are seen chanting “Let’s shoot the Syrian in Hatay, let’s shoot the Afghani in Kahramanmaraş….” According to German broadcaster DW, some looters were reportedly beaten to death while another died in police custody after being arrested. These scenes have been encouraged by ultranationalists like Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right Victory Party, who claimed that “From the first moments of Turkey’s greatest disaster, refugees and fugitives have been looting cities.”

Foça believes it’s wrong to say that Turkey is inherently more vulnerable to disinformation than any other country. And, looking at the continued influence of QAnon in the US, it’s hard to disagree. He calls the issue of disinformation a “long term and complex problem”, but does point to an increasing lack of trust in official government institutions as a major issue. “There are doubts regarding the data provided by state institutions and the statements made by government officials”, Foça explains. “The fact that government institutions do not listen to experts and try to make scientists a part of polarisation is also effective in the spread of misinformation.”

Again, the rise of fake news alongside the erosion of trust in government officials is something we’ve witnessed globally. In relation to Turkey, though, Foça says that the answer is for the government to include organisations like Teyit in the process of combating misinformation. “If we were given the opportunity to spread our expertise on this subject to a wider area, we would have fought against misinformation in a more systematic way,” he says. As a result, perhaps “the misinformation that emerged following the earthquake would not have spread and affected people’s lives so much.”

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