The Turkish government’s dominance over TV and print media — and its intimidation of critical journalists with arbitrary detentions and trials — is well known.
Less known is a sweeping campaign of misinformation orchestrated by bogus fact-checking groups with ties to the government that propagate explosive claims: The Armenian genocide is a lie; the government didn’t try to censor Wikipedia; thousands of government employees who were fired for political reasons have an effective appeals procedure.
These fake “fact-checkers” aim to “refute” critical stories about Turkey’s government — even when they contain verified facts.
Sarphan Uzunoğlu, a media studies lecturer at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, says Turkey established a “post-truth regime” before it became the word of the year in 2016. The regime has provided unique contributions to the field, he adds, such as propagandists’ use of the “fact-checking” title for political purposes.
Bengi Ruken Cengiz, a doctoral researcher and an editor at Turkey’s first —and genuine— fact-checking service, DogrulukPayi.com, concurs that the popularity of fact-checking made it an appealing format for partisans trying to gain the moral high ground.
Enter “Fact Check Armenia.”
Fact Check Armenia
Turkey officially denies the Armenian Genocide, conducting campaigns and lobbying efforts against recognition of the genocide worldwide, especially in the United States.
It is aided in this goal by FactCheckArmenia.com, a site with ties to government-affiliated organizations that peddles misinformation about the death of more than a million Armenians.
Last year an aerial stunt spelled out “101 YEARS OF GENO-LIE,” and promoted the website “FACT CHECK ARMENIA.COM” in the skies of Manhattan. The website was also advertised on Google results for search queries on Armenian Genocide.
FactCheckArmenia.com does not reveal who actually owns or runs the website. The whois records, which show ownership of registered websites, are hidden via a company in Bahamas. But their Facebook page say they are funded by the “Turkic Platform.” That platform, with similarly undeclared owners, is “an NGO based in Istanbul” according to the Turkish pro-government media, but many activities seem to take place in the United States.
The “fact sheets” provided on the FactCheckArmenia.com take a firmly pro-Turkish stance. This is most visible in the use of the word “relocation”, that mirrors Turkey’s official narrative, instead of acknowledging orders for the forced deportation of Armenians that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Many other claims, such as “No Armenians were harmed” of the April 24, 1915 arrests, are simply untrue given that 79 of the first group of 235 intellectuals were reportedly killed.
The individuals who promoted the genocide-denying campaign in the U.S. left trails that connect the Fact Check Armenia project directly to the Ankara government.
Ayhan Özmekik, the spokesperson for the Fact Check Armenia, and also for the Turkic Platform, is the founder of the Turkish American Youth and Education Foundation. The organization has good access to government officials, as Özmekik later took a role in the AK Party’s U.S. outreach activities. In 2015, Özmekik produced an interview with President Erdogan’s son Bilal Erdogan for Fact Check Armenia’s sister project, “LetHistoryDecide.” The site was promoted by Turkey’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish embassy in D.C. and ambassador Serdar Kılıç, Turkish consulates, and also by the ruling AK Party.
Derya Taskin, who organized the Manhattan stunt, was then the president of Turkish Institute for Progress (TIP), one of the prime Turkish lobbying organizations in the U.S. She also sits on the executive board of the Turkish-American Steering Committee (TASC) which organized the “LetHistoryDecide” rallies. Back in Turkey, Taskin was considered to run for a parliamentary seat from Turkey’s ruling AK Party in the province of Afyon.
Ms. Taskin initially denied being involved with the project, but when provided with her own quote from an article on Turkey’s state-run news agency that TIP organized the aerial stunt, she declined to reply further. Mr. Özmekik, and the organizations he is affiliated with, did not respond to our requests for comment.
Fact Check Armenia also uses paid campaigns on other news organizations to spread its misinformation. Using the PR Newswire service, Fact Check Armenia managed to publish a paid story on Reuters in April 2015 that claimed Russia was behind the Armenian Genocide commemoration efforts —that article was later deleted without correction. On the same day, TASC published an open letter, again paid as an ad on The Washington Post, that disputes the genocide and promotes the other denial website, “LetHistoryDecide.org”.
Turkey’s English-language media outlets, such as public broadcaster TRT World TV and the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah pursue the same objective — improving Turkey’s image abroad— said Koray Kaplıca, also an editor at DogrulukPayi. But in the name of “national interest” these outlets can turn into pure propaganda tools for the ruling party.
Case in point, “Fact-Checking Turkey.”
Just like Fact Check Armenia, “FactCheckingTurkey.com,” launched in 2016, is not a fact-checking service. Instead, it is a project to counter articles critical of Turkey’s government.
Unlike nonpartisan fact-checkers, FactCheckingTurkey does not use a transparent methodology to adjudicate claims. Conclusions are usually reached by making reference to government statements.
Officials’ statements are often the only source and are treated as the ultimate truth, Kaplıca said.
The recent article, “Story behind Wikipedia ban in Turkey,” is a case in point: An unnamed Turkish state official is the only source used to completely ‘debunk’ nine global media outlets’ news reports about Turkey’s censorship of the online encyclopaedia. The article even contends that a representative of Wikipedia privately confirmed the same unnamed state official’s story — saying the exact opposite of what the executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, Katherine Maher, stated publicly.
Yet, some counterclaims are more dangerous than others. On Twitter, the group recently targeted Amnesty’s report on Turkey’s post-coup purge.
Based on 61 interviews, Amnesty concluded that “in spite of the clear arbitrariness of the dismissal decisions, there is no effective appeal procedure for public sector workers against their expulsions. A commission proposed in January to assess the cases lacks both the independence and the capacity to make it effective. It is yet to start operating.”
FactCheckingTurkey countered this with a month-old speech by a presidential advisor, Mehmet Uçum, on a TV show, saying that an appeal commission is “expected to start out soon”.
In fact, the members of the commission have already been appointed. The seven-member commission, chaired by Justice Ministry’s deputy undersecretary, is expected to face a barrage of 200,000 appeals in its two-year term. Yet, none of these developments addresses Amnesty’s warnings about its independence or effectiveness.
There are two main reasons these propaganda projects aren’t real fact-checkers, Cengiz said.
First, the claims that are chosen for analysis should be verifiable. Second, the fact checks should rely on more than one publicly available, preferably unbiased, source of information.
To “debunk” Amnesty’s report, Fact Checking Turkey offers a political argument instead of scrutinizing the effectiveness of the commission. And in the Wikipedia case, they rely entirely on an unnamed official while publicly available sources, such as Wikipedia’s page history, do not support their counterclaims.
With such sloppy research and no advertisements, how do Turkey’s fake fact-checkers operate? A recently leaked cache of government emails provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse at their methods.
Last October, a Marxist hacker collective, The Red Hack, leaked the personal email archive of Turkey’s Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law. The email archive featured the budget for a think-tank, Bosphorus Global, to be run by a pro-Erdogan columnist Hilal Kaplan and her spouse. However, the biggest part of the costs were servers, firewalls, network infrastructure and the salaries of web designers and software developers.
Kaplan, Bosphorus Global and Fact-Checking Turkey did not respond to our requests for comment.
To date, Bosphorus Global has set up at least 20 projects in six languages, including a TV programme on the public broadcaster, TRT, dedicated to refuting criticism about the Turkish government. However, most of these projects initially appeared anonymous. The group’s first project, “GununYalanlari.com” (“Lies of the day”) acknowledged its connection with the Bosphorus Global only to ‘debunk’ news stories about an expensive waterside mansion alleged to be used as their headquarters. The leaked emails not only confirmed the existence of said mansion, but also that money came from Berat Albayrak.
Uzunoğlu credits this type of political propaganda for consolidating the governing AK party’s support base and claiming the high ground against challengers.
Yet these “fact-checkers” are not a match for their global counterparts, he says.
“The way they define themselves, with such partisanship and by picking sides, damage the truth the most.”