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Ten thoughts on the Turkish way of trolling

Michael_Rubin / Michael Rubin @mrubin1971
I’ve been writing about Turkey for more than a decade now. It’s a beautiful country, rich in history, and a complex society but, boy, in recent years their trolling has left a lot to be desired. It’s not just the internet trolls who have fallen far behind but also Turkish diplomats and even senior aides to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

(People wave Turkey's national flag during a Republic Day ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, October 29, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas.)

In the spirit of peace and brotherhood and out of my profound respect for Turkey’s president, here’s some friendly advice:

Be consistent with your conspiracies. Who is behind Turkey’s ills? The “interest rate lobby”? Jews? Washington think-tankers? Alternately, you’ve blamed this humble correspondent, Henri Barkey, and a number of other think tankers. You’ve also blamed “the media,” a “robot lobby,” a “war lobby” and the followers of ally-turned-adversary and Islamic theologian Fethullah Gülen. In many countries, someone who so rapidly shifts between conspiracies would be called psychotic; in Turkey, they seem to be called ‘president.’
Turkey isn’t the world. About five years ago, Erdogan advisors Cuneyt Zapsu and Egemen Bagis sued me to silence me. If I were a Turk, that might work. But they should have understood first that it is harder to intimidate people who do not live in Turkey and, second, the reaction to such threats can be to double down on writing in order to demonstrate that bullying doesn’t work. Also, if you’re going to sue, you’d better be right: Wikileaks and subsequent leaks confirmed accusations of corruption, many lodged by their colleagues in the ruling party.
What goes around, comes around. Five years ago, veteran journalist Cengiz Çandar took to the pages of  The Guardian to castigate me for criticizing Erdogan’s crackdown on the press. To paraphrase Çandar, Turkey arrested journalists for good reasons and respected press freedom. “Those who argue that it is turning into a police state are misleading world public opinion,” he declared. He then used all the usual bells and whistles to explain to readers that Jewish writers had dual loyalties and were working in service of Israel. Alas, the problem with appeasing dictators is that their appetites are seldom whetted. Earlier this year, Çandar joined the long list of purged journalists whose cases he had previously ridiculed.
What’s the message when you respond to arguments with insults? Let’s consider my piece on 12 questions Turkish journalists aren’t able to ask inside Turkey. If the response to that are photos flipping me off, tweets accusing me of (gasp!) being Jewish, or hurling expletives, then that only convinces people reading the feed that you’re trying to change the subject or can’t answer the questions. Erdogan may honor trolls at home, but generally speaking, twitter trolling only works against the thin-skinned. Most serious policy analysts recognize that insults are a sign of the weaker argument.
About that religion thing… Back to deflection. Responding to questions by raising unrelated issues doesn’t work. For what it’s worth, I first realized how religion obsessed Erdogan’s party was when, in 2005, they became very upset with my expose on money laundering and illicit finance inside Turkey. Rather than send someone from the embassy to talk with me, they found a Turkish Jew in Washington because, it seems, Erdogan assumed all Jews know each other. Separately, if I’m just a neocon, I’m a bad one — I haven’t been to Israel in a decade. I go to Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and, yes, Turkey, much more. Why? Because I don’t generally work on Israel. Lastly, if you want to emphasize Turkey’s religious tolerance with reference to its treatment of Jews 500 years ago, it detracts from the argument when your argument is coupled with a sentence that begins “Why don’t you Jews…”
Blacklisting doesn’t work. The Turkish Embassy in the United States was once among the most active in Washington, DC, but beginning under Ambassador Nabi Sensoy in 2006 and continuing until now, the Turkish Embassy engaged in an ever widening blacklist (acknowledged privately by its diplomats) of anyone in Washington critical of Erdogan. Today, this means the Turkish embassy simply doesn’t talk to anyone beyond some State Department officials and those paid by Turkey. When I spoke before the World Affairs Council of Houston a few years back about Turkey’s turn, it emerged that the Turkish consulate had lobbied to disinvite me. If Erdogan believes he’s right and his opponents are wrong, then why not convince them instead of trying to troll and boycott? Here, Erdogan might learn some lessons from both Fethullah Gülen and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Even when people—myself included—criticized their movements and causes repeatedly and vehemently, they were always willing to engage personally and always kept their door open, as was mine. Sometimes, mature people can agree to disagree.
Buying friends doesn’t work, either. Creating front groups to lobby illegally is guaranteed to backfire. When the front group is so inflexible that it feels forced to defend even the most ridiculous Erdogan statement is a sure give-away that it is a fraud. By the way, this doesn’t work either. Ultimately, this sort of thing does more to illustrate what is wrong with Turkey than convince people that Erdogan is misunderstood.
Professionalism is important. Panels and conferences are the bread-and-butter of Washington, DC’s think tank and academic scene. First piece-of-advice: man-handling and assaulting audience members doesn’t really help Turkey’s efforts to rehabilitate its image. Likewise, the question-and-answer session after panels is for questions and answers. Turkish diplomats, it sounds obnoxious to hear you get up and try to filibuster with your talking points. People know Erdogan’s talking points. If they wanted to hear them, they’d ask you to be on a panel. Save the Turkish propaganda for the Atlantic Council’s Energy Summit. Likewise, when I spoke at the Chautauqua Institution about Turkey in 2013, I was housed in a guesthouse with Erdogan advisor Ibrahim Kalin. Kalin responded by giving the cold shoulder to my 18-month-old daughter. That’s not politics; that’s just being a jerk.
No, not everyone is on the take. Along the same lines. I don’t take money from Fethullah Gülen or the Rothschild’s. Or the Free Masons. That’s public record and easily discoverable. I criticize Turkey because I regret its decline into darkness and renewed dictatorship. To try to defame every critic as being on the take only reflects poorly on Turkey and its leaders because it suggests projection: Assuming everyone else does things the way the Turkish government now does.
If you’re going to write a hit piece, watch your sources. Let’s put aside the silliness of trying to delegitimize a person through personal insults rather than countering them on the facts. When you’re going to do a hit-piece, it’s probably best not to treat an acolyte of Lyndon LaRouche as a legitimate source unless, of course, journalists for papers seized by Erdogan want to illustrate just how full-on conspiracy they’ve gone. What’s next? Treat LaRouche’s “Queen Elizabeth II is a drug-smuggler” as fact?
Turkey is an important country and there’s a lot to debate. Only the most sycophantic advisor would lead Erdogan to believe that bilateral ties are strong or that his reputation in Washington is good.  There’s a reason why ties have fallen so far, so fast and why US officials no longer buy Turkey’s arguments. That’s because too often Turkey is more focused on trolling than in engaging. Erdogan has no one but himself to blame.


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