Apr 22 2019

Russia has already won the information war in Turkey - analyst

As US-Turkey tensions have risen in recent weeks in connection to Ankara’s plan to buy a Russian missile system, Turkey’s media has been infecting the debate with false information that highlights Moscow's subtle control of Turkish media, said an analysis for U.S. magazine Foreign Policy.

U.S. officials have warned for months that a purchase of the Russian S-400 system could expose vulnerabilities in NATO military hardware, including the new generation F-35 stealth fighter jet, and could lead to sanctions against Turkey. “If Turkey completes its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, Turkey risks expulsion from the joint F-35 program,” Vice President Mike Pence warned last month.

Turkish media tell a different story.

“Most pro-government outlets have begun advocating Turkey’s preference for Russia’s next-generation Su-57 fighters, instead of the F-35s. For example, Turkey’s main news agency published a comparison between the F-35 (which is currently being delivered) and Russia’s Su-57 (currently in flight-testing phase) to make the case that Washington’s threats over F-35 deliveries were futile. Another columnist argued that it was impossible for the United States to make progress on F-35 production without Turkey’s help,” Akın Ünver, associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, wrote on Sunday for FP.  

This sort of fake news is a daily occurrence in Turkey.

“In such an environment, Russia does not need to launch a coordinated disinformation campaign similar to what it has done in the West. Domestically produced fake and accurate news that is sympathetic to Kremlin views is already rampant,” said Ünver.

Instead, Moscow deploys its information warfare to steer policy decisions and push its agenda more directly, according to Ünver. In a recent study for Turkey’s EDAM think tank, Ünver detailed how Russia’s cyber army appears capable of shaping the positions and policies of Turkey’s government, but largely refrains from doing so as the Black Sea neighbours’ strategic interests are largely aligned.

Pro-Russian accounts and bots in Turkey rarely deploy false information these days, instead using accurate information but distorting its meaning in a way that boosts public support for pro-Russian policies, according to Ünver.

Moscow also plays both sides.

“It affects mainstream pro-government information networks through its direct influence on the government. At the same time, it hedges by ensuring that Russia’s main Turkish-language outlets, Sputnik Turkiye and RSFM radio, are overwhelmingly pro-opposition. This enables Russia to control the narrative,” said Ünver.

This all marks a sharp change since November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi-24 jet over Syria after it violated Turkish airspace, which resulted in the killing of a Russian pilot by Syrian rebels on the ground.

After the initial pro-Russian line - that Turkey had shot down the Russian jet over Syria, not within Turkish airspace - failed, pro-Russian outlets hit on a new narrative, according to Ünver: Turkey had aided Islamic State (ISIS) by purchasing oil from areas of Syria controlled by the group. This story flourished and may have ultimately shaped Turkish policy.

“Once Turkey began to rebalance in favor of Moscow, Russian strong-arm tactics largely disappeared,” said Ünver. “As a result of this shift, Turkey also became far more willing to buy the S-400 and became immune to Washington’s threats regarding the F-35 program.

Russia’s ongoing influence over both pro-government and pro-opposition digital media in Turkey will give Moscow the upper hand in any future crisis.”