Turkey’s hostility toward Greece is playing out at many levels. It is not limited to political and military challenges, to the malicious insult to Greek and other Orthodox sensitivities with the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia and Church of the Savior from museums to mosques. It includes a persistent effort to isolate Greece from its partners in the European Union and NATO and to sully the name of Greeks internationally, to expose them to rage and hatred everywhere. We need to understand the field of conflict and the methods that Turkey is using. Greeks need to cultivate alliances before they are exposed to further danger, to prepare strategy, to respond to challenges that we may never have expected to face.
A recent example of the threat that Greece’s reputation faces concerns a New York Times article titled “Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them at Sea” (August 14) and the way that Turkey leveraged this. “Since March, at least 1,072 asylum seekers have been dropped at sea by Greek officials in at least 31 separate expulsions, according to an analysis of evidence by The New York Times from three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard. The Times interviewed survivors from five of those episodes and reviewed photographic or video evidence from all 31,” Patrick Kingsley and Karam Shoumali reported. The refugees, they said, were taken “to the edge of Greek territorial waters” and abandoned “in inflatable and sometimes overburdened life rafts.”
The Greek government was quick to deny the report. Too quick, perhaps. At a time when Greece is facing Turkish attacks on many fronts, the report provoked an angry reaction. The newspaper was seen as taking aim at Greece without pointing out adequately that Ankara was blackmailing Greece and the EU with the threat of a flood of migrants and refugees, without mentioning how Turkey treats people at its own borders. Such reports demand a direct, evidence-based and full response. A quick denial is not enough: The Greek government should have promised a thorough investigation. If any officials were found to be acting illegally, they should be held to account; if the report was unduly influenced by Turkish sources, that, too, had to be pointed out, on the basis of evidence, not out of a sense of “whataboutism.” For several months now, Turkey has been manipulating migrants and refugees to challenge Greece’s borders in an obvious effort to undermine Greece’s sovereignty and also to highlight any irregularities on the Greek side. Turkish officials, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself taking the lead, have sought to isolate Greece in international popular opinion. A full response might seem extraneous to anyone who believes that Greece has nothing to apologize for, but it is absolutely necessary. Because such reports take on a dangerous dynamic of their own – especially when they are “pushed” accordingly. Greece has to ensure that those who act on its behalf do so in accordance with international laws and conventions.
In any case, a full Greek government response to the report would have been largely irrelevant to what followed. Hours after the NYT report was posted online, a major South African news site (News24.com) tweeted a link to Business Insider South Africa which had picked up the Times story. The story’s title, which was repeated in the News24.com tweet, was “Greece secretly sent away more than 1,000 migrants, abandoning them on the open sea.” The report and the tweet accompanied a photograph of scores of desperate black people clinging to life vests in open water. The report mentioned that the photo was from the sinking of a wooden boat carrying more than 500 people, off Lampedusa, Italy, in May 2017. The tweet made no mention of where and when the photo was taken. On the same day, EHA News, the English edition of Turkey’s EHA Medya, posted a tweet declaring: “Greece’s inhuman treatment against refugees recognized by South African media as well. The South African news outlet News24 has published the report of the New York Times on how Greece treats refugees.” The News24 tweet to which EHA was referring has been taken down; EHA’s has not. (News24’s editor did not respond to a request for comment.) EHA kept up the pressure: “Greece forces refugees out of its territorial waters, intentionally damages their boats and leaves them to die. The New York Times published a report regarding Greece’s inhuman treatment of refugees and how the Turkish Coast Guard saves them,” it said in a second tweet. In September, EHA News had only some 22,600 followers but this second tweet was read 130,000 times within a few days.
It is not possible to know how many people read News24’s tweet before it was withdrawn; judging from the reactions, they must have been many. One Twitter user asked, “What will happen if we do the same with all the Greeks in Africa and throw them in the ocean the way they did to our brothers and sisters?”
Things got worse. On August 19, the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s populist opposition party, referring to the NYT report, accused Greece of “genocide,” the news site The South African reported. The EFF deemed the Greek government’s behavior “racist” and “barbaric,” demanding that all ambassadors of Greece be expelled “by all countries that are committed to protecting human rights and that proclaim to be civil and value humanity and humanness,” the site said. According to the EFF, “African and Arab refugees are being subjected to the same violence that dates back to slavery when they were stolen from the continent and sold across the Atlantic.”
A week later, on August 26, the Greek Embassy in South Africa rejected the EFF’s accusations as “completely unfounded,” charging that the party’s statement “is ill-advised and an offense against a country that is traditionally friendly to South Africa.” The embassy statement noted that “Greece stood against apartheid and doesn’t have a colonial past in Africa or elsewhere. Prominent personalities of the Hellenic Community in South Africa defended public freedoms and human rights during hard times.” Greece is currently hosting 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the embassy said. “The Greek Coast Guard has saved tens of thousands of lives in recent years,” it added. The embassy’s points were correct and well-put, but, one week after the EFF’s outburst and nearly two weeks after the photo of shipwrecked migrants reached far and wide, the statement is not likely to have undone the damage done to Greece by the report, the tweets and the photo.
The incident illustrates the dangers that Greece’s international image faces from a relentless propaganda network that Turkey has established in even the most unlikely places. Dealing with the threat demands that Greece avoid acting in ways that attract negative publicity – and that it answer any accusations thoroughly and dynamically.
All is not lost, however. A cartoon by KAL in the Economist a couple of weeks ago suggested that perhaps Greece may still make some gains in international public opinion. Not because the rest of the planet is suddenly swayed by Greece’s arguments but because Turkey is reaching such levels of absurdity with its claims and actions that it prompts even the most disinterested observers to laugh. The cartoon shows five swimmers ready to dive into the pool at the “Mediterranean Swimming Championships.” They look with consternation at a sixth competitor who has set up his place at the side of the pool, his lane cutting directly across the other swimmers’ lanes. “The Turkish contestant is claiming this as his territorial water,” one of the judges explains.
Greek cartoonists do a wonderful job of highlighting Erdogan’s relentless acquisitiveness and cynicism, with Kathimerini’s Ilias Makris reaching a wider audience through the paper’s English edition. However, it is one thing to communicate with an audience that is well aware of the issues and another to reach people who are not already caught up in the story, as KAL’s cartoon does with the Economist’s readers.
Turkey has moved quickly and decisively to create a network of propaganda and influence to make sure that it gets its message across the world. It spends millions of dollars on shaping its image and promoting its causes, with expensive lobbyists providing access to politicians, officials and news media; it funds academic programs and think tanks. Arms purchases are another important part of diplomacy, whether Turkey is leveraging its purchases from others or its sales for maximum political influence. Turkish foreign investments go hand in hand with the cultivation of special ties with people in power and with influence in politics, the economy and society.
In addition, Turkey makes full use of the opportunities provided by technology. A couple of weeks ago, hackers of the so-called “Turkish Cyber Army” attacked Greek government websites – following many such attacks in recent years. On social media, thousands of fake or compromised accounts – but also of people who have been fired up by their government’s aggressive rhetoric – distribute and amplify whatever the Turkish government wants said. They flood the discussion, overwhelming different views, stifling disagreement with Turkish policy. Twitter and Facebook are trying to check and remove accounts that aim at manipulating the public debate. In June, Twitter “archived” 32,242 accounts connected to state agencies in China, Russia and Turkey (7,400). Recently, Facebook shut down a network of accounts from Pakistan, for the same reason.
Asked by Kathimerini whether Twitter was monitoring Turkish accounts at this time, a company spokesman replied: “Using technology and human review in concert, we proactively tackle attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them at scale. As is standard, if we have strong evidence of state-backed information operations, following our thorough investigation, we’ll disclose them to our public archive – the largest of its kind in the industry.”
The Twitter Rules are posted on its site. Every user can read them and learn when and how to flag suspect accounts.
At the European Union level, the Commission has set up the European Digital Media Observatory to coordinate the member-states’ national observatories in the fight against disinformation. The initiative, however, is still in its infancy. The Hellenic Observatory against Misinformation (ellpap.gr) is an initiative led by Media Verification team (MeVer) of the Center for Research and Technology (CERTH), the School of Journalism and Mass Communications of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Ellinika Hoaxes and Athens Technology Center’s Innovation Lab. Among its main goals is to inform the public about disinformation and unreliable online content, and to advise journalists on tools and methods for detecting false news and misleading content. The initiative needs support and funding so that it can become widely known, so that it can begin to fulfill its mission while the European Observatory is still being set up.
This will demand a multidimensional government policy aimed at averting attacks against Greek interests and informing international public opinion. Also, anyone using social media must be made aware of how to spot manipulation and how to respond to it.
It is worth noting that even as the evidence shows how Turkey has made great efforts to shape the discourse around issues that interest it, its Presidential Communications Directorate has just set up a Department of Strategic Communications and Crisis Management to counter “psychological campaigns, propaganda and misperception operations against Turkey,” the news site Duvar English reported, quoting Turkey’s Government Gazette. Aside from providing another example of the standard Turkish tactic of accusing others of doing what Turkey does, announcing the founding of a presidential department to do what Turkey is already expert at should be considered a warning of what is to come.