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Turkey: Controlling the Narrative, Shaping the Landscape

By Abraham Thicke

Influencing people’s interpretation of events is critically important to the leaders of all organized societies. This article examines how the Turkish regime manages and manipulates the environment to promote its preferred interpretations, along with some of challenges it faces in doing so. The discussion is framed using ideas from the theory of evolution and cognitive science.

Competition amongst explanations

According the theory of evolution, species compete against each other for dominance. Those that succeed do so because they are better attuned to their environment ― ‘fitter’ ― than competitors. Differing interpretations of events can also be seen as competing, though the environment is a mental, rather than physical, landscape.

In democratic societies, multiple interpretations of events circulate concurrently and more or less freely. Authorities do what they can to maximize the fitness of their favoured interpretations. But the game has rules, such as laws protecting freedom of speech. These prevent authorities from reducing the fitness of competitors and also from excessive manipulation of the environment itself.

Authorities must rely on the fitness of their own interpretations to outperform the opposition.      

As societies become increasingly authoritarian, like Turkey, authorities both promote favoured interpretations and suppress unwanted competitors. There may still be some competition, for example between various interpretations sanctioned by authorities. But it is artificial: competitors have been sabotaged and/or the environment has been artificially manipulated. Having said this, interpretations favoured by authoritarian regimes must, to a large extent, assimilate themselves to the existing environment ― even highly authoritarian regimes cannot easily or quickly reshape culture.

Actions taken by the Turkish regime to promote favoured interpretations include systematic campaigns against independent media outlets, analogous to sabotaging the competition, and manipulating the education system through such steps as increasing the numbers of religiously inclined Imam Hatip schools and changing the school curriculum. Such manipulations are analogous to reshaping the environment.

Competing interpretations in different environments

Because of differences between environments, the Turkish regime’s interpretations stand little chance of success when they encounter the environment of a typical democratic state. The interpretations lack the fitness to prosper in environments that are both structurally different and genuinely competitive.

It is also not too surprising that event interpretations which dominate in democratic states might not gain much traction in Turkey. Although such interpretations derive from a fiercely competitive environment, the Turkish environment is structurally different. Were such interpretations to gain widespread exposure in Turkey, which they do not for a range of reasons, they might not be any fitter than indigenous competitors.     

Explaining the Gezi protests

An example illustrating the points outlined above involves the 2013 Gezi protests. Outside Turkey these are widely understood as expressions of domestic discontent with the regime. The regime’s interpretation suggests the protests resulted from an international conspiracy that aimed to topple the regime. The diverse range of alleged conspirators, including an ‘interest rate lobby’ and  the airline Lufthansa, can be seen as differing, regime sponsored, interpretations allowed to compete against each other in the government controlled media.

That the regime’s favoured interpretations were not, in Turkey, driven to irrelevance by alternative interpretations is largely explained by the evolutionary framework described above. But some elaboration may be useful.

One reason relates to exposure. The ‘mere familiarity effect’ is a psychological phenomenon whereby people come to like things to which they are frequently exposed. So, other things being equal, an interpretation that receives more exposure is advantaged. The regime’s control of the domestic media confers just this advantage.

A second reason concerns the DNA shared by the Turkish regime’s various interpretations of the Gezi protests. All insist the protests were organized by external groups. This style of interpretation has found fertile ground in Turkey for decades, indicating a level of fitness in the environment. Even were alternative interpretations of the Gezi protests to achieve wider circulation it is unclear how they would fare.   

Something similar can be said for the interpretations the Turkish regime uses to explain a wide range other events ― these beasts also share DNA with those that thrived before the regime gained power.  


The Turkish regime does, nevertheless, face challenges in attempting to ensure its favoured interpretations are accepted by intended audiences.

To begin with, it is impossible to completely exclude unwanted competitors from any environment. The suppression of independent media outlets, the jailing of critical journalists and politicians, and the blocking of internet sites can only keep unwanted interpretations from gaining in dominance.

Several other problems deserve more detailed consideration.

First, despite similarities, there are also important differences between the regime’s preferred and previously dominant styles of explanation. Predecessors were of a Kemalist flavour, stressing such concepts as Westernization and secularism. The regime must therefore drive these no longer desired interpretations to extinction or irrelevance in order to keep the competition to a minimum. What assists this task is that Kemalist interpretations never gained complete dominance as they were not internalized by large segments of society, specifically groups such as pious Muslims and Kurds.

Second, the regime’s favoured interpretations have, over time, increasingly come to contradict each other, let alone the facts they supposedly represent. A prime example of this is the regime’s attitude to the Gülen movement, which has changed from highly favourable to the other extreme.

Similarly, it is often difficult to assimilate fresh events within the framework provided by promoted interpretations. Affected interpretations must either be sidelined, or bent to accommodate the event.

Orwellian and Stalinesque revisions

In addressing how the regime deals with these difficulties, two terms borrowed from cognitive science are useful; Orwellian and Stalinesque revisions. They describe theoretical scenarios in which memories for events fail to preserve an accurate record of perception of the same events. Orwellian revisions involve initially remembering accurately and then later overwriting the accurate memory with a different, inaccurate, one. In Stalinesque revisions the initial memory record is inaccurate.

The Turkish regime uses both approaches. Orwellian revisions are primarily used to alter the understanding of past events. Stalinesque revisions help manage understanding of events as they unfold in real time. A few examples should make this clearer.

Instances of Stalinesque revisions include the frequent court orders banning media coverage of certain events. This prevents the formation of an accurate record of those events, with any subsequent release of information being carefully vetted to suit the regime’s interests. An extreme example occurred in December 2016 when the Islamic State published a video showing the execution of two Turkish soldiers. Coverage of the story was immediately banned and the ban has not subsequently been lifted. The regime’s official stance is to explicitly deny reality.

An example of Orwellian revision is provided by the regime’s project to rewrite Turkish history. According to the previously established view, the Turkish Republic sprang, phoenix like, from the ashes of an Ottoman empire. The new history presents the Turkish Republic as a kind of parenthesis, an interruption to centuries of Ottoman glory. The parenthesis is now being closed as a new period of (neo) Ottoman glory is initiated by the current regime. This view is steadily being incorporated in the school curriculum, and the old view phased out. At the same time, Ottoman symbols and paraphernalia are increasingly prominent. President Erdoğan, for example, has taken to welcoming foreign dignitaries with a guard of 16 men, each wearing a uniform representing that adopted by soldiers of each of 16 supposed Turkish empires.   

The regime’s relationship with the Gülen movement has also been subjected to Orwellian revision. As pre-existing accounts of the regime’s transactions with the movement are destroyed (the regime deleted the entire back catalogue of the Gülenist newspaper Zaman), new and quite different accounts are hurriedly being written.

A particularly brazen aspect of this reinterpretation is that it does not merely attempt to erase the regimes previous deep co-operation with the Gülen movement. Rather, it suggests that the regime’s opponents have been co-operating with the Gülen movement all along. In an attempt to lend credence to this inversion, many longstanding critics of the Gülen movement have been arrested on charges of collaborating with the movement.      

Weaknesses of the system

Turkey’s authoritarian regime attempts to control the narrative using a system that is a hallmark of authoritarianism. Favoured interpretations are promoted using two tools that democratic societies do not employ. First, alternative accounts are suppressed and, second the environment in which explanations compete is rigged.

Since the regime’s preferred interpretations lack of genuine fitness, they cannot compete in more competitive environments, especially those of democratic societies. Consequently, the regime is not taken seriously abroad and has become increasingly inward-looking.

A further weakness of the system is that it requires constant maintenance. The regime must prevent competitors from gaining strength in the environment and also prevent the environment itself from evolving in a manner that either reduces the dominance of favoured explanations or increases the competitiveness of unwanted interpretations. Maintaining such an environment is fatiguing.

Related to this, constant adjustments must be made to ensure the environment and the favoured interpretations inhabiting it continue to serve a useful purpose. This is problematic because the interpretations, having evolved in an essentially artificial environment, lack the adaptability to adequately explain new events or reframe previous events in the light of current circumstances. In these situations Orwellian and Stalinesque revisions are resorted to.

The risk here is that the intended audience may cotton on to the fact that there is something odd about the relationship between their perceptions and their memories. When this happens, the credibility of the regimes promoted interpretations and indeed of the whole system is placed in jeopardy. At best, the audience will cease paying much attention. And a show without an audience is no show at all.    

In Turkey, there has recently been much talk of fatigue within the regime. This is might be understood in terms of the long term cost of maintaining the zoo the regime has nurtured. But, more ominously for the regime, it may also be that the audience is increasingly sceptical of regime’s explanations. If true, then changing the zookeepers and the animals is unlikely to have much effect.

Once you lose credibility, it’s almost impossible to get it back.




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