The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A fake news campaign blames an innocent American for a coup attempt in Turkey

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at a ceremony marking the 78th anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara, on Friday. (Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

On July 15, 2016, an American college professor named Henri Barkey convened an academic workshop about Iran at a hotel on an island near Istanbul. That night, elements of the Turkish military attempted a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that quickly failed but triggered a massive campaign of repression which continues to this day. Barkey went through with his conference, spent a couple of days in Istanbul and flew home.

To Barkey’s astonishment, he soon became a target of the world’s newest political weapon: fake news, in the form of a feverish, government-sponsored campaign. Pro-Erdogan media claimed that Barkey was on the island of Buyukada not to discuss Iran’s foreign relations with fellow academics but to direct the coup operation on behalf of the CIA.

To those who know the professor, a stereotypically tweedy 63-year-old intellectual who has combined teaching at Lehigh University with stints at Washington think tanks and the State Department policy planning staff, the claims were literally laughable. But the real-world consequences have not been. The five Turkish scholars who attended the conference have been defamed and stripped of their passports; one was detained for two weeks.

On Friday, the Turkish press reported that a prosecutor had issued a warrant for Barkey's arrest. The indictment also charges Metin Topuz, a U.S. consular employee whose detention several weeks ago triggered a diplomatic spat in which both countries temporarily suspended the issuance of visas. Topuz did not attend the conference, and Barkey says he has never met him.

Last month, one of Turkey's best-known philanthropists and liberal activists, Osman Kavala, was arrested and jailed. One of the two charges against him is "contact with Henri Jak Barkey and foreigners who were among the organizers of the [July 15, 2016] coup attempt," according to court papers. Kavala was also not at the conference, but Barkey says they spoke briefly at a restaurant in Istanbul. "Knowing me," the professor ruefully told me, "is enough to send someone to jail for life."

On Oct. 8, U.S.-Turkey relations took a turn for the worse as both countries suspended most visa services. Here's a brief look at how this came to be. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Kavala, Topuz and Barkey are just three among some 150,000 people imprisoned, fired or sanctioned by Erdogan's government in the past 16 months, including 150 journalists and 6,000 university employees. But the case is a good example of how fake news has become a tool for authoritarian governments that have watched closely how Russia — and President Trump — have used it.

The first lesson is that not just facts but basic plausibility are unimportant when concocting charges. Social media can be used to make anything sound convincing to the followers of a Trump or Erdogan. The Turkish ruler's propagandists claimed, for example, that Barkey enlisted the notorious convicted murderer Scott Peterson as muscle. Peterson is imprisoned in California. But no matter: An American journalist also named Scott Peterson happened to be at the meeting.

Once the fake news is floated, political leaders can demand investigations while claiming they only want to learn the facts. Their main objective is not prosecutions, but advancing a political narrative. In Erdogan's case, the point is to suggest that the United States is responsible for the coup attempt — a lie that he is attempting to leverage into concessions from Washington. Above all, he wants the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of masterminding the coup. Erdogan may also be trying to fend off charges that his government offered millions of dollars to former national security adviser Michael Flynn in exchange for Gulen.

Hence the warrant for Barkey and arrests of Topuz and Kavala, an internationally admired secular activist. Erdogan has referred to him as “Turkey’s [George] Soros,” in reference to the liberal U.S. financier; he also claimed that Kavala and Topuz are connected, without further explanation.

That’s the trick: to use fake news without accepting responsibility for it. Erdogan’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, offered me another demonstration of that last week when I asked him, during his visit to Washington, whether the Turkish government really believed that Barkey directed the coup. “Whether Henri Barkey managed the coup or not, I don’t know,” he replied, claiming that he was unaware of the allegation.

He then said that Turks were inclined to believe that the United States must have something to do with the coup because of Washington’s failure to hand over Gulen. “Sometimes perception becomes more important than facts,” he concluded.

That, of course, is exactly Erdogan's objective. And if his repression seems far removed from the tactics of Trump, it's worth recalling that the president and the media that support him are even now promoting the manifestly false story that Hillary Clinton corruptly influenced the sale of a uranium company to Russia and are demanding a criminal investigation. No wonder Trump said as he met the Turkish strongman in September, "We're as close as we have ever been."

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