When there's no good news to report, just make it up

In 2016, Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol wrote in Foreign Policy about conspiracy theories in Turkey that “it makes us feel important. If the world is conspiring against us, we must be really special. It is, I believe, the way we Turks make up for our lost Ottoman grandeur”.

This statement is true, but simplistic. Turkish citizens live in a country which has never enjoyed a particularly free media environment. 

Lucky for Turkey then that the first COVID-19 vaccine to pass clinical trials was developed by German-Turkish scientists Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, along with Pfizer. Turkey can justifiably take some credit for helping the world to develop a vaccine during this pandemic, so no need for any conspiracies, right? Wrong.

Despite President himself saying he has no problem with the vaccine and will take a dose himself, some of his media supporters still want to invent a fictional universe in which the vaccine is part of an evil plan.

Elon Musk, as we know, will “coup whoever we want”, so clearly he’s devious enough to do something totally crazy, like putting mind control chips in your brain, right? A programme on Beyaz TV – a Turkish channel of which the son of Melih Gökçek, Ankara’s former mayor from Erdoğan’s party, is the general editorial coordinator – ‘broke’ Musk’s conspiracy over the weekend.

Gökçek himself is also known as Turkey’s leading conspiracy theorist, who exposes his millions of followers on Twitter to all sorts of conspiracy theories twenty-four seven.

Perhaps Musk, who has recently passed Bill Gates to become the world’s second-richest man, is working with Gates, because it is usually the Microsoft founder who gets the blame for wanting to microchip people for some unknown purpose.

Yeniçağ columnist Arslan Bulut said in August that Gates wanted to microchip people and hoped that Russia’s vaccine would soon be ready as an alternative to a Gates’ vaccine, which didn’t exist because he was not in fact developing a vaccine.

“I wonder if Russia is trying to disrupt this ‘chip vaccine setup’ under the leadership of Putin and of which the World Health Organisation is a part? Is that why the objections?” Bulut said. When you’re just asking questions, it doesn’t even count as libel.

Then there’s Dr Ömer Turan, a pro-government media personality and a doctor of politics, not medicine obviously. Bot Sentinel, an internet browser extension that analyses Twitter accounts, has flagged his account as problematic, and you can see why, because he too thinks Gates is going to microchip you in order to rewrite your DNA, for some reason.

That’s why he reads all those books I guess, so he can turn everyone into cool X-Men mutants with superpowers.

Soner Yalçın, the head of the ultra-nationalist OdaTV, believes that the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month might have been carried out because he was researching COVID-19 vaccines and this was being covered up.

An opposition MP from the Islamist Felicity Party, Abdulkadir Karaduman, gave a speech last week in which he accused Gates of using a vaccine to depopulate Turkey. 

“Bill Gates says that the pandemic will only be brought under control with a vaccine, which will reduce the world’s population by 10-15 percent,” he said in a Twitter post, with a video of his speech attached. “We must all resist. We should not surrender to the slavery they have shown humanity as the only way out.”

Leading Islamist writer Abdurrahman Dilipak even has a new website exclusively devoted to conspiracy theories on vaccines, COVID-19, 5G and Bill Gates. 

Maybe the basic fact is that in a media landscape where you are not allowed to report news which might seem too critical of the Turkish government, and with no consequences for journalists and media organisations who repeatedly invent bizarre conspiratorial fantasies, making up these lies is a profitable grift that taps into the cognitive biases many people already hold.

As author Yuval Harari points out, “our brains are lazy, and we have been adapted by evolution to understanding certain very complicated things, especially in terms of social relations. When it comes to social relations we are geniuses, because evolutionarily when you lived in a small hunter gatherer band, this is what you need to know above everything else in order to survive. Who hates whom, who is conspiring against me in the tribe. But you had absolutely no idea that there are viruses. Our brains just didn’t evolve to understand it. Now, we don’t like things that are difficult to understand. We prefer things that are easy to understand. Compare trying to really understand the epidemiological chain of events leading from one bat to you, to the idea it’s a conspiracy of a couple of billionaires to control the world.”

It is very difficult for average Turkish people to fact check the reports they are exposed to on state or pro-government news channel. The Turkish government is allergic to websites which provide information that it cannot control, which is exactly why Wikipedia was blocked for two and a half years in Turkey.

But the problem of a lack of trust in traditional media and politics is not something which is exclusive to Turkey in any way. A lack of critical thinking and a cynical distrust in all institutions is leading to a rise of conspiratorial thinking in most Western countries. The Turkish concept of the ‘Deep State’ has even been fully imported to the United States by pro-Trump media, which will likely continue to be influential once Trump is dragged from the Oval Office. 

The world is a confusing place, and people are looking for simple answers to make sense of it and make them feel like they understand all that is happening. The only real solutions are long-term investments in education, which can provide the means to help people make sense of the complex world we live in, rather than look for simple answers that require a sinister purpose behind them.

At least once the vaccine has been rolled out, and we don’t all become DNA-modified slaves to Bill Gates, the conspiracists will have to quietly go back to their previous theory that the world is controlled by the Mastermind, the interest rate lobby, Hollywood, lizard people, the British monarchy, a collection of anti-Semitic caricatures or any other malicious group that exists in their minds.

Turkey’s economic problems will continue, even if the coronavirus does not, and there will always be people needed to take the blame for that. Erdoğan has consistently blamed Turkey’s lira crisis on ‘foreign powers’, a claim 59 percent of his supporters believed was true, according to a 2018 survey.

As columnist Mustafa Paçal pointed out when comparing the reaction to coronavirus vaccines to another famous Pfizer invention:

“You weren’t complaining about a chip when Pfizer brought out Viagra.”

(The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)

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