Category: On Writing

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and perceptions of it soon became embedded in the American psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast. It’s still considered as such today, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

Reconfiguring reality

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at the disposal of propagandists? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement – white supremacists and extremists.

This extremist movement seemed to emerge from nowhere, but fast became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House on a swell of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, on the other side of the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit.

Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search.

It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense.

And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, an apparent straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it’s really just a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is really running the show?

Retrospective on loss

“What’s past is prologue.”

 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

It was a strangely warm winter’s day while reflecting on the cold, dismal year just past. In a year bookended by this city, the enjoyment of being here can’t quite blot out memories of what happened in the middle.

Loss has defined 2016; loss of people, of peace, and of collective sanity. Perching on the brink of the approaching new year brings a sense of trepidation. From my own vantage point (ever-changing as it is), I’ve observed much news of loss. It hasn’t been pretty.

Celebrity deaths have come in a steady stream this year. The most recent, Star Wars legend, writer and activist Carrie Fisher, marks a resounding end to a terrible run that took with it some of the world’s most iconic figures, including Bowie, Cohen and Prince.

There have been other losses too, less famous but equally resonant, like the murder of the principled politician Jo Cox. And we mustn’t forget the lives lost this year in terrorist attacks that now seem frighteningly frequent, from Brussels to Berlin and all over the Middle East.

Along with human loss of all stripes we also witnessed political loss. In June, Britons voted away their privileges of living, working and travelling freely across 28 European nations. Our pound and our passports lost their heft as the people lashed out in one spiteful kick against perceived notions of Brussels and refugees. I cried when I heard news of Brexit.

Soon after, Istanbul was lost; and everything that came with it. But things were much worse for embattled Turkey, which lost peace, calm and its sense of security on that fateful July day of the failed coup. The country may never be the same again.

Globally, we lost the ability to make sense of world events. The toxic fog of ‘fake news’ descended upon us and took over our incoming news channels. This effect had been building up for months, culminating on the day the earth stood still – when Donald Trump took the White House.

The resulting furore rages on. Those of us whose job it is to seek truth feel compromised, hindered and weighed down by grey propaganda at every turn. Bot armies and paid Macedonian trolls are vying to control our perceptions. They are tools of those who wish to shape the future of nations for the worse.

No-one knows what truth looks like anymore. Each new story attracts cycle after cycle of ‘debunking’, until fact and fiction become smeared together in one unholy mass, until all is in doubt and nothing feels right anymore.

No-one knows what the new year will bring. All we can do as individuals is buttress ourselves against the coming storm, building a safe haven of the self. Because the world isn’t fair, and if we can’t rely on ourselves, who can we rely on?

Trust no-one, question everything, and don’t lose yourself.

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What exactly is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

Teeth and claws

Cloudy weather allows for clearer thinking, so it is said, while sunshine ‘dulls the mind’ to risk and thoughtfulness’. If that’s truly the case, my thoughts should have been crystal during these last months. But mostly, they are full of constant musings on what a wild place the world has become.

There are four days left until the US election. Media hysteria surrounding the candidates has risen to fever pitch; with tales of deleted emails vying for dominance with those of sexual harassment (can’t think which could be worse…) Old family friends have emerged as die-hard supporters of those who purvey the latter, much to my great dismay.

Meanwhile, a glimmer of light appeared yesterday on this side of the Atlantic, as the UK’s high court ruled that Parliament must vote to trigger Article 50. This ruling is a small victory for those who just months ago watched in dismay as the future of their country was hijacked by the masses voting for false promises. We watched while the pound plummeted. We watched while other EU member states ganged up against us. And we watched while the hard-won British reputation for tolerance openness and pluralism was smashed apart in a matter of days.

On a wider scale, the world is moving in a worrying direction. Driven by fear, people are retreating to the familiar, afraid to interact with the ‘other’ in case something bad happens to them. Refugees are potential suicide bombers; immigrants will steal our jobs. We can witness the rise of Trump’s alt-right in America reflecting the Brexit mentality in Britain, and the Europe-wide rejection of refugees inextricably linked to the rise of ‘acceptable’ far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France. This culture of hate is growing teeth and claws.

In Turkey, the political situation has sunk to new lows with last night’s arrest of members of the elected opposition party HDP, headed by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas. The pro-Kurd HDP supports the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, along with being a vocal advocate for those of women, LGBT and workers. The MPs have been accused (predictably) of crimes ‘relating to terrorist propaganda’, which could mean absolutely anything (or could even be made up). Nevertheless, it sounds a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey.

Social media in Turkey has been blocked, including WhatsApp, the country remains under a state of emergency, and it seems the powers-that-be will stop at nothing in their quest to stamp out any dissent and retain power indefinitely. What’s more, Turkey’s recent invasion of Mosul has drawn the ire of ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who has urged his followers to wage ‘all-out war’ against Turkey. The future of the country looks grim, to say the least.

But fortunately, not all people move in fearful herds. Examples can still be found of grassroots initiatives that promote tolerance, justice and humanity. The Devon town of Great Torrington responded to a hateful anti-refugee Facebook page by creating its own “Refugees ARE welcome in Devon” page, which has attracted a lot of positive engagement. In a similar vein, but Syrian-run, From Syria with Love is a charity that travels around the UK giving talks on the Syrian situation and encouraging donations in support of refugees. So far, much of its feedback has been positive.

There are many more like this, but the mainstream media prefers to focus on news that holds the requisite shock value, painting a picture of a divided and hateful world. Over the coming weeks and months I shall be keeping my eyes open for examples of people working hard to promote basic humanity over the constant parade of hatred and fear. Through that, perhaps I can retain some modicum of hope.

 

Beyoglu: From grime to glamour

Beyoglu IstanbulIn March 2016, a suicide bomber attacked Istiklal Avenue, in the heart of Istanbul’s commercial district. Since then, the city’s most famous street has been a shadow of its former self. The hustle and bustle has slowed to a mere trickle. I wrote the below piece in early January 2015, when times were still good and the street was still busy.

Beyoğlu, that most storied district of Istanbul, is the first place that many new arrivals to the city find themselves. First impressions count. For many visitors, Beyoglu has played a significant part in shaping their perceptions of Istanbul.

The pulsating artery of Istiklal Avenue enthrals most newcomers during their early weeks, but as they grow more familiar with the city they tend to branch out and explore further, discovering quieter, more relaxed places to spend time.

Istanbul is a hectic city at the best of times, so rest and relaxation are valuable for those who live here. After one year in Istanbul I’ve started avoiding the stress of traversing this overcrowded avenue, finding myself going there less and less.

If ever compelled to go to Istiklal, perhaps to meet friends for an evening out, or to visit one of the antique shops, or just to walk between the adjacent metro stations of Taksim and Şişhane, you must be prepared to run the gauntlet of pushing, shoving and jostling international crowds. Most noticeable among these are the Arab tourists often with bandaged heads fresh from hair-implant surgery.

While at the beginning you might have wandered aimlessly savouring the bustle and diversity, now the mission is to penetrate the street as efficiently as possible, ducking and weaving through the crowds, all the while grumpily complaining about how much you dislike coming to this street.

Traversing İstiklal Avenue leaves many people exhausted and irritable. But on those rare quiet moments, perhaps in the early morning when the place is unencumbered by crowds, it’s worth taking the time to glance around and appreciate the imposing European architecture that lines the street side.

The area that is today’s Beyoğlu used to be known by its Greek name Pera, back in the days before the Turkish Republic was founded. Pera has a long history, beginning from the 13th century when it was established as a Genoese trading centre and foreign colony situated within, yet remaining more or less independent from, the Byzantine Empire of the time. In the 15th century, Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city as he founded the Ottoman Empire.

Despite this, Pera held on to its independence, although it allied itself with the Ottoman Empire, which was probably a pragmatic move to ensure its survival. Little of note happened until the 18th century, when the drive to modernise Istanbul resulted in a major transformation of Pera society. Diversity flourished among the largely non-Muslim population, who came from places as far afield as Russia, China and Brazil, along with many others from various European nations.

A multitude of cafes, bars, shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues sprang up as a result of the population’s needs and wants. With all these nationalities living side by side, the mix of languages spoken in Pera formed a regular Tower of Babel effect, as described by the upper-class English travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in her otherwise somewhat unflattering description of Pera’s multicultural population (according to a 2013 article by Özlem Sandikci). This was also the time when various nations established embassies in Pera and staked out their own little patches of territory within the tangle that was Istanbul.

The resulting clusters of European-ness around each embassy (including Greek, French, Swedish, British, Russian and Dutch) added another level of cosmopolitanism to the district and helped develop its story further. Foreigners associated with the embassies built their own churches, designed lavish homes and continued to pursue their usual habits and way of life among these privileged enclaves, away from the influence of the Ottoman Turks.

In the 19th century, there emerged certain elite Ottomans who developed new ideas about reform and therefore wished to recreate the image of Istanbul and change it into that of a Western city (Sandikci, 2013). Pera provided the perfect model for them to follow in their attempts to achieve this aim. So in order to further expand the district in their desired style, these elite set up a government department which took charge of regulating the area and managing its image.

It was an early example of city brand strategy. At that century’s end, things had changed dramatically in Pera. The area had become thoroughly Europeanised and bourgeoise, complete with department stores, posh hotels, expensive restaurants and decadent nightclubs that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Istanbul. Upper class Turks, foreigners, and various minority groups flourished there.

But there were certain elements of society who hated everything that they believed Pera represented. Some Ottoman Turks disliked its sense of slavish European-ness, as if this suggested that Ottoman culture was somehow inferior. Conservative Muslims also disliked Pera, but instead for what they perceived as its immorality. Despite these differences of opinion the area continued to grow and develop, maintaining its strong image while at the same time helping to cement the overall perception among Europeans of Istanbul as a desirable, exotic city. City brand strategy had begun, albeit organic rather than deliberately engineered.

When the Ottoman Empire finally fell, Istanbul’s role within the new Turkish Republic was compromised. The functional yet characterless city of Ankara became the new capital and all the embassies relocated there. Istanbul was relegated to second place, with its exotic elements now viewed as somewhat shabby remnants of a decadent and outdated Ottoman past.

The new nation, led by Atatürk, now had its collective eyes firmly fixed on the notion of ‘Turkishness’. The image of Istanbul in the minds of many Turks, had shifted, but the Istanbul city brand in the minds of Europeans likely remained more or less unchanged. The narrative was strong, much of it emanating from Pera where it had been established and developed over centuries. It would take more than a new capital city to water this down.

But the changes did eventually affect Pera, starting with its name change, casting off the Greek name in favour of the Turkish one: Beyoğlu. The district was gradually ‘Turkified’, undergoing campaigns including one that forced everyone to speak Turkish, another that imposed levies on non-Muslim residents, and assorted incidents of looting, vandalism and destruction of churches, shops and houses in the area. Gradually, foreign residents lost their will to remain in Beyoğlu. Life there was no longer easy or pleasant. There was a mass exodus of the foreign population and lots of buildings were left vacant as a result.

The area’s economic strength diminished and property prices became low. In the 1960s, as Istanbul underwent a phase of industrialisation, an influx of immigrants arrived in the city. They gravitated towards the now-affordable Beyoğlu where they could rent cheap housing, or in many cases occupy abandoned buildings illegally. The character of the area began to shift as numerous marginalised groups set up home there, including sex workers, transvestites, and Roma gypsies.

Brothels were opened, drug pushers became more common, and any remaining affluent residents soon moved to more salubrious parts of the city. By the time the 1970s rolled around, Beyoğlu had become associated with seedy underground lifestyles and petty crime on the margins of Istanbul society. What was once the bourgeois and upper-class Pera was now a place that would have been unrecognisable except for the European architecture that still remained, rearing up with its imposing facades from among the shabbiness.

Today’s Beyoğlu has managed to balance on a fine line between its two identities. The seedy side is still there, with prostitutes peering from second story windows in certain back streets behind Istiklal Avenue. Transgendered prostitutes can be found among certain nightclubs catering for that particular target audience. Drunken punters fill the back alleys at night and no doubt plenty of drugs are available if one knows where to look.

At the same time, this area was and remains famous. It’s very popular among visitors and Istanbullers alike. Beyoğlu is the district of Taksim Square, of the trendy Galata area, of Tophane and its fashionable boutique hotels, and high-rent Cihangir with its droves of affluent residents both foreign and Turkish. The strong place image attracts many tourists to the city, especially wealthy Gulf Arabs, who can be seen in hordes around Taksim and its environs. There are shops, hotels and restaurants springing up to cater for this relatively new Gulf tourism trend, with Arabic signs becoming a common sight around Beyoğlu these days.

There is also the contentious issue of Tarlabasi, a Beyoğlu sub-district bordering Taksim Square on the other side of a large road. Despite concerted efforts at gentrification, this area has remained seemingly stuck at an earlier stage of development. Unlike the rest of Beyoğlu, Tarlabasi retains a reputation for seediness and crime that is not seen as part of a tourist experience but as a real danger.

While most of Beyoğlu may be viewed as an interestingly ‘edgy’ district, Tarlabasi remains a place that locals actively advise foreigners to avoid. Rents there are low, reflecting its perceived reputation as a no-go area. Much has been written about Tarlabasi, and its history is a topic outside the scope of this already oversized post. Suffice to say that many of the existing analyses involve the possible fate of the marginalised communities that still cling onto their lives there. It is an interesting topic worth exploring at a later date.

History shows us that Beyoğlu’s cosmopolitan, somewhat decadent nature was part of its identity from the very first days of its existence. A place narrative of this strength and depth becomes quite resilient to change. Beyoğlu has been able to retain its distinct characteristics. It could be said that the influence of this unique area has done more than any other part of Istanbul to develop the city’s overall reputation and image. Beyoğlu has become a city brand strategy extraordinaire.

(The historical information in this piece was inspired by a journal article entitled: ‘Strolling through Istanbul’s Beyoglu: In-between Difference and Containment’, by Özlem Sandikci)