According to Maya Kosoff, writing for Vanity Fair, “the most shared fake political-news story that circulated on Facebook [in 2016 was] Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide.” It had more than 2 million Facebook engagements. Sadly, publishing fake news (hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation) is not new. Neither is the lack of discernment of readers who believe the stories without question, and carelessly pass on the disinformation. A hundred years ago, with no Internet or social media, the preferred method of getting a message out to the masses was the pamphlet. It was usually handed out for free, and was the most effective medium after word-of-mouth. Here’s an example of how disinformation was spread in Constantinople in 1913-14. If you were a Muslim Turk then, with only basic reading skills and no education in critical thinking, would you have believed the messages? Was the “news” against Greek merchants real or fake?
Pamphlets Against Greek Merchants
As I mentioned in a previous post, there were three major boycotts of goods and services in the Ottoman Empire in 1908-14. After years of bitter fighting during the Balkan Wars (1911-1913), when the press emphasized the religious differences between the mostly-Christian Bulgarians and the mostly-Muslim Ottomans, there was a shift away from Ottomanism towards Turkism. Ottomanism promoted the equality of all Ottomans, regardless of religion, whereas Turkism was for the unification of Turks, who were mainly Muslims, within the Empire. (Pan-Turkism was for the unification of all Turkic peoples in the East.) The Empire had lost considerable territory since the Young Turk revolution in 1908. The majority of what was left was Turkey, and within Turkey, the majority of Ottomans were Turks. Ottoman pride was badly damaged. For decades there had been calls for the development of a milli iktisat (national economy), but by 1913, for some Turks—especially the elite in Constantinople—that had come to mean a “Turkish” economy.
Relatively speaking, the elite represented a small number of Turks, but they had power and knew how to promote their ideas through propaganda, especially through newspaper articles and columns. One interesting method used in 1913-14 was the pamphlet, written in simple Turkish to sway the Turkish-Muslim lower classes to the elites’ way of thinking. In Constantinople there was a series of four pamphlets distributed. The first two were entitled Müslümanlara Mahsus (Especially for Muslims). Their content and tone were similar, and their message was clear: Non-Muslim merchants, that is, Christians, and particularly Greeks, were becoming “wealthy thanks to the money that Muslims spent.” Furthermore, they were using the profits against the interests of the Ottoman Empire by supporting causes in Greece. Essentially, they were betraying the country economically. Boycott their shops! Be a true Ottoman by buying from Turkish/Muslim merchants only!
About 2,000 copies of the first pamphlet were distributed in mid-1913, and attracted so much attention that a second printing of 20,000 was required. The second edition included a list of merchants. By November, the author gleefully noted in his diary that 5 or 6 Rums (Ottoman Greeks) in the city had gone bankrupt, and he considered printing another 100,000 copies. Two other pamphlets were published in 1914: Müslümanlara Mahsus Kurtulmak Yolu (A Path of Salvation for Muslims) and Müslümanve Türklere (To Muslim and Turks). The latter was much darker in tone. It referred to “rotten skins and carved eyes” of their fellow Muslims in the territories lost during the wars, and how their enemies “killed their brothers with bayonets, raped mothers and sisters, and afterwards drank wine.”
It’s safe to say that, while these pamphlets were not the cause of the Greek, Armenian and Assyrian genocides that followed, they contributed to the anti-Christian sentiment in some circles.
Is the Information in the Pamphlets True?
The Center for Media Literacy has created a 5-question guide to help determine the validity of information. The questions are based on the following key concepts: authorship, format, audience, content, and purpose. Although designed for today’s media, it’s a useful guide for analyzing the truthfulness of the 1913-14 pamphlets. Pretend you’re a lower-class Turkish consumer of the day, and ask yourself:
- Authorship: Who is he? Unknown. I really should be suspicious of any information written by “anonymous,” shouldn’t I?
- Format: What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? Well, it’s published with simple language that I can read, and it appeals to my emotions. Who wouldn’t be upset to think that there is an “enemy within” and that my actions are contributing to treason? And I get furious all over again when I remember the stories of atrocities committed against us during the war!
- Audience: How might different people understand this message differently from me? Hmm… I’m absolutely sure that at least half of the Greek merchants I know are loyal Ottomans. They would be outraged to be accused of such things; they’re probably terrified of losing their business, their livelihood, and not being able to support their families. I know I would be.
- Content: What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? To be fair, I heard whispers that our armies committed atrocities in the Balkans, too. But I do envy the possessions and way of life of people who are more prosperous than me.
- Purpose: Why is this message being sent? I suppose to promote a national economy in Turkey. But I wonder who is really going to profit? Ultimately, I think it will be the factory owners, not the shopkeepers. And certainly not me.
Pamphlets: Fake or Real?
Like any good lie, there is a grain of truth in the content of the pamphlets. There was a real need for the development of a national economy. The Ottoman Empire had been known for several decades as the “Sick Man of Europe” because of its crippling national debt, and lack of development of its industries and vast natural resources. The idea of a national economy had been simmering for almost as long. While prosperous Greeks may have supported charitable causes in Greece, there’s little evidence that there was any significant support for political causes. In fact most Greeks and Armenians within the Empire were peasant farmers, and most who supported the idea of self-autonomy, did so within the framework of the Empire. In other words, they considered themselves loyal Ottomans. An international commission after the Balkan Wars found that atrocities such as described in the pamphlet were indeed committed—by all sides. The appeal to emotion rather than presentation of facts is what is now known in the Oxford English Dictionary as “post-truth.”
Thanks to the publication of his diary, we also now know that the author of the pamphlets was Ahmet Nedim Servet Tör. His brother, Edib Servet Bey, had been a member of the inner circle of Young Turks before the revolution, and thus was politically connected. He himself was a bureaucrat in the Ministry of War, and was deeply concerned that the newspaper articles about the national economy were “inexplicit and obscure and, therefore, were not effective on people.” He wanted to make people act, immediately, in his desired direction: to boycott Christian businesses in favour of Turkish ones. Based on the media literacy Q&A and the knowledge of the authorship of the pamphlets, I judge them to be fake news.
Info about the Pamphlets: Fake or Real?
Using the same 5-question criteria, here’s the source of this post’s information: “Muslim Merchants and Working-Class in Action: Nationalism, Social Mobilization and Boycott Movement in the Ottoman Empire 1908-1914”, the doctoral thesis of Y. Doğan Çetinkaya, written in 2010 for Leiden University in the Netherlands. Leiden University has been consistently ranked among the highest in the world; a doctoral student must rigorously defend a thesis before a committee of examiners, who judge it on the quality of research, argument, and other factors. Based on this, I feel confident that I can trust the investigation and presentation of Çetinkaya on this topic. I judge the information to be reliable.
What did you decide? Real or fake news? And how worried should we be today about fake news?