The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey caught the attention of the entire world for an extended period of time, much longer than the news of one murder would normally do. Security Studies Group decided to examine why.
We took a rigorous look at the actual origins and spread of the unique aspects of this story to see where it came from and who was moving it around. The results were not exactly what we expected. Here we present our results.
The Turkish government successfully used an information operation to elevate the case of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance into a major international incident with strategic implications. The disappearance of Khashoggi is contemporaneous with the disappearance, and possible murder, of the head of INTERPOL, Meng Hongwei. In one of these cases a highly visible individual with international position vanished without a trace and little fanfare; in the other a stunning amount of media coverage resulted in one of the largest news stories of the year. The US Secretary of State was personally dispatched to investigate, as was later the Director of Central Intelligence. The difference in these cases is caused by the existence of the Turkish information operation (IO), and the absence of any similar operation attempting to push for Chinese accountability.
The Turkish government attained success through an adaptation of a Russian technique that the RAND Corporation calls the “Firehoses of Falsehood Propaganda Model.”1 In fact the “Falsehood” aspect of this model is dispensable; the model works much better if the information can be proven true, and still quite well if the information is merely not demonstrably false. What is essential to the model used by the Turks and the Russians is the repeated injection of wild stories, not all at once but in controlled sequence. This creates a building effect similar to the increase of tension in a novel or screenplay. The audience comes to see attaining a resolution as necessary to their personal psychic well-being.
A major difference in the Russian model and the Turkish model is that the Russians tend to push their firehose narratives through propaganda outlets of their own creation. Although Turkish-language media supported and helped to drive the narratives, as did Arabic-language media controlled by Turkish ally Qatar, the main outlets that Turkish intelligence used to execute their operation were major Western English- language journalist outlets. This becomes clear upon an intensive study of the data.
While protecting the lives of dissidents and journalists are worthy goals, it is also important to a self- governing people to be able to recognize outside attempts to manipulate them or drive them to actions that may not align with their self-interest. Some Western outlets, including the Washington Post, performed reasonably well at alerting their readers to the possibility that these stories were manipulative. Others, especially the New York Times, treated the successive firehoses as if they corroborated one another. Better practices among journalists are necessary in order to ensure that similar operations in the future do not overwhelm clarity of thought in our political process.
About the Authors
Dr. Brad Patty is Senior Vice President for Research and Analysis at the Security Studies Group. He advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade’s involvements in America’s wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in philosophy from the University of Georgia.
Nick Short is the Digital Media Director at the Security Studies Group. He is a political analyst & consultant specializing in social media management and intelligence. Nick received his BS in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Northern Arizona University, and his work has been published at Tablet and the Federalist.