Fake news and Turkish respirators

photo_camera Turkey respirators

The wide spread of hoaxes and fake news through social networks and instant messaging applications is being one of the most curious and disturbing effects of confinement. You would think that being cooped up at home with all the time in the world would give us time to think about and contrast the news before sharing it, but the truth is that confinement has increased our credulity. The helplessness and frustration of standing by and doing nothing, in addition to the fear and anguish we feel for our loved ones, lead us to be less critical than usual and to take as certain information that we would normally put in quarantine. On the other hand, some of the main Spanish media are not doing their job properly, which adds confusion to times when clarity is more necessary than ever.

Almost all of us are part of the problem. I will illustrate it with a fake news item - or rather, a news item that does not fit in with reality - which I myself took for granted and which for a couple of days channelled a lot of resentment and frustration into the social networks. This is a perfect example of how the speed with which exclusives are published, the lack of journalistic rigour and poor government communication end up generating controversy that can even lead to diplomatic incidents. On April 3, one of the main Spanish newspapers published that “Turkey is left with respirators that Spain bought from China”. According to the original news, Ankara had decided to requisition a series of respirators that two Spanish autonomous communities had acquired in China, taking advantage of the fact that the plane bringing them to our country was stopping over on Turkish soil. The information seemed to be true, as in the same days there had been several cases of seizures or thefts of medical equipment between several countries. 

That same day, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs had given a telematic press conference in which she announced that Turkey had decided to keep these respirators because it considered that they were needed to treat its own patients. Both the parliamentary opposition and the president of one of the affected communities asked the government for greater diplomatic force, while the press stated that the Spanish government considered the shipment to be lost. At that moment, the indignation took away my critical spirit and I truly believed that Erdogan had stolen our respirators. After all, the news had appeared in two major national newspapers, and the RTVE website itself reported that night that "Turkish authorities have blocked a plane from China loaded with respirators purchased by Spain in Ankara.

A day later, another major national newspaper clarified the situation. It turned out that the respirators had not been bought in China and seized in Turkey, but were of Turkish production. According to this newspaper, the Turkish government had restricted the export of medical equipment a few weeks earlier because of fears of shortages. They also suggested that the donation of medical equipment by Ankara that had arrived on 1 April was a kind of compensation for these delays, beyond the fact that it had been made in the framework of Spain's official request for assistance from NATO - Turkey and the Czech Republic were the first countries to respond. 

In addition to this news, there was the official communiqué 028 from the Foreign Ministry. In effect, the Spanish government recognised the restrictions on the export of medical equipment established by Turkey at the end of March and thanked the Turkish government for having fast-tracked the acquisitions that had been made by several autonomous communities. The only pending procedure was the granting of the export licence for the shipment of respirators, which was conditional on the health situation in Turkey. In the event that the material was not delivered, the communication concluded, the amount paid by the Communities would be reimbursed. Finally, the Turkish Government finally granted the permits - something that many other countries have not done - and the ventilators arrived in Spain on Wednesday 8 April. What had been described by the press as a theft requiring a strong diplomatic response was left as a mere bureaucratic misunderstanding.

However, the denials and nuances do not usually take up the space of the original news, and there are still many people who believe that the Turkish government stole respirators purchased by the Spanish autonomous communities in China. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I myself was convinced of this for a couple of days when I was very angry with the Turks, whom I accused internally of having betrayed their allies. The fact is that the concern that many of us feel about the health situation means that our nerves are on edge and that we are jumping to conclusions. 

This state of mind can certainly be used to sow hatred and division by spreading lies, rumours and fake news. Surely most of us have already received messages with manipulated audios or videos or with incorrect information, such as the recording which claimed that masks were being requisitioned to be sent to France and which turned out to be parcels of paper. In this regard, it is understandable that the government is trying to announce measures to combat disinformation, although it is not as simple as it seems. As we have seen, state television itself sometimes broadcasts information that is not correct. In the case of the plane with seized respirators that did not come from China, are we dealing with a rumour knowingly spread by the government, or was it a mistake by the journalist in charge of writing the news? Is it simply a misunderstanding, or is there some kind of political intent? Can we classify the information on the RTVE website - which has still not been rectified - as an example of a hoax or fake news item, or is it just an unfortunate example of poor government communication? If we decided to prosecute those who spread disinformation, how far would we be willing to go?