The Image as Evidence: Taksim Protesters, Provocateurs and a Potential False Flag
This is a guest post by Brandon Thomas who is an MA student at San Francisco State University currently living in Istanbul, Turkey. He previously edited Conflict Images Journal, an online publication focusing on representational practices during armed conflicts and their impact on the international spectrum of human relations.
In the early morning of June 11, government officials in Turkey announced a planned incursion into Taksim Square to clean up banners and flags hung on the Ataturk Cultural Center. Despite a promise to avoid the use of force, pepper spray and low-pressure water cannons were used to disrupt the ongoing occupation.
In the ensuring pandemonium, amidst several live news broadcasts and user-submitted video feeds, a group of five individuals attacked police vehicles with firecrackers and Molotov cocktails. Advancing across a 15-meter space of barren concrete behind makeshift barricades, the individuals lobbed their projectiles ineffectively for over an hour before being rousted. The Guardian’s Luke Harding described the attacks as “suspiciously theatrical and inept… at one point advancing in a hopeless Roman-style assault.”
Following the police incursion and the Molotov incident, protestors were quick to distance themselves from the five assailants. Tweets directed at #gezipark and #direngeziparki immediately cried conspiracy and suggested that the individuals involved were actually government provocateurs planted with the intention of vilifying the protest movement. Images suggesting evidence of a false flag operation quickly went viral, despite recent news reports that the detained suspect is a member of a terrorist organization.
In an attempt to further support the narrative of the agent provocateurs, users uploaded screenshots taken from the live broadcast to suggest that police intentionally missed the planted demonstrators, and juxtaposed images from previous day’s protests to demonstrate the difference in police behavior. Other social media users questioned why no attempt was made to capture the provocateurs despite their proximity to authorities.
While the claims of agent provocateurs may be chalked up as yet another conspiracy theory, it is important to note how quickly photography became the medium of evidence relied upon to convey this message. Although documentary evidence does not amount to proof of a government conspiracy to frame the protesters in a negative light, people are prone to be persuaded by photographs, especially if the images depict a background belief the viewer already holds.
In hyper-paranoid Istanbul, protesters already distrust the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) regime, and accuse them of eroding Turkey’s core secularist values, censoring news coverage of the protests, and more saliently, of lying about police motives for entering Taksim Square just to remove flags. The protesters and the people who support them, therefore, are likely to be convinced by accusations of government-planted rabble-rousers, especially when mass-mediated images such as these reinforce that distrust.
An interesting corollary, however, is that these images are likely to have little or even opposite effects on AKP supporters. Since images exist within a rhetorical context, they are perceived in terms of a motive. This motive-image connection is likely to play out strongly with AKP supporters who will associate these images with the motives of the distributors (i.e. protesters and their supporters) and therefore interpret a conspiracy in the opposite direction – that is, an attempt by the protesters to frame the government in a negative light.
Though we may never know the truth about the middle-aged man with the Molotov cocktail, the campaign to demonstrate his agent provocateur status stands as a unique example of the multi-directional nature of photographs as evidence. Indeed, as events continue to unfold in Istanbul, images such as these will likely continue to play a critical role in maintaining beliefs, identities and norms for the individuals involved in the increasingly polarized Turkish protest movement.
* The author received these images through Twitter, Facebook, and various other social media sites. Like most viral images shared online, photo credits were not appended to the files. Any information on the photographers is always is welcome.