The virality of social media is changing the way we communicate. By all accounts, it changed the course of a political coup on the edge of Europe.
Turkey is no stranger to armed insurrection. Uniquely perched between the Middle East and Europe, it is quite literally where the East meets the West. This clash of cultures has led to four military coups since 1960. The most recent began Friday evening when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was out of the capital vacationing at his seaside home.
Heavily armored tanks rolled in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, blocking access to the key bridges across the Bosporus. Fighter planes and helicopters buzzed overhead, explosions rocked the parliamentary complex. Later, the national television network was seized. A prepared statement by the mutineersimplored residents to remain inside as the country was fully secured. It had all of the earmarks of a successful coup – for the 1970’s. The problem was the planners forgot about social media.
As the insurrection continued Erdogan boarded his private jet. Then he did something surreal for a politician that has repeatedly suffocated social media in country: He pushed a button on his iPhone and Facetimed a television anchor at CNN Turk, above. The journalist held her own iPhone to the camera as the President addressed the nation, telling them the coup was treasonous and that they should take to the streets to reclaim their country.
Messages spread across the country on Twitter (TWTR), WhatsApp and Facebook (FB) like wildfire. Within moments anxious Turks were flooding the streets, streaming their stories on Periscope and Facebook Live as they confronted armed soldiers and armored vehicles. They blockaded the path of tanks with cars. Some brave souls even lay in front of tanks as others smashed the sides with sticks, rocks on anything else they could find. Crowds swarmed, jeering and waving flags.
And then the coup just sort of fizzled. Under the stare of thousands of glowing smart phone cameras, infantrymen refused to engage, battalions began to emerge from tanks with their hands in the air. It was over.
It was 1997 when Prime Minister Necmitten Erbakan was ousted by army leaders seeking secular, democratic reforms. Ironically, that coup led to the election of Erdogan, the leader of the Islamist AKP. Elected as a democratic savior, for more than 14 years he has been methodically consolidating power, silencing opposition and curtailing human rights.
His political rivals are fearful to oppose him. He has used vague existing laws to have dissenting journalists fired or imprisoned. He has repeatedly shut down or throttled social media access to quell opposing opinions, even banning YouTube for two years. Erdogan understands the power of social media -- its gritty and unvarnished appeal.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen remarkable political theatre play out in real time on social media. In the Arab Spring was really born on Twitter andrecent social unrest in the United States has been escalated by images posted to Facebook Live. What makes the medium appealing is the stories are being told in first person, without filters. Sharing their impact is immediate. It’s a call to action.
It’s hard to say why coup leaders in Turkey neglected social media Friday night. Perhaps they thought they would be greeted as liberators by countrymen oppressed the strongman tactics of Erdogan. They made a fateful mistake, and one which other future insurrectionists around the world will note. In the meantime, the events show the raw power and attraction of this new media. The old media – broadcast television networks – must beware. Facebook is going to be a very tough rival.