During the Arab Spring in 2011, many people argued about social media’s role in events like the revolution that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, with plenty of meaningless truisms deployed in what turned out to be a rather unedifying debate (no, Facebook did not throw bricks at riot police or stand on a tank waving a flag). However by now it seems pretty clear that new technologies, including social media and mobile, are playing a significant role in many of the large-scale events gripping the world’s attention, by enabling participants to communicate almost instantaneously.
On that note, no, social media did not defeat the attempted coup in Turkey over the weekend – but it certainly played a big part in allowing the human actors to get their messages out. Indeed, the image that will probably symbolize the response to the coup for posterity is Turkish President Recep Tayypi Erdogan addressing the nation via FaceTime, as an anchor on CNN Turk held up a smartphone for studio cameras to broadcast the image.
This novel combination of old and new media allowed Erdogan to circumvent the army faction trying to seize control of the country, which had targeted all the usual sources of information, including the headquarters of state broadcaster and satellite links – but failed to reckon with the power of social media. By the time the coup plotters got around to closing down CNN Turk, it was too late: the broadcast proved that Erdogan was still at liberty, despite the plotters’ claims to the contrary.
In the crucial period that followed, Erdogan confirmed that he was fighting the coup via tweets and Facebook posts reaching millions of followers, urging them to take to the streets and resist the military. Members of the government used Snapchat as an alternative channel to share information and organize popular resistance when phone lines were blocked.
In another interesting mix of old and new, according to the Financial Times, Erdogan also asked sympathetic imams to use mosque loudspeakers to raise the alarm, attracting huge crowds of protesters opposing the coup, which were then broadcast via live streaming video on Facebook Live and Twitter’s Periscope. The president also communicated directly with followers by text messages.
However, social media and mobile technology is a double-edged sword: according to the FT, the coup plotters were also using Snapchat to communicate in secret. As with the Arab Spring, there’s also a good chance that the victory of social media and mobile communications will prove fleeting: wherever the next coup takes place, it’s a safe bet the coup plotters will make it a priority to shut down the Internet and cell service in addition to traditional media. The endless game of technological cat and mouse will continue.