Wars and Military Conflicts

For someone who doesn't like social media, Erdogan used it effectively to put down coup

People wave Turkish flags during a march around Kizilay Square in reaction to the attempted military coup on July 16, 2016 in Ankara, Turkey.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images

In Turkey this weekend, the fight for control of both traditional and social media was, in some ways, just as fierce as the clashes taking place on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara.

And, although the coup against President Tayyip Erdogan did not succeed, the outcome could have been very different had it not been for internet-enabled technology that instantly mobilized citizens against the military, according to experts.

"Twitter and social media may have prevented the coup from taking place," Andrew Selepak, director of the social media master's program at the University of Florida, told CNBC.

"Clearly the military didn't take into account that Erdogan didn't have to be there to still speak to the people, military and police, and believed that taking control of the media would block his message from being heard."

Former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker agreed that, if social media didn't carry the day for Erodgen, it certainly played a significant role.

"Twitter and the like enabled he and his followers [military included] to counter-punch and react effectively," he said.

"Time and time again we see situations around the globe where normal communication modes are compromised and social media comes through as a vehicle for mass communication," he added.

This was particular apparent during Erdogan's remote appearance on CNN Turk, where a television anchor showed that the President - who declined to reveal his location - was talking to her via FaceTime, allowing him to transmit a call to the public to take to the streets, public squares and airports to protest the coup. The incident later prompted the military to storm the building and shut down the studios.

Erdogan also called on the public via Twitter to combat the uprising.

Episodes of political upheaval, such as the Arab Spring in 2010 and the Hong Kong protests of 2014, are usually marked by heavy coverage on social media, but the situation in Turkey was particularly unusual because Erdogan has in the past been referred to as "one of the world's most determined internet censors."

In 2014, he demanded Twitter shut down accounts after two anonymous accounts released secretly recorded conversations during a corruption scandal. He later pledged to "root out" social media.

YouTube, meanwhile, remains partially blocked in Turkey.

That hasn't prevented the President gaining popularity on social media, however. Erdogan has more than eight million followers on Facebook, so could in theory have used Facebook Live to address the populace as effectively as he had by appearing via FaceTime on mainstream station CNN Turk.

"It is much easier for the government or military to take over traditional media, but as we saw in Turkey, the military was unable to shutdown the internet," the University of Florida's Selepak said.

With more than 1.6 billion users on Facebook, Selepak predicts much greater use of Facebook Live ahead for events that traditionally would have remained the domain of terrestrial television.

"No traditional media outlet can broadcast to that sizable of an audience at one time where world leaders and politicians can directly reach the people unfettered by traditional media," he added.

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