On 15 July 2016, coup d’état attempt against the Turkish government took place. Although tension in Turkey gradually escalated in the first half of 2016, nobody expected a military coup.
The news about the the blocking of the bridges over the Bosphorus strait quickly spread via social media at about 10 pm in the evening of 15 July. One hour later the coup announcement was read in state TV, which was controlled by the troops. However, the announcement did not give much information about the forces behind the attempt.
Starting at around 11pm, the internet appears to have been slowed down by bandwidth throttling, to the point that it was practically impossible to access social media websites. There are also unconfirmed reports claiming that throttling was applied to not only major social media sites, but also to other sites such as news portals. However, it is not clear whether access difficulties to the news sites stemmed from deliberate throttling or from a surge in overall traffic. Throttling is normally done by the Union of Internet Service Providers (BSE) on the order of the Turkish Telecommunications Authority (TIB). However, it is not clear whether at that point the government or rebel soldiers controlled the TIB and the BSE. By the time the throttling started, TV stations started reporting about the coup.
President Erdogan, who was in a coastal town for holidays appeared on a TV channel via the Facetime videotelephony tool, which was provided to him by a journalist. He called his supporters to take to the streets and resist the coup. He claimed his former ally and current rival Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher, to be the mastermind of the coup attempt. Gülen, however, denied any involvement.
The coup attempt appeared to be an old-fashioned one – it did not take internet technology into consideration. The forces behind the coup gained control of the state TV, and lost it to the government forces after midnight. By that time, Erdogan’s supporters flocked to the streets, and almost all TV channels started broadcasting against the coup. The government ordered the 85 000 mosques in the country to send a message from their loudspeakers, denouncing the coup and calling people to the streets.
At about 1.30am an unlikely and unprecedented event – in Turkish conditions – occurred: The internet throttling was removed and all web sites became freely accessible. It appears highly probable that this action was taken by the TIB and the BSE which were under the government control at that time. It seemed that the government realised that the same social media it had been speaking against since the Gezi uprising could actually be a decisive weapon at that crucial point.
The footage circulating in the social media appears to have had a huge psychological effect, giving the advantage to the opposition to the coup, and leaving the coup leaders to a weaker position. The soldiers supporting the coup seemed to be confused and disoriented by the masses of people filling the streets to oppose the coup.
Claiming that it was the social media that caused the defeat of the coup would be exaggerating. The main reason the coup failed was the lack of social support. The role of the social media and the internet was, however, very noteworthy. Even if the coup started successfully, it was not long before the resistance against the coup began. With little support from the population, the only choice that the coup leaders would have had, was to crush the opposition with brute force. Hence, it could be argued that social media saved the lives of thousands of people by helping to defeat the coup at its very beginning.
Even if the attempt was stopped quickly after its start, its aftermath is bleak: More than 60 000 public officers were removed from office as of 24 July. A state of emergency was declared. One third of the generals and thousands of lower ranking officers are under arrest.
It is yet to be seen what effect this tension will have for Turkey in near future.
Social media grinds to a halt inside Turkey (15.07.2016)
“FaceTime is a cyberweapon” and other lessons about digital age coups (19.07.2016)
Why Turkey issued a social media ban during a coup attempt—and promptly lifted it (17.07.2016)
WikiLeaks: Search the AKP email database