The defining moment of a military coup has always been the one in which a new voice rings out over a loudspeaker, announcing an end to the old order of things. Everything before that moment is a war game, followed by a show of force. Everything afterward belongs to the realm of politics.
For most of recent history, the “loudspeaker” has been state television. In July 2013, at the end of a 48-hour negotiation period, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi read a statement on Egyptian state-run television telling the public that the armed forces had deposed democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Less than a year later, we saw General Prayuth Chan-ocha take to the airwaves to announce a military takeover in Thailand. Sisi has since been elected president, and Chan-Ocha is prime minister.
On July 15, Turkey seemed to be playing to a familiar script. A faction of the Turkish military occupied the offices of state broadcaster TRT, and an anchor announced that the armed forces had seized control of the country.
But this was no ordinary coup. Shortly after the announcement on Turkish television, democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an interview to CNN Turk via FaceTime, Apple’s video messaging application, vowing to overcome the military rebellion and encouraging the public to take to the streets in protest. Erdogan and his government then made use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to repeat and amplify the message over and over again.
Erdogan also capitalized on connections with local mosques, asking imams to send their worshippers into the streets to protest against the coup. He sent a mass text message asking citizens to “stand up for democracy.” When protesters faithfully complied, livestreams on Facebook Live and Periscope broadcast the action to the world.
The most recent coup was certainly not Turkey’s first, but it was the first to be thwarted by a media-savvy president who understood the disintermediated state of modern communications well enough to muster a public show of support at a critical moment. And not just any show of support—massive demonstrations tailor-made to telegraph the importance of the events on Instagram, Twitter and wire-service photographers.
As many have noted since the coup, Erdogan’s social media outreach represents something of a turnaround in the president’s attitude toward social communication. In 2015, the Turkish government accounted for slightly more than half of the requests Twitter received to block content, and the country periodically blocks access to social media sites, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Every politician in the world has watched images from Tahrir Square and the Maidan spread across Twitter and Facebook over the last few years. What they—and all of us—have learned is that while communication has always been a political tool, it is now a political tool in the hands of the many, rather than the few. That makes it both more difficult to control and more important to understand for politicians. The communicator who wins the social media battle has a very good chance of winning the war.
What Turkey has taught us all about political communication is that when everyone has a loudspeaker, there can be no definitive voice emanating from state television to tell the world how things are. Everything is politics, and communication is a show of force.