Last week’s attempted coup d’etat in Turkey rocked social media as much as Istanbul. As traditional Turkish news sources went offline, the world turned to social media platforms to grab hold of the facts—however muddled. Now that the dust is settling on Europe’s first attempted military coup of the 21st century, much remains unanswered.
What is increasingly clear, however, is that control of digital information can prove decisive in moments of political flux and crisis. The cyber realm is becoming the new kingmaker and kingbreaker. Autocrats and democrats: take note.
As the abortive military coup unfolded, reports of soldiers in the streets, barricaded bridges and low-flying jets reverberated across social media. The new digital realm became a second battleground. Only instead of holding checkpoints in cities, both sides attempted to control perceptions and shape them. Turkish citizens livestreamed events as they happened on sharing platforms such Periscope and Facebook, while sharing minute- by-minute updates on Twitter.
In perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of the night, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rallied his supporters to the streets via a FaceTime interview on a mobile phone. His impassioned message: take back the streets. Erdoğan’s call to arms spread like wildfire across the web.
And it worked.
While security experts are still breaking down why the Turkish coup failed, much of this discussion misses a key dimension: cyber. Coup plotters failed to appreciate the new reality of the digital space. As witnessed in previous uprisings across Ukraine, Moldova, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, the information space is clearly the new center of gravity in modern-day regime change. Here, the coup plotters made two fatal mistakes:
-A failure to leverage digital media as the ultimate tool in either rallying or quelling public support.
-A failure to control the flow of information on events in real time, especially after Erdoğan and his supporters were clearly digitally mobilizing.
Instead of seizing control of Internet service providers and the Turkish power grid, the military occupied traditional state broadcast media. Bad move. This outdated tactic might have worked in coups of the past, but not in the 21st century.
In this coup, people mattered. The tide of the conflict was measured in page views and perceptions as well as tanks. If those who sought to overthrow Erdoğan had effectively controlled and leveraged digital tools, we might be looking at the creation of a new government in Turkey. Instead, the crackdown on the failed plotters has begun.
The leaders of autocratic states like Russia and Belarus are undoubtedly studying the lessons from Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin already knows that in order to maintain his country’s sphere of influence, Moscow must shape the conversation—as we have seen from recent Russian disinformation efforts. The Kremlin is now surely looking at ways to control the new digital realm.