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Tweeting Turkey, or how social media may have fundamentally changed the future of coups

- July 19, 2016
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate after about 50 troops involved in the coup attempyt surrendered in Istanbul on Saturday. (Yagiz Karahan/Reuters)

On Friday, I received an alert on my phone that a coup attempt was underway in Turkey. Rather than turn on the TV — or even open the app of the newspaper that sent me the alert — I went directly to Twitter.

What I found was an incredible source of real-time information on the coup as it unfolded. I had access to multiple news sources, statements from elites in both Turkey and outside, on-the-ground commentary from academics I didn’t even know were in Turkey and, of course, individual Turkish citizens. This, in turn, led to live streaming on Twitter’s Periscope and Facebook Live.

Will coups ever be the same again? Has social media fundamentally altered yet another aspect of the political arena?

In the days to come, we will undoubtedly see sophisticated and detailed analysis of the different ways in which social media played a role in Friday night’s events in Turkey. Among the more iconic (and, let’s face it, ironic) moments was Turkish president Recep Erdogan — he who once declared “social media is the worst menace to society” — taking to Twitter and FaceTime to rally support against the coup. Another was watching announcements of the impending military takeover of a news stations as soldiers were entering the building.

But beyond simply providing an enhanced form of viewing the news, why might we suspect that social media could have a profound impact on the way coups will unfold in the modern Web 2.0 era? To answer this question, we need to begin with a couple of pertinent facts about coups.

Let’s think about coups — what they are and what makes them successful

The term coup can be used to encompass a variety of different events, but at its essence it refers to an attempt by a small number of people to overthrow a government. Often, but not always, coups originate in the military.

Crucially coups, unlike elections, almost by definition involve small numbers of people. If too many people know about a coup plot ahead of time, it will probably be discovered by the government and put down before it ever begins. Thus the need for secrecy — hence “coup plotters” — guarantees that at its initial stages, coups will have small numbers of participants.

Precisely because there’s a limited number of participants involved in the early stage of a coup, whether the coup ultimately succeeds or fails will depend on whether others choose to side with the coup plotters or with the current government once the coup attempt starts. As the political scientist Naunihal Singh has argued, this leads to a situation where projecting that success is inevitable turns to be very important for a coup attempt to actually be successful.

The more people who come to believe that the coup is going to be successful, the more people will support it — out of desire not to be on the losing side — and, therefore, the more likely that the coup will turn out to be successful. Thus control of information is paramount.

That’s why social media could change coups in a fundamental way

Here’s where social media could be a game changer. The political scientist Timur Kuran has argued that protest participation is a function of individuals having a threshold at which they are willing to join a protest. This “threshold” is based on how many other people are participating in a protest. So some people might protest if only a few other people are out on the street, while others will protest if hundreds are participating, and still others may need hundreds of thousands of people to join in the protest before they choose to do so.

Now let’s suppose that supporting a coup works in a similar way. Some actors — let’s say those who severely dislike the current government or believe they are about to be lose positions of power and/or their jobs in the immediate future — will join the coup as soon as they find out about it. Let’s call these low-threshold joiners. Others, however, may require some initial signs of early success before they throw their support to the coup — we’ll call these the medium-threshold joiners. Still others may require signals that the government has no chance of resisting before they are willing to throw their support behind the coup plotters; these are the high-threshold joiners.

Let’s then assume that the likelihood of a coup succeeding increases as more actors support it. That is, a coup supported by both medium- and low-threshold joiners has a better chance of succeeding than one supported by only low-threshold supporters. And a coup supported by high-, medium- and low-threshold joiners has a better chance of succeeding than one supported by just low-threshold joiners.

Note that while I’m using three groups here in this example, the logic holds for any number of groups with different thresholds for supporting the coup.

As mentioned previously, coups by their nature begin with small numbers of supporters. Thus there is always some point in time when the medium- and high-threshold supporters are not likely to throw their support behind the coup plotters because they have not yet seen enough evidence that the coup is likely succeed.

If the coup plotters can limit access to information during this initial stage, it can give them time to take enough steps to project an image of strength and inevitability — and/or prevent the government from doing so.

Does social media foil coup plotters’ ability to project inevitable success?

So the question is, has the existence of social media fundamentally altered the ability of coup plotters to “keep things quiet” during the initial stages of a coup — to make enough progress so that the medium- and high-threshold participants will join in?

There are good reasons to think it might have. As we saw in Turkey, government leaders now have new ways to reach large audiences, included Twitter, text messages and, improbably, FaceTime.

Perhaps just as important, citizens have new — and incredibly fast — tools for both gaining real-time information about political developments and for coordinating action to oppose a coup, should they choose to do so.

Furthermore, the very actors who have to make the choice of whether to join the coup can observe the actions of both the government and mass public on social media as well. One of the newer social media developments in Turkey was the widespread use of Twitter’s Periscope and Facebook Live to stream responses to the coup.

How will this shift affect future potential coups?

So let’s assume that social media has made it harder for coup leaders to maintain control of the information environment in the early moments of an attempted coup. What then would be the implications of such a development? Four propositions seem reasonable:

  1. More coup attempts will fail than previously.
  2. Coup attempts that do succeed will need to have a larger number of committed participants before the coup starts than previously.
  3. As potential coup plotters become aware of new realities, we will see fewer coup attempts than previously.
  4. Points 1-3 will be more likely as social media usage in a population increases.

Combining points 2 and 3 suggests that one long-term effect of social media will be to reduce the number of coup attempts — but to make those few more likely to succeed. In other words, coup attempts like the one on Friday in Turkey should be increasingly less likely to take place.

Time will tell whether these propositions are correct. It is also possible that coup attempts in countries without democratically elected governments — where the government may have less support among the population — will take on a different dynamic.

Of course, one important lesson of the social media era is that both sides can learn from the past: the next set of coup plotters may well include a social media team as well.