How the Internet Saved Turkey’s Internet-Hating President

How the Internet Saved Turkey’s Internet-Hating President

When I was stuck at the airport in this city in southern Turkey, on Friday night, I had many things to worry about. A coup attempt had just begun and the country was in turmoil. My plane to Istanbul had almost flown into the worst of the fighting, but luckily we were prevented from taking off at the last minute when the airspace was closed.

One thing I did not have to worry about, though, was running out of data on my phone. In the early morning hours, Turkey’s leading cellphone provider topped up the internet allowance of every subscriber. This was more than unusual. Turkey has experienced many crises recently, including deadly terrorist attacks, and they usually lead to a closing of information flows, not the government-aligned service provider’s making it easier to transmit information.

The reason was simple: In the confusing hours after the coup attempt began, the country had heard from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and even learned that he was alive — when he called a television station via FaceTime, an easy-to-use video chat app. As the camera focused on the iPhone in the anchor’s hand, the president called on the people of Turkey to take to the streets and guard the airports. But this couldn’t happen by itself. People would need WhatsApp, Twitter and other tools on their phones to mobilize. The president also tweeted out the call to his more than eight million followers to resist the coup.

The effect was immediate. On my drive back into the city from the airport, I encountered throngs gathering in squares, waving Turkish flags. Everywhere, their screens flickered as they held their phones out, taking defiant selfies to share with their friends, inviting them to join the protests. Within hours, most of the soldiers backing the would-be coup had been overwhelmed. Despite Turkey’s deep political and social divisions, every opposition party, too, immediately came out against the coup. Most did so by posting statements on Twitter.

The journalist Erhan Celik later tweeted that the public’s response had deterred potential coup supporters, especially within the military, from taking a side. (Other sources told me the same thing.) Meanwhile, the immediacy of the president’s on-air appeal via FaceTime was an impetus for people to take to the streets. The video link protected the government from charges that it was using fraud or doctoring — both common in the Turkish news media — to assure the public that the president was safe. A phone call would not have worked the same way.

By the time Mr. Erdogan’s plane landed in Istanbul, some five hours after the coup attempt began, #darbeyehayir (“No to the coup”) had been trending on Twitter for hours. Thousands of people were already at the airport to greet the president and more were on the way.

Only three years ago, I was at the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, breathing tear gas and listening to Mr. Erdogan, then the prime minister, call Twitter “the worst menace to society,” after protesters used it to organize their demonstrations against authoritarianism, censorship and police brutality.

The 2013 protests did little to improve these problems. In fact, since then, Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power even further. Press and internet freedoms have taken an especially drastic turn. Hundreds of journalists have been forced out of their jobs. State prosecutors have opened cases against some 2,000 people for insulting the president online. The courts have rubber-stamped bulk bans on dissident websites and social media accounts. Twitter and YouTube have been regularly slowed to a crawl during times of crisis.

Mr. Erdogan repeatedly described the 2013 Gezi protests as a coup attempt. Three years later, during an actual coup attempt, I scanned the Twitter feeds of many of the dissidents who took part in the protests and found strong opposition to military rule. Similarly, the most reliable journalists I found to follow online on Friday night were those who had recently been fired or laid off for refusing to turn into government mouthpieces. That I could count on them to report the truth, rather than just be obedient to the powerful, helped me and millions of others in Turkey who have learned to seek news on social media rather than on the country’s obsequious news outlets understand what was happening.

The role of internet and press freedoms in defeating the coup presents a significant opportunity. Rather than further polarization and painting of all dissent as illegitimate, the government should embrace real reforms and reverse its censorship policies. The accusation that Turkey’s democratic opposition had been merely seeking a return to the country’s coup-ridden past has been buried by the example of a real coup attempt. A free press and open internet have proved essential to everyone — even those at the height of power.

On Friday night, as bombs dropped by the coup plotters fell on the Parliament building, members of the assembly gathered defiantly in its chamber. As the building shook with each explosion, a deputy from the ruling party turned on her phone and started to live stream. It was something I’ve seen protesters in Turkey do countless times before. Apparently, when tanks are in the streets, we all believe in the free flow of information. I hope we can also agree on its value in less dire circumstances.

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and a contributing opinion writer.

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