‘FaceTime Is a Cyberweapon’ and Other Lessons About Digital Age Coups

After Turkey, has the internet torn up the playbook for how coups are won and lost?


A coup d’état, done well, is a terribly retro exercise of hard power. Commandos seize the head of government in the dead of night. Tanks roll through the streets. A government puppet reads a statement over state television. And in the morning, people wake up to a pallid general in charge of the presidential palace — pledging unity, stability, and a return to order.

And that was how it was supposed to go in Turkey over the weekend, when the country’s military tried and failed to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To the dismay of Turkey’s dissident generals, the commandos failed to capture Erdogan, who promptly — and ironically — put the communication tools of the internet revolution to work, urging his supporters to take to the the streets and thwart the coup.

In a dramatic appearance via the FaceTime app, Erdogan called into CNN Turk to say he was still alive and in power. Through the night, information about the coup flooded social media, as Turks streamed protests and clashes with the military via Facebook Live and Twitter’s Periscope. While the military faction attempting to oust Erdogan claimed to be in control, social media told a very different story.

That amalgam of technology has some observers asking whether the Turkish coup was the first to be thwarted via cyberspace, and whether the rapid proliferation of social media may have dramatic implications for future coups by renegade colonels. But whether Twitter and Facebook have actually revolutionized the business of coup-making remains very much in the eye of the observer — as does the extent to which ordinary people have an ability to influence the outcome of internal military conflict.

Control the medium. Control the message.

Done well, a coup is a fait accompli. A population wakes up told that a new faction is in power — and, crucially, believes, that to be the case. Convincing an entire population that control of government has shifted overnight requires controlling all the channels of communication.

Before the internet revolution, that was a simple proposition: Send a few well-trained squads to take over the television station; send another to take the radio station, or just blow up its broadcasting equipment. A third will shut down the newspaper printing press.

In 2016, even in Turkey, that was a far more difficult proposition. Edward Luttwak, a strategist and consultant who literally wrote the handbook on military coups, points out that social media and the internet create a huge variety communication channels that must be controlled by coup plotters. That variety, Luttwak says, makes it more difficult, but not impossible to carry out a coup.

There is some evidence that the plotters attempted to cut internet service in Turkey and failed to do so. Turkish internet users reported difficulty in accessing Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook in the coup’s early hours, but forces loyal to Erdogan appeared to have succeeded in stopping the throttling of Turkey’s internet — no small irony given that Erdogan once described Twitter as “the worst menace to society.” Amid terror attacks, his government has frequently shut down all or parts of the Turkish internet.

Other users reported receiving gigs of free additional data from their cell phone carriers to ensure that they could continue to follow events — likely at the behest of the Erdogan government. While the coup plotters had, by the book, seized the TV station, today’s more important tools remained open and free for Erdogan’s supporters to exploit.

And that’s how Erdogan came to tweet the following:

A note to future coup plotters: Seize the president’s Twitter account.

Cut the head off the snake.

For Luttwak, the plotters’ fundamental mistake was not so much failing to control the internet, but rather failing to kill or capture Erdogan. According to the Wall Street Journal, the commandos dispatched to the resort town of Marmaris, where Erdogan was vacationing, missed their target. After a battle with the presidential guard, the commandos slinked away defeated.

Still, the Turkish military had other chances to kill Erdogan — but didn’t seize them. Turkish F-16 fighter jets sidled up next to Erdogan’s presidential jet on its way to Istanbul and had the opportunity to shoot him down, but didn’t pull the trigger. Once Erdogan landed at Ataturk Airport, military forces on the ground could have pounced, but they didn’t.

If you don’t get to the leader, Luttwak says, “then your goose is cooked.” And what happens afterwards doesn’t particularly matter. Facebook and Twitter “became unimportant when they failed to seize” Erdogan, Luttwak argues.

Decisiveness and speed are key factors in a successful coup, and in their bungling of the coup’s initial hours, the plotters lost key momentum. If you aim to overthrow the leader of a government, you better overthrow the leader. What happens in cyberspace is a secondary consideration. Had Erdogan been seized or killed, he never would have made the televised appeal to his supporters and the military would have faced fewer obstacles.

People power doesn’t matter.

Naunihal Singh is a professor at the U.S. Air War College and a scholar of coups. He’s concluded that they are more than anything else internal power struggles within the military. “A coup is about a military organization breaking apart and coming back together, either for or against the government,” he says.

In such a situation, the patina of success is key to winning the support of the rest of the military. Military factions plotting coups are, by necessity, small. They require secrecy to succeed, and are launched with the aim of securing the support of the rest once in motion. By publicly declaring that they are in control of a government, a renegade military faction might actually make it so, as other units join their side out of genuine disaffection with the government, or from a desire to prevent further bloodshed. In short, for those on the sharp end of a coup, perception is reality.

And that makes control of the media even more important. The question, Singh says, “is to what extent can social media behave like traditional mass media?”

The plotters’ initial broadcast to the country was a weak one, Singh says. They did not give a face to the coup, using instead a state television anchor to read their statement. When Erdogan appeared on CNN Turk, he was still using a traditional method, albeit with a contemporary twist, to call people into the streets. That statement on CNN Turk was made on the small screen of the presenter’s iPhone, broadcasting Erdogan’s image via FaceTime, but disseminating his message through TV.

But what Singh calls a twist on old media, a security researcher who goes by the name of “The Grugq” calls Facetime a “cyberweapon” deployed by the Turkish leader. Writing on Medium, the Grugq argued that Erdogan’s FaceTime call brought people into the streets and turned the tide for Erdogan.

It’s an idea many have echoed. But Singh’s research shows that people power actually doesn’t matter. In hundreds of cases studied by Singh, crowds have rarely shown the ability to stop a coup in progress.

Moreover, armies are quite capable of moving large crowds out of public spaces if and when they want, Singh argues. In 1991, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, huge numbers of people took to the streets of Moscow to protest a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, then the leader of the USSR. Though the coup plotters had the backing of basically the entire security establishment, they declined to clear the crowds from the streets despite having a plan on hand to do so. The coup failed. Two years later, embattled Russian President Boris Yeltsin was faced with crowds of similar size and simply dusted off the same playbook and put it in motion. The military cleared the streets without major problems, Singh said.

If internal military dynamics are the key factor in a coup’s outcome, then social media must convince not just those at the barricades, but those in the barracks. There’s gobs of evidence of a massive amount of social media posts and videos spreading information about the coup, but it remains unclear if or how they may have affected the military. So far, Singh argues, we simply don’t have enough evidence to say Twitter turned back any brigades.

Gokhan Tan/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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