The internet and the recent coup attempt in Turkey
There have been several attempts in history where a group or social class attempted to overthrow the ruling government through a coup d'état. In Turkey some parts of the military have attempted to overthrow the government on the evening of 15 July 2016, but the attempt was suppressed in a few hours' time. Nevertheless, it created far-reaching effects in the country, where an anxious government has started a massive purge in bureaucracy. The internet played an important role in the coup attempt although it is too early for a comprehensive study about its role in the success of the suppression, as well as the failure of the coupists. This paper provides some preliminary findings about the role of the internet during the attempt. Some background knowledge about Turkey and the aftermath of the coup are also provided.
The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, one year after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic was a general in the Ottoman army. Almost all of his aides were also from the Ottoman military and civil bureaucracy. Frustrated by the traditional Ottoman ideology which was seen as incapable and incoherent with the realities of the 20th Century, the founders chose a Western-oriented and secular path for the modernisation and development of the country.
However, since the economic and social development of the country was inadequate for supporting a Western style democracy, the republic was authoritarian since its birth. The dissident movements based on religion, social class and ethnicity were kept under constant pressure during the course of the 20th Century and beyond. The attempt for developing a political atmosphere of a multi-party system with comparatively free elections after 1950 did not change the situation much, as the military and civil bureaucracy saw themselves as the “owners” of the country and intervened frequently when they sensed some derailment from the “true path”. Although the interventions were almost constant through several constitutional mechanisms, military coups were also organised as a last resort. The coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 were openly or tacitly supported by the West which saw Turkey as an important ally in a fragile and strategically important part of the world. Partly resembling the 1974 Portugal coup, the 1960 coup brought the most liberal constitution and extensive civil rights to the country. It has also reinforced the army's strong hand in several institutions. Yet, the 1971 and 1980 coups removed most of the civil rights. Both of them were mainly against the growing left-wing movements and workers' rights. The 1980 coup also crushed far right movements which led to their complaint of “our ideas in power but we are all in jail.” Anxious about the growth of the left, the junta of the 1980 coup paved the way to the Islamic movements by introducing mandatory religion courses in elementary schools. The 1982 constitution which was prepared under the rule of the junta represents a special case in point. Opposing the fact that only the Sunni sect of Islam is taught in schools, minority groups opened a case in the European Court of Human Rights which was won on 16 September 2014. Although the government appealed this decision, the ECHR insisted in its decision on 19 February 2015 and the decision was finalised. The government, however, simply ignored this binding ruling. On the contrary, the existing schools which provide secular education were converted into the religion-oriented “imam-hatip” schools without any consultation with parents.
A series of weak coalition governments, a weak economy, high levels of corruption and the 2001 economic crisis paved the way to the victory of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the 2002 elections. The party was led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul. He had to spend four months in prison in 1999 for reading a poem in a meeting. The poem, which was about a call to defend “the country and Islam” with religious metaphors, was interpreted as a “call to violence” by the court. This conviction became one of the most important assets of Erdoğan who voiced the traditional and religious parts of society which complained about the unjust treatment under the secular rule.
In the beginning, the AKP was vehemently pro-democracy as it was too weak to counter the attacks from the military and civil bureaucracy which suspected it had a hidden agenda to dismantle secularism and transform the country into fundamentalism. The party also lacked faithful and capable cadres to rule the country. Against this backdrop, the AKP formed an informal coalition with Fetullah Gülen, an Islamic preacher who lives in the USA in a self-imposed exile. Gülen had left Turkey in 1999 due to the threat of some court cases which could result in imprisonment. He had established a semi clandestine organisation composed of over one thousand schools and universities in more than 130 countries. His organisation had also established a large pool of cadres in the civil bureaucracy since the 1970s. The attempts by the Gülenists to infiltrate the armed forces were, however, limited until 2003 due to the stringent personnel policy of that institution which occasionally purged Gülenists and other fundamentalist groups from its ranks. One of the most important consequences of the collaboration between the AKP and Gülenists was the AKP's prevention of such purges in armed forces since 2003. This paved the way for the gradual transformation of the armed forces which became a stronghold of the Gülen movement by 2016. Fetullah Gülen himself was recorded in a sermon advising his supporters to “move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers”. This process was allegedly supported by the extensive frauds in the personnel admitting processes as well as the examinations in the military schools and academies.
Allegations against the Gülen movement also includes the lack of transparency and espousing “the same authoritarian methods that they now criticise in Erdoğan” as argued by the Member of European Parliament Marietje Schaake. Another accusation directed at the Gülen movement is to steal the exam questions and giving them to the Gülenist students not only in the military, but in all parts of the education system as well as in the selection and promotion exams of the public officers. The movement is also accused for using the methods of evidence fabrication, blackmailing and framing its opponents including even the top officials of Fenerbahçe, one of the largest sport clubs in Turkey. The movement has caused concern beyond the borders of Turkey. There is also some annoyance in the US from the activities of the movement while Russia and Uzbekistan closed Gülen schools. Yet, the Turkish government's requests to other governments to close Gülen schools were fruitless until now.
Aftermath of the AKP-Gülen coalition
The traditional power of the military and bureaucracy was isolated by the coalition of the AKP and Gülen movement by 2012 through a series of court cases where top generals and hundreds of lower ranking officers were sent to prison. Later, it became obvious that the digital evidence which led to the convictions were fabricated by the police force which was under the influence of the Gülen movement. The prosecutors and judges in the cases were also linked to the same movement.
Hence, Turkey became the first and only country where false digital evidence was successfully used to topple a social class which was running the country since almost a century.
During that time, the size of the Gülenist infiltration into the bureaucracy was enormous. According to the Minister of the Interior, 6,500 of the 7,000 officers in the police intelligence unit and 74 out of the 81 provincial security heads were linked to the Gülen movement during that time. Imprisonment and dismissal of the generals and lower-ranking officers resulted in the opening of the top positions for the Gülenist cadres.
Once the power of the military got isolated in this way, the Gülenists might have thought that the time was ripe to seize the sole power in the country. On 7 February 2012, the police force they controlled attempted to arrest the head of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) which is perhaps the only public institution where the Gülen movement was not successful in infiltrating. This resulted in a bitter fight among the former partners. As usual in such cases, both of these fundamentalist powers claimed that they represented the true Islam and blamed each other for adopting a twisted version of religion, an accusation neither has made against the other during their cooperation. As a response to the Gülenists, the AKP closed down the exam preparation centres in 2013, which were the main recruitment places for Gülenist cadres. Based on the telephone tapping evidence provided by the Gülenist police, several AKP members and bureaucrats were arrested between 17 and 25 December 2013. The explicit telephone recordings which were uploaded to the internet, hinted to a major network of corruption involving Erdoğan, his family members, four cabinet ministers and some bureaucrats. Although the four cabinet members had to resign due to the release of recordings that were impossible to deny, the AKP saw this as an attempt to topple the government, and called it a coup. This event led to the shifting the roles of the players and the AKP started an uneasy coalition with the military against the Gülen movement. Erdoğan suddenly "recalled" that the digital evidence used in the "Sledgehammer" and "Ergenekon" cases which sent the military personnel to prison was fabricated by the Gülenists. He immediately started a purge against the Gülenists in the police force and judiciary which resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of officials, judges and prosecutors during the course of 2014-2016. The list included the Gülenist judges and prosecutors who had sent the military personnel to prison. However, he failed to extend the purge of the Gülenists into the armed forces. The cases against the “old guard” were reopened and the convicted secular military personnel acquitted.
When the fight began in 2012, the Gülen supporters had already infiltrated into the entire array of military and civil bureaucracy, thanks to the support of the AKP. The composition of the forces was not different from 2002: the AKP had the votes of the traditional masses where the Gülenists were mainly a cadre movement. Both of them were weak in the areas where the rival was strong. Both parties had a very strong presence in the media and business. It is alleged that the pro-AKP media, also called “pool media”, is supported by the financial “pool” of a handful of construction companies which always “win” the large government tenders. By 2016, the AKP had eradicated the Gülen media empire by appointing trustees via court orders. The trustees then either closed the media companies or converted them into pro-AKP media outlets. The now defunct media empire of the Gülen movement is alleged to be the main instrument of “disinformation, blackmail, and judicial manipulation” as seen in the “Sledgehammer” and “Ergenekon” cases.
The AKP-Gülen fight does not seem to stem from theological or ideological differences. They are both from the Sunni sect of Islam and both of them are closely attached to the international capitalist system with the neo-liberal agenda. This brings a crony type of capitalism and little regard for the rule of law. Their track records show that they are in favour of democracy and free speech when they are in a weak position, but forget about these concepts when they become powerful enough.
Internet censorship and surveillance in Turkey
Erdoğan blamed social media as a facilitator of the Gezi uprising in 2013 which marked a turning point in his fortunes. Although he has millions of followers on Twitter, he blamed social media as the “worst menace to society”. In addition to the 112,000 websites that are currently blocked, his government occasionally blocks major social media venues such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (see Akgül and Kırlıdoğ, 2015). The majority of the blocked web sites are pornographic although the list also contains several dissident sites of various political movements. Web sites of several violent religious groups including ISIS, however, enjoy the tolerance of the government and operate as tools for propaganda and recruitment. The AKP has also established an army of internet trolls which is reported to be 6,000-people strong. Additionally, it has a strong presence in the social media which proved to be decisive in the coup attempt.
Unlike censorship and website blocking which requires only some hardware which can be easily obtained, surveillance is much harder to practice. It requires both technical and institutional robustness. The latter is particularly important for analysing the technical data and taking action. The Turkish Telecommunications Authority (TIB) used to be the government agency responsible for internet censorship and telephone surveillance in Turkey. During the cooperation of the AKP and the Gülen movement, the TIB was almost exclusively filled with Gülenists by the AKP. Due to its importance in the power play, this agency was one of the first institutions where the Gülenists were purged after the fight among them began. However, since the AKP did not have enough trusted and qualified personnel for surveillance activities, it is probable that this “service” was carried out at some inferior level after the purge in 2013. It is difficult to know the exact course of events in this area because of the nature of surveillance. Unlike censorship which is tangible, it is impossible to notice surveillance unless a leak comes from the insiders or the “products” of that activity are used in some open venues such as courts.
Yet, some surveillance activities in Turkey become public from time to time. For example, the hacked documents of Hacking Team, an Italian company which produces surveillance tools, show that the Turkish police force used this software for targeted surveillance. A report by Citizen Lab revealed that the “Packet Shaper” product of the software company Blue Coat is used in Turkey at least by one organisation. Blue Coat has an office in Istanbul and “Packet Shaper” can be used both for benign purposes such as traffic optimisation on a network and for mass or targeted surveillance. Gamma International's surveillance tool FinFisher is also used by the Turkish government. Hacking Team, Blue Coat and Gamma International have been identified as the “enemies of the internet” by Reporters Without Borders. In 2014 a tender document of TTNET, the company which runs the internet backbone in Turkey, was leaked. TTNET is also the largest ISP in Turkey. According to the document, TTNET wants to acquire a system which controls and classifies almost all communication platforms on the internet. The fate of the tender is unclear.
Surveillance activities are also carried out by some other public agencies including the MIT. There are some reports about the success of the MIT to decrypt and monitor Gülenists' former messaging tool named Bylock. According to the reports, implementation of this little known and amateurish software was a crucial fault which enabled the MIT to identify and trace the members of the organisation in 2014. Although the Gülenists later became aware of this and shifted to some other tools such as Eagle, their organisation had already been mapped by the Bylock data which became one of the most important evidences in the post-coup purge. The coupists used WhatsApp during the action.
Although there were some attempts to restructure the TIB after 2013, no such activity occurred until the coup attempt. After the coup, Erdoğan said that the TIB was still a “dirty” place and it would be closed. Although he did not elaborate on his dissatisfaction about this organisation, it is plausible that he may suspect the existence of some hidden Gülenists in it or he refers to the inferior level of surveillance activities. The TIB was closed on 15 August 2016 and its activities are to be carried out by the Information and Telecommunication Technologies Authority (BTK), the telecom watchdog of Turkey.
The coup attempt
The political tension among the players gradually escalated in the first half of 2016 but nobody expected a military coup. Almost all of the Gülenist media was either closed down or confiscated by the government by that time. As a consequence, the websites and social media presence of the Gülenist media also disappeared. The BTK was given powers to shut down internet and telephone services in case of war, general mobilisation and “the like” on 11 June 2016.
Website blockings and bandwidth throttling of large social media websites continued. This involves deliberately reducing the bandwidth to the target site to the extent that it becomes practically impossible to access it. This is an accustomed situation in Turkey during the course of an important event such as a terrorist attack or the unfolding of a corruption allegation. Normally, the TIB used to issue an order for internet blocking or throttling to the Union of Internet Service Providers (ESB), which relayed that order to its members for immediate action. Opposing the government policy of destruction of Kurdish towns, 2,218 academics signed a petition titled “We Will Not Be A Party To This Crime”. Almost all them immediately became subject to judicial or administrative inquiries and some of them were dismissed from their institutions. The ISIS has attacked Turkey several times in 2015 and 2016 which cost hundreds of lives. There were several reports and warnings in mid-July about another ISIS attack.
On the evening of 15 July 2016, reports about some unusual events started to circulate in social media. These included the blocking of the bridges over the Bosphorus strait by tanks. Shortly after, the state TV broadcast the announcement of a military coup. However, hundreds of other TV channels did not seem to be controlled by the coupists. By that time, bandwidth throttling was applied to large social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook which rendered them inaccessible.
At midnight, President Erdoğan who was on holiday in a remote town appeared in one of the private channels via a journalist's FaceTime system. He blamed Fetullah Gülen as the mastermind of the coup, a view which was later shared by a former US ambassador to Turkey. The majority of the population in Turkey also shares this view extending the plotters to the US and the West. Erdoğan called his supporters to take to the streets and resist the coup. Gülen later denied any involvement in the coup attempt although he called the people who resisted the coup “idiots”. After midnight, all four parties in the parliament declared their rejection of the coup although none of them except the AKP called their supporters to the streets. The opposition parties noted the bitter memories of the past coups in their declarations. The coupists responded to this by bombing the parliament with fighter jets a few hours later. By that time, TV channels and social media started broadcasting live about people demonstrating in city centres. Most of the demonstrators were AKP members or the voters of that party, although there were also exceptions. The demonstrations proved to be a major blow to the coupists that seemed not to have any significant social support behind them. In order to take advantage of this situation, the government took an unprecedented step and ordered the TIB to remove the throttling on social media sites at about 1.30 am. Another unusual action came from the government-aligned GSM companies which offered generous free allowance to their subscribers. The resulting surge in social media activity indeed proved to be effective for raising the morale of the anti-coup forces while giving another blow to the coupists.
Probably due to the possible dire consequences, Gülen supporters did not openly support the action at its peak time. Some of them only tried to convince people not to flock to the streets to prevent the "fight among brothers” in social media.
The number of demonstrators did not exceed a few thousand in each city. The pro-AKP police force also seemed to fail to exercise its full force. Normally, the resistors would have been an easy prey for the tanks and attack helicopters of the coupists. However, the resistance footage on social media and TV caused a huge psychological effect both on the coupists and the resistance. Footage about the bombing of the parliament by the coupists and the death of unarmed civilians by the soldiers were particularly effective to turn the tide against the coupists. After 2 am social media and some TV channels started broadcasting the surrendering of some coupists, most of which were enlists who were taken out of the barracks only for “a military exercise”. Some of the surrendered soldiers were fiercely beaten and some were murdered in ISIS style by the AKP mobs.
Another reason for removing the bandwidth throttling is possibly related to an unusual condition in Turkey. AKP's power base is mainly the traditional and conservative parts of society which are less educated than the average. When an important event occurs and large social media sites are blocked thereafter, their usage usually increases in Turkey, because VPN is commonly used in the country. However, this is usually done by the opponents of the AKP whose supporters usually lack necessary technical skills for VPN and similar technical tools. In such moments AKP supporters turn to mass media which is directly or indirectly controlled by the "party" and the "chief". Hence, in effect, AKP blocks websites not for its opponents, but for its supporters. As a result, removing the throttling process might have had a positive effect on the mobility of the AKP supporters in those crucial moments.
It would be an exaggeration to argue that it was only the social media that defeated the coup. The main reason was the lack of social support of the coupists. Although more than half of the population is not in good terms with Erdoğan and his party, he has a solid support base particularly in the traditional parts of society. On the contrary, the Gülenists, which is a cadre-movement, lacks massive social support. As a result, Gülenist independent candidates got very few votes and none of them could get a seat in the parliament in the last elections. The coup seems to be a desperate and immature action by the Gülenist officers in the armed forces, who were reported to be purged in a few weeks' time, anyway. They may have been joined by some other officers such as secularists who are concerned about the deteriorating situation in Turkey. The coup attempt also gives an idea about the concerns and attitude of the higher echelons of military and secret service towards president Erdoğan. In the official version of events, the head of the MIT became aware of the coup attempt at 4 pm on 15 July and the Commander of the Air Force went to a wedding ceremony with other top commanders in the evening. The Commander of the Navy was in another wedding ceremony. Although it would have been impossible for them to be unaware of the coup attempt by the evening, they failed to inform the president. Erdoğan said that he was informed about the coup attempt only by a relative in the evening.
The role of social media and the internet was, however, still very important for three reasons. Firstly, even if the coupists had been successful on the night of 15-16 July, it would not be long for a massive resistance to start against the coup. In such a case, with little support from the population, the only choice that the coupists had was to crush the resistance with brute force. Hence, it could be argued that social media has perhaps saved the lives of thousands of people by being functional in defeating the coup at its birth.
Secondly, by definition, mass media which broadcast the news about the events is a single-direction medium. In other words, it can only disseminate the news from the TV station to individuals and groups. Thus, its role in organising and mobilising crowds in those crucial moments is limited. On the contrary, social media is an interactive medium which provides excellent opportunities for interactive communication among individuals and groups. In an environment where nobody expected a coup, people gathered quickly in strategically important places where the coupists attempted to control. Although people were called to the streets by mass media, no specific destination was given. It is plausible that the party organisation of the AKP may have used social media effectively to gather its members in such places in short time.
Also, the discourse in social media is comparably less inhibited than mass media which usually has established institutional traditions and conforms to the accustomed mass media discourse. Such traditions shape the discourse and determine the credibility of the media outlet. Although the so-called “pool media's” discourse is quite “liberal” in this context and it has little concern about credibility, its discourse mainly conforms to the traditional mass media discourse, albeit to a defected version. On the contrary, the discourse in social media is uninhibited with endless variety and this discourse can be very effective for organisation and mobilisation during social upheavals when emotions run high.
Thirdly, social media allows the interaction of people who personally know and trust each other. Such an acquaintance is an important criteria for the organisation and mobilisation of large crowds in short time. On the other side, although some trusted personalities may use mass media to transmit their voices, it can never provide this level of acquaintance which may be necessary for people to take action while risking their lives.
On the other side, the coupists' almost total neglect of social media seems to have played a crucial role in the failure. Citizen Lab issued a report about information controls in the 2014 coup in Thailand. Unlike the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the Thailand coup was successful and the coupists managed to dissolve the government and the senate. There were also no lives lost in the Thailand coup although about 300 people lost their lives in Turkey. According to the Citizen Lab report, the 2014 coup “stands out from previous coups due to the military junta’s focus on information controls” and the coupists went to great lengths to control social media. Unlike the Thailand coup, Turkish coupists did not (or could not) attempt to block the internet which immediately became a hostile environment for them. Their only endeavour for controlling the information flow was to control the state-owned TV channel and another private channel temporarily. Yet, they lost them too, after a few hours. From this point of view, the Turkish coup attempt hopelessly resembled old fashioned coups where controlling a few radio and TV stations was crucial for success.
Erdoğan said that the coup attempt is "a gift from God" and there are some signs that the AKP will convert the crisis to an "opportunity" by extending the purge to all dissidents in near future. For example, the government issued a statutory decree on 1 September 2016 about the dismissal of 50,875 public officers including 2,346 academics. Although the decree is supposed to be against the so-called “Fetullah Terror Organisation”, it contains more than forty “We Will Not Be A Party To This Crime” signatories who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum where the Gülen movement resides. The behaviours of some overzealous officers like the ones who investigate the car owners with the license plates containing “FG” for possible connection to the Fetullah Gülen movement are also cause of concern.
Two months after the coup attempt, a total of about 80,000 public officers including thousands of judges, prosecutors, academics as well as half of the generals are dismissed and about 20,000 of them are arrested. Within the country 15 universities and more than 1,000 schools which are suspected to be owned or run by the Gülen movement are closed. In other words, the ongoing turmoil caused enormous damage to the institutions in the judiciary and educational ambit, besides others. Although the full effect of this massive institutional damage is not apparent yet, one can expect the dire consequences in the near future. It could be argued that the damage is already comparable to that in other countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen where religion-based factions fight each other for power. For Turkey, it is hoped that the damage will be reversed and not be enlarged to a physical dimension in the future. Not only Turkey is more populous than those four countries combined, but also it has much closer ties with the Western world in terms of geographical, cultural, economical and social proximity. It also has a large secular-oriented and educated population which is not prepared to live under a regime like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which may be the final destination if the AKP or Gülenists succeed in the long term. As a result, the worst case scenarios for Turkey may result in mass exodus of the Turkish population to the Western world in unprecedented levels.
Huntington (1996) posits that modern Turkey is a “torn country” along with Russia and Mexico in his “Clash of Civilizations”. He defines a torn country as a country which “has a single predominant culture which places it in one civilization but its leaders want to shift it to another civilization” (p. 138). According to Huntington, Turkey is a classical “Janus-faced” torn country where Atatürk and his successors attempted to reorient the country from East to West. He is pessimistic about this massive transformation and argues that such attempts have failed. He also contends that Japan's success stems from the fact that it kept its traditions, institutions and values. This argument is exactly the same as the arguments of both of the two fighting Islamic factions in Turkey. However, it fails to explain the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire which was the superpower of the 16th and 17th Centuries along with Spain, although it strictly kept its traditions, institutions, and values.
The AKP's and Gülenists' recipe against underdevelopment is simple: turn to the Islamic roots and this will bring development, prosperity and influence all over the world. Although this motto is shared by both of the factions, there are nuances in between. Contrary to the Gülenists' ideologically fluent positions, the AKP is particularly keen on Ottoman revival with all its traditions, institutions, and values. However, their fierce fight and the resulting mess drew further doubt to their recipe.
Turkey's recent coup attempt also showed the importance of the internet and social media for mobilising crowds in historical upheavals. Although there is a wide body of literature about the effect of social media in the so-called Arab Spring since 2011, its structural difference from mass media during upheavals needs to be further studied. The 2016 Turkish coup attempt provides rich data for the further investigation of this difference which seems to be mainly based on three facts, namely the interactive nature of social media, its uninhibited discourse and the acquaintance it provides.
Akgül, M. & Kırlıdoğ, M. (2015). Internet censorship in Turkey. Internet Policy Review, 4(2). DOI: 10.14763/2015.2.366
Huntington S. P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order. NY: Touchstone.