Erdogan, Social Media Wizard

The Turkish president has spent years censoring internet access, but on Friday he used it to save his government

Jul 16, 2016 at 4:57 PM ET

In one of the most dramatic moments of the military’s attempt to overthrow his government on Friday, embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed his country via a smartphone interview that was broadcast live on CNN Turk. The attempted coup found the Turkish leader on holiday with his family at an Aegean resort, but he overcame physical distance and isolation via FaceTime, the iPhone video app, and was able to broadcast a message to his supporters.

As the CNN anchorwoman held up her phone to the camera, Erdogan urged his supporters to oppose the coup by going to the streets.

“Go the streets and give them [the military] their answer,” he said.

Immediately after CNN Turk broadcast that interview via iPhone, the Turkish president’s supporters did indeed flock to the streets. In cities across the country, they confronted soldiers and streamed the protests live using Facebook and Twitter. Social media, however, played a much bigger role for Erdogan and his loyalists.

Officials of the AKP, Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, along with local leaders and field operatives, repeated the Turkish president’s message using social media. The message was: The coup is against the people’s will and is an affront to democracy. The message appealed both to AKP loyalists and to democracy advocates.

According to Vocativ’s analysis, the main hashtag denouncing the coup was #DarbeyeHayır – (no to the coup). It started circulating three hours after the announcement of the coup on state television, and gained traction quickly, peaking after Erdogan arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. By the end of the night it had 400 thousand mentions. This hashtag allowed people who oppose Erdogan but support democracy to rally around the Turkish president, who was indeed elected by popular vote.

Another more militant hashtag was circulated by AKP in the first hours – #ErdoğanınAskerleriyiz (#Erdoganswariors). AKP volunteers’ organization was one of the first to use this hashtag tweeting “For the future of Turkey and democracy.”

The hashtags and the slogans were not meant to be an expression solely of armchair resistance via social media. It was a call for action that filtered down from Erdogan to the party officials and to local politicians. The AKP used social media as a means of mobilizing people and bring them to streets.

In one illustrative example, a member of parliament for the AKP issued a call via Facebook to oppose the coup. He later encouraged people to upload photos and updates on social media using hashtags.

Translation: A large number of our brothers, our friends, who cherish democracy are trying to call. I can’t answer all of them. Let’s meet in the squares.

Translation: Patriots in the squares. Continue to post messages and photos in social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. With the hashtag #demokrasiIcinmeydandayiz

Twitter accounts of Turkish politicians were three times more active than on a regular day.

The mobilization wasn’t limited to social media as people cited the booming voices from mosque minarets calling to fight for Erdogan and later the text messages that were sent signed by the Turkish president.

While the army raided Turkish media outlets, the AKP politicians’ calls for action online were answered with a live streaming of protests on Facebook and a mass sharing of photos and videos depicting soldiers surrendering to citizens and police officers across the country.

Photos of police and citizens disarming military forces were circulated by pro-Erdogan activists and footage showing the local governor of Sakaraya province, east of Istanbul, rebuking arrested soldiers was celebrated.

Unofficial pro-Erdogan Facebook pages were updated frequently with photos and graphic video footage from the ground, showing protesters that were reportedly killed by military forces and surrendering soldiers. At least one of those pro-Erdogan Facebook pages was extremely popular, with over 600 thousand followers.

The Erdogan government has become infamous for blocking social media to control the national discourse. But they also know how to use it to their advantage, which they proved very effectively on Friday night.