August 15, 2016
By Niall Lane
Erdogan is no stranger to breaking new ground in Turkish politics; he has already succeeded in reshaping the presidential office from one of figurehead ceremony to all powerful executive, with direct control of the nation’s cabinet. Yet it now seems that he has overcome a national failsafe that had, until now, put an end to all other regimes that deviated from the combination of secularism and military backing established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. No doubt Erdogan’s tenure as the longest de facto ruler of Turkey since its founder gave him the experience necessary to successfully resist military control. But perhaps the most important factor, one that was not present in all other coups that went before, was the role played by online communication.
Social media, the star of every revolutionary movement this decade, appeared as a double-edged sword in the events during and after the coup, yet it was the would-be Junta that was cut by both sides. The military’s efforts to achieve a stranglehold on all Turkish media were scuppered by the communicative prowess of social networks, epitomised by Erdogan giving international interviews through facetime. Citizens shared pictures of themselves on tanks, disrupting efforts to shut down transport lines, and forming civilian blockades to further stall and complicate the already flagging takeover. This behaviour successfully eroded the military’s morale, and ultimately led to their surrender. Yet in the aftermath of the failed putsch, social media took on a more questionable role.
Those that were on the hunt for conspirators had a coup of their own, successfully hacking into the messenger app Bylock, which had been used by thousands of the plotters. Though the app had been dropped in favour of the more popular Whatsapp some months earlier, government officials were able to extract a list of names from the poorly coded app, which had stored the details in a shoddily encrypted format. This allowed officials to arrest and detain thousands of individuals, even those who were not directly linked to the events of the day. While Erdogan’s retention of power is welcome news in terms of European stability, the use of hacked messaging details to enact such sweeping and large-scale detentions is a scary precedent to be setting.
It is fair to say that many Europeans have come to terms with being glass citizens in this age of surveillance. We can rationalise that those eyes that rummage through our messages and pictures are simply voyeurs, spectators that view us as a collective sea of information within which to search for plots and threats. Yet the thought of such a large government mobilisation, fueled by information hacked from a networking platform, should give one pause. While many coup plotters were probably correctly identified through the information from Bylock, it is highly likely that some users would be incriminated merely through association.
Now, during a coup d’état, one might empathise that the situation calls for the use of unconventional, even illegal, methods to quell the insurgency. Hacking a suspect messenger app at such a time of instability would even be seen as procedural in many parts of the world. But look back to 2014, and the President’s attempt to control Twitter and YouTube confirm that this is not a once-off measure in the face of dire straits. Getting a coup under control is an easy justification for the curtailment of online rights, but the argument becomes harder to swallow the more you look at Erdogan’s track record.
Following the Arab Spring, it seemed as if the majority could never again be silent, could never be constrained or controlled by an oppressive elite. But Erdogan has taken successive steps to both constrict social media and use it as an offensive tool to maintain his position. My colleague, Michael Cottakis, recently wrote about the importance of social media in enacting societal change within Europe, with the potential for greater participation and enfranchisement for all citizens. Yet the current situation in Turkey serves not just as a cautionary tale, but as a real warning that the very opposite can and is happening. In fact, Hungary would be enduring a taxed internet (and a subsequent curtailment of expression) if not for the robust defiance of the internet-using community. From Trump to Brexit, 2016 is the year of the politically impossible, and the thought of an EU country going down Turkey’s path is becoming more than just a crazy hypothetical.
The helplessness that many EU citizens feel regarding the trajectory of the continent (commonly discarded as complacency) must be allayed by more robust systems of online political engagement and awareness, which would make the people of Europe more invested in the way our Union is governed. This is one of the key facets of the 1989 Generation Initiative, an organisation devoted to opening up European debate and engagement across the Union. And though by no means an impregnable bulwark against this radical, authoritarian creep on its own, the Initiative prides itself in being a part of the EU’s civil society network, which would be more than up to the task. But success hinges on the extent to which citizens contribute and engage; as in the body politic, democracy is a muscle made strong with use, and weak through complacency.
Photo used under Creative Commons license, by Garry Knight.1989 Generation