From an undisclosed location, with an attempted military coup threatening his regime, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced the nation at 12:24 a.m. local time – or rather, he FaceTimed the nation.
In the pressure cooker of an unfolding political crisis, Mr. Erdogan dispensed with formality and dialled in to CNN's Turkish affiliate through Apple Inc.'s popular video chat service. CNN Turk anchor Hande Firat held an iPhone up to the studio's camera, framing the President on a screen no more than a dozen centimetres tall as he urged his supporters to stand up to his would-be usurpers: "Go to the streets and give them their answer," Mr. Erdogan said.
Meanwhile, the military faction trying to overthrow the government followed the established playbook: Tanks rolled into the streets to secure airports and bridges, bystanders were told to go home, and soldiers stormed the state broadcaster, seizing the airwaves with a prepared statement that a new regime had arrived. Yet unlike the coups of the analog broadcast age, it wasn't nearly enough.
Despite some very real violence, what unfolded was in many ways a struggle for supremacy in communication – the ability to assert control and rally support. Mr. Erdogan's aides followed up his iPhone broadcast on traditional television with messages to his nearly 8.7 million Twitter followers, and on Facebook; sent a text message to mobile phones nationwide, asking people to "stand up" for democracy and resist the "narrow cadre" trying to take control; and used mosque loudspeakers that typically call worshippers to prayer to blast the government's core message in the streets – we're still here, we're in control.
"You need to get a message to the mosques for them to broadcast. You do that through WhatsApp, you do that through FaceTime, through social media," said Alfred Hermida, director of the University of British Columbia's graduate school of journalism, and author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why it Matters.
"You have this really intricate feedback loop of old and new media working together, in this case to counter the brute force of the military," Prof. Hermida said.
Seeing Turkey's President – whose relationship with media has been uneasy, to put it mildly – framed on an iPhone's chat screen, with the familiar red button to hang up the call hovering over him like a bull's eye, was another milestone in digital messaging's growing influence in shaping world events.
"Never thought I'd write: Erdogan takes to Twitter and FaceTime as a coup attempt in Turkey is thwarted by [government] supporters using social media," wrote Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who studies technology's social impact, in a tweet.
Many Turkish citizens took to live-streaming platforms such as Facebook Live and Periscope to chronicle the attempted coup as it happened, feeding reporting by traditional media outlets and mirroring the immediacy of the live user broadcasts that have trained a spotlight on police shootings in the U.S. in recent weeks, including a powerful video of Philando Castile's death in Minnesota, filmed by his girlfriend.
Social media's growing reach has made it a key tool for organizing public dissent and toppling obstinate rulers, notably in Tunisia in 2010 and Egypt in 2011, where encrypted chat groups helped the Arab Spring build momentum. Some governments have responded by cracking down on social messaging services, and Mr. Erdogan's is no exception.
In 2014, his government was dogged by allegations of corruption when he ordered the country's telecommunications authority to block Twitter throughout the country, though the decision was later overturned by the constitutional court.
" [Turkey] does have a fairly sophisticated Internet monitoring, filtering and censorship regime, which it regularly puts to use," said Jon Penney, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which analyzes political control over cyberspace. "At the same time, citizens, through wider use of censorship circumvention tools like [virtual private networks] and Tor, have also grown more sophisticated, including in Turkey."
The events of recent days suggest politicians like Mr. Erdogan are learning to harness social media even as they seek to control it. Even so, some felt Mr. Erdogan's FaceTime plea smacked of desperation.
"It wasn't authoritative. Here he was using whatever he had handy to call on people to take to the streets, which is essentially saying, I can't control the situation, you do it for me," said Vincent Mosco, a media expert, Queen's University professor and authority on political communication. "I think he certainly would have preferred to be in front of a camera, speaking behind a desk with all the symbols of power behind him that we've gotten used to in the addresses of national leaders."
By showing he was still at liberty to speak to the country by whatever means, however, the iPhone address set the government's message early, and may have resonated with Turkey's youth.
"It feels real. It doesn't feel like a stage-managed event," Prof. Hermida said, and that "can sway where people might stand in those very early hours when people are trying to decide who's going to be the winning side."
Rumours in the early hours of the attempted coup that users in Turkey were being denied access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were debunked, and despite sporadic slowdowns on mobile networks due to heavy use, information flowed quickly – and it didn't need to cross bridges or board airplanes to reach a wide audience.
"That [the Turkish public] could see one another mobilizing mattered there a great deal," Prof. Mosco said.
With a report from Reuters