A very modern coup: How a major news story plays out in 2016

The events in Turkey were a vivid illustration of how technology and new media can influence our knowledge of unfolding events

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Image: Emrah Gurel / AP/Press Association Images

In this technology-driven age of ours, we are all by now well used to the way breaking news unfolds.

Whenever something of importance occurs, it is almost guaranteed that reports, images and videos from the ground will be uploaded more-or-less as it happens.

Traditional media has been forced to adapt, with many of the best known outlets now running live blogs for up-to-the-minute updates. That takes place alongside the more traditional reporting, collating of information and attempts to verify the plethora of ‘content’ flooding through.

We have seen this play out time and time again. It happens whenever there’s a terrorist attack; it’s often social media that gives us an initial idea of the scale of what has happened - sometimes incorrectly - before anybody has had an opportunity to make an 'official' assessment. It’s not just catastrophes either, everything from court cases to elections are now broadcast on Facebook, tweeted, Periscoped or live-blogged with genuine immediacy.

The Arab Spring has been a particular source of fascination for think pieces and criticism of the role social media can play. While the ultimate effectiveness of new technology’s role in that period of major political and social upheaval has been debated, that it played a significant role in the movement has rarely been disputed.

There was something about the attempted coup in Turkey, however, that was a particularly fascinating example of how major events play out in a modern context.

Image: Emrah Gurel / AP/Press Association Images

There have, of course, been coups and revolutions since the arrival of Facebook and Twitter - the Arab Spring; the Thai coup d'état of 2014; the revolution in Ukraine. There have been many attempted and successful coups in Africa, which unfortunately but inevitably have been largely undocumented on either social or western media, for both practical reasons and deeply-rooted geopolitical ones. 

However, for a mulitude of reasons - not just the short timeframe involved - Turkey felt uniquely 'visible'.

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Just ahead of the attempted coup, various professional and amateur photographers had been capturing photos of the iconic Bosporus Bridge, which had been lit up in the colours of the French flag following last week’s attack in Nice. Similar photographs of other illuminated landmarks around the world were being captured by other photographers. The difference, of course, was that photographs filed of Bosporus later in the night showed it also being blocked by tanks and soldiers.

Other images also conjured up that strange dissonance between the familiar and extraordinary. Given it was a Friday night, there were plenty of people out on the streets as usual, but the same streets were soon occupied by members of the military. Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport is one of the busiest in the world, but on Friday night and Saturday morning videos showed chaotic scenes at the entrance. Gunshots could be heard nearby.

On Sky News, an English-speaker attempting to give an interview via video call was told to stop broadcasting by soldiers. The reports of one correspondent on the ground were regularly interrupted by the roar of jets overhead.

It’s important not to forget that this was a very real attempted coup which left more than 230 dead and many more injured. That was also sometimes distressingly reflected in the shocking footage and pictures that emerged from Ankara and Istanbul. Certainly it was evident in the more graphic imagery that emerged, but also through the tense scenes of people directly facing off against soldiers and, in some cases, tanks.

Then there was the Turkish media itself. Controlling the media is often one of the key goals of attempted coup starters, especially when, like in Turkey, much of it is directly state controlled. When soldiers took over the TRT state broadcaster on Friday, it starkly illustrated how easy it is to manipulate the information being distributed.

Turkey's private media was affected too. Viewers across the world can easily tune in to a livestream of CNN Turk whenever they want, even though they mightn’t understand it. Anybody who did so in the early hours of Saturday morning would have seen the chaos that ensued after members of the military entered the station’s studio and tried to force it off air. With so many of us familiar with the iconography of broadcast news, it was startling to see common sights in a completely unfamiliar context.

We cannot forget President Erdogan’s genuinely extraordinary interview on television. The president, who was temporarily in hiding, gave an interview via a broadcaster who was holding up a mobile phone. Erdogan urged his supporters to take to the street and fight back not through a traditionally grand presidential broadcast, but via a simple video call.

It was as vivid a realisation of the strange relationship between crisis and technology as one can imagine.

The whole situation also highlighted how difficult it can be to parse the ‘truth’ in any unfolding situation. There were so many unverified reports flooding in, and in some cases striking images from previous protests and incidents in Turkey being shared on forums and social media.

The nature of modern 'breaking news' can feed into a sense of hyperbole and even panic. Indeed, after the attack in Nice on Thursday, the French authorities had quickly taken to social media to urge people not to share unverified reports.

There is an additional observation to make here: the Turkey situation was as defined by what we didn’t see as much as what we did. Near constant access to social media is an important part of how we communicate in 2016, so it was notable to see Twitter tweeting:

We take a closer look at how social media is 'blocked' during coups here.

In the early hours of last Saturday morning, we could watch a coup thousands of kilometres away unfold ‘live’, but it also felt distant and censored. There were efforts to shut down technology, but it also played an important role in the coup itself. It was a beautiful example of the dynamic nature of contemporary journalism, but also a clear reminder of its limitations and dangers.

It was, undoubtedly, a very modern coup indeed.

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