No one knows what would have happened if people had had access to cellphones and the Internet during the military coups in 1960 and 1980. The first and hopefully last coup attempt of the new millennium in Turkey spectacularly failed in large part thanks to the technology and awareness of democracy.
It was a video-telephone app that connected the president to the public, and it was on cellphones where people learned a coup was afoot in the country on July 15. Within hours, people bearing Turkish flags and armed only with their fists, took to the streets where tanks were rolling. Hundreds died when members of the Gülen-linked junta opened fire on the crowds gathered outside public institutions and the presidential palace in a bid to protect the sites. This unprecedented resistance to the coup ultimately led to the junta's failure.
People were clueless about what was happening in the country when tanks blocked a busy bridge in Istanbul, one of the first images of the coup attempt, and most people were thinking it was either a military exercise or an anti-terror operation in a country accustomed to terror attacks in the last two years. It did not take long for people to find out the truth thanks to social media websites and WhatsApp groups warning others about troops heading to government buildings and fighter jets dropping bombs on Parliament. Still, the public was anxious, as they had not heard any statements from the country's leaders. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was rumored to be on vacation in a southwestern vacation resort, appeared a few hours after the coup attempt began on a live broadcast on a national news channel. But his appearance was unusual: Instead of a phone-in or a videolink appearance, Erdoğan's face appeared on the screen of the presenter's cellphone. The president was in an undisclosed location and in a calm message, announced a coup attempt was indeed underway and urged the nation to take to the streets for democracy. Already alarmed at the situation due to a barrage of messages, videos and photos circulating on social media about the coup attempt, the public heeded the call and soon crowds on the streets swelled. People were texting friends, relatives in other cities to find out if troops linked to the junta were attacking the public there too and to call others to join them, either in front of the presidential palace in Ankara or on the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul.
A news article in the Habertürk daily says texting, largely scrapped by cellphone users after free messaging apps gained popularity, peaked again during the coup attempt, as Internet connections slowed down due to massive use and the limited availability of smartphone messaging apps forced many to turn to texting. Moreover, mass SMS's from nongovernmental organizations and local branches of political parties to the public calling them to stand for democracy helped a sudden rise in SMS traffic. Habertürk says SMS traffic rose tenfold at times compared to other days in some cellphone operators. Turkcell reported that SMS's sent through its GSM network doubled while Türk Telekom reported a 81.6 percent rise in SMS traffic compared to the weeks before the coup attempt. Habertürk also reported that SMS was instrumental in instructing imams in 85,000 mosques across the country for the Presidency of Religious Authority to recite the "sala," a call to prayer that is normally recited only prior to funerals and the Friday communal prayers. Sala, to the surprise and joy of the Muslim faithful, echoed throughout the country on Friday night, followed by a message urging people to take to the streets to counter the coup attempt. Habertürk also reported that telecom operators also sent SMS's to military officers subscribed to discount plans offered to members of the Turkish Armed Forces, advising them not to join the coup attempt. Apart from SMS, WhatsApp was probably the most widely used tool for instant messaging during the coup attempt and it was revealed Gülenist officers involved in the attempt had formed a messaging group to coordinate their efforts to take over the state. WhatsApp offers its users encrypted messaging that prevents third parties from seeing the conversations. Telecom operators also offered free data and voice call plans to subscribers following the coup attempt in a move to address the urgent communications needs of millions of people anxious to reach their loved ones.
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