Collective (Digital) Action During a Coup

The events in Turkey last night were nothing short of astounding – the world watched a NATO country, in which all was normal as late as happy hour, descend into political chaos as a coup was attempted and by morning has returned to a tenuous balance with President Erdoğan still (apparently) in charge. While the final outcome was driven by loyalists being more militarily and politically powerful than the anti-Erdoğan contingent, the perceptions of the population about where authority lies and thus what action to take is critical as well. The process of meaning making among the population about what was going on, and the importance of both mass communication and authority in settling the events, mirrored some of the findings in my dissertation research. People maximize their information gathering after a shock to make meaning from events, and as the information cycle evolves, the authority of sources is identified and collective decisions are made. Last night’s events were live tweeted, Facebook shared in real time, and broadcast through all manner of medium throughout the night. This culminated with President Erdoğan taking to FaceTime to give an interview and reassert his control over the country.

At the end of the night it wasn’t the broadcast media that directly beamed Erdoğan’s message out, it was him on an iPhone FaceTimeing remotely. In the partial information of the social media and news churn, the person endowed with the authority to make decisive calls cut through and focused both the discussion and the collective action going forward. The medium that he used was secondary to the importance of having a voice of authority broadcast into a chaotic information environment. While the situation is still fluid, a quick check of the BBC, Washington Post, NY Times, LA Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Paris Match front pages have all claimed the coup has failed. That’s the power of authority, even in a complex media churn.

Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, had an interesting take on the role of internet-based media in this coup. He points out that there were people downplaying the role of social media and broadcast technology in preventing the coup, and he counters the argument with an interesting comparative analysis of King Juan Carlos’s role in stopping the attempted F-23 coup in Spain in 1981. But what really caught my eye in his post was his discussion of the importance of mass communication in supporting collective action processes. Social media and the digital information environment played a huge role in how this attempted coup played out, and the interplay between authority and information medium was key in this process.

My dissertation research looked specifically at peoples’ preferences for information sources and mediums during shocks, such as election violence, natural disasters, or in this case an attempted coup. Social scientists, such as James Fearon and David Laitin, know that people on the whole don’t like chaos and in most cases will find ways to cooperate and maintain stability. In my research people do this by developing a common conception of the event, then identifying the sources of authority and the mediums to find their message on. In a modern, hyper-connected digital environment people can now participate in massive collective action processes because everyone has multiple options for information gathering and sharing. This connectivity keeps people involved in a collective meaning making process – even when people didn’t know exactly what was going on throughout the night, they were engaged and the narrative remained fluid. In the case of Turkey the military could never consolidate the message.

With a fluid narrative, people wait to consolidate into a collective action – there’s not enough information to decide whether to submit to the military or stick with the government. Overall it seems people preferred the government, and in spite of a broadcast media shutdown once Erdoğan got his message out it spread quickly and provided enough information symmetry to turn the collective tide against the military faction behind the coup attempt. What last night’s attempted coup demonstrated is the importance of digital media in preventing the military from consolidating the narrative enough to control the populace, as well as the power of authority to cut through a chaotic information space and solidify collective action during a shock to the political and social system.

 

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