Turkey coup shows how leaders depend on smartphones

In all the recent chatter about Pokémon Go, one tiny fact went mostly unnoticed. A world leader stopped a government coup using his smartphone.

In what can only be described as a victory for technology, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reached out to his countrymen via FaceTime, Twitter and Facebook over the weekend, as military plotters attempted to overthrow his government.

As is the norm with secret revolutions, the conspirators had done their best to secure media communications, by locking down state-run TV stations and blocking satellites, as well as closing airports, bridges and parliament. What they didn’t factor in, though, was just how easy our little handheld computers have made it for anyone to communicate with anyone else.

Note to would-be rebels: if you want to plan a coup, take away a man’s smartphone.

While news and developments in Turkey trended on social media as events unfolded – now the norm for breaking news – Erdoğan himself was on the phone with Hande Firat, the head of CNN Türk in Ankara.

“Go to the streets and give them their answer,” he told Turks over the phone, which the anchor held up to the TV camera. “I am coming to a square in Ankara.” The gesture showed he was still in charge, and crucially, mobilised national support, and within hours, pictures and live videos of ordinary citizens gathering in the streets, some holding down soldiers involved in the coup, were streaming across the internet – despite limitations imposed on Twitter and YouTube.

“Truly a modern coup. President Erdoğan speaking to CNN-Turk on FaceTime,” Katy Lee, a journalist for AFP tweeted. “You can’t make it up.”

Cultural shift

The move also signalled a cultural shift for the smartphone. The device isn’t just more popular than ever (there are expected to be 6.1 billion smartphone users worldwide by 2020); this weekend’s events provide a compelling reason for wider use and consequently better security.

At the start of his term, the US Secret Service prevented President Obama’s use of an iPhone for fear it could be hacked into, although he was allowed a BlackBerry restricted to a contact book of 10 people. Years later, the basis for those fears emerged: US spooks were eavesdropping on German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls.

World leaders have increasingly been using their phones to do more than congratulate or harangue each other. India’s Narendra Modi (and indeed Obama) take selfies pretty much anywhere they can.

Earlier this year, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II joined her grandson, Prince Harry, to watch and respond to a video challenge from the US ahead of the Invictus Games.

But last week US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the device forward in an unlikely way by jumping on the Pokémon bandwagon: her campaign staff using the game’s popular Poké Stops to engage younger voters, historically the least politically active demographic.

Expect that to grow as leaders use their devices to connect directly with their constituents and in different ways – as  Erdoğan did. The benefit for us as consumers means that security will only improve. From Apple to Facebook, technology giants have expanded encryption of consumer information, but of course, that will bring create new flashpoints with government authorities.

As that plays out, though, we’re curious to see whether Erdoğan remains the outspoken critic of social media he once was. In 2013, he labelled Twitter as a “menace to society” and the following year said, albeit in context of the militant group Daesh, “I am increasingly against the internet every day”.

Smartphones interfere with sleep patterns, cause traffic accidents and even interfere in our sex lives. All seem a small price to pay for internet access.