Turkey Coup: The Real Revolution Happened Online

The extent citizens made use of live video broadcasts on social media was unprecedented. Overnight the technology turned from a curiosity to an indispensable part of mainstream reporting.

Where most Facebook Live videos were uploaded during the night of the failed coup.
Facebook Live

There are very few times when you can put your finger on an event – in real time – and say: This is the turning point. This is the moment where it happened. Usually, a period of time is needed to digest the information and process it, and only then can we say for sure it was this particular event that moved the entire mechanism. But such a rare event has just happened, before our very eyes, broadcast live.

We’ll only be able to assess the implications of the attempted military coup in Turkey in a few weeks or months. But one thing is already clear: This past weekend was the turning point for live streaming on social media platforms.

This technology reached its boiling point, its tipping point, thanks to this weekend’s events in Turkey. From now on, it will have a new role and significance in the life of the global digital community.

If just a few days ago it was no more than a curiosity, or an experimental tool whose importance no one yet knew, on Friday night, when first word of the attempted coup emerged, it was clear straight away that it will become an integral part of our mass media.

While the conspirators against the government tried to block the major social media sites, Turkey’s citizens were able to broadcast live streaming on almost every possible platform. While international television channels were reading out laconic messages against meaningless pictures, people were broadcasting live footage of the tanks on the bridges of Istanbul and at the airport and the spontaneous demonstrations in the streets on Twitter (via Periscope, its live-streaming video app) and Facebook.

While traditional networks were preparing to deploy reporters to Turkey and were broadcasting an endless loop of the Ankara skyline, hundreds of Turkish citizens had already sent the world a local television journalist’s interview conducted on FaceTime with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan checks her smartphone in Istanbul, July 16, 2016.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

Just 24 hours earlier, a terrible terror attack had taken place in France, which claimed the lives of 84 revelers on the promenade in Nice during Bastille Day. There, too, the refreshing of social media apps replaced the traditional zapping of the TV remote.

Video footage streamed uninterruptedly from smartphones at the scene of the attack (and, significantly, without censoring the horrors captured on camera) went to the small screens of millions of people online around the world, as well as to the smartphones of traditional media reporters who thus learned what was going on. Hours later, that same smartphone footage was being broadcast on television channels as a backdrop for their confused commentators.

For more than a year, there has been huge competition between social media platforms as to which would be the first to take credit for live streaming. Less than six months ago, Facebook launched its own technology, Facebook Live, for use by anyone with a Facebook account. At the exact same time, Twitter finished embedding Periscope, which it had purchased a few months earlier. Lurking in the background is the online veteran YouTube, which, despite its lofty status, has not been able to take full advantage of its technical and infrastructure capabilities.

Of course, major financial interests are at the heart of this online war. Video broadcasts in general, and live streaming in particular, generate a very high degree of involvement from the social platforms’ users – involvement that manifests itself in higher income for the companies. Users are glued to the app for the entire length of the broadcast, which can take hours. They are also invested emotionally, since the content is generated by their friends or is documenting an event they have chosen to follow. Such involvement can translate into focused and effective advertising.

In April, when Mark Zuckerberg declared his belief in Facebook Live, he couldn’t have imagined that a miracle would occur so quickly. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s Jewish, one might say Christmas came early for him this year.

The epoch-changing moment actually began a week earlier with two events filmed in the United States and broadcast live on Facebook. The importance of these incidents – in which, first, a police officer was shown shooting a black driver to death, and then a black sniper was documented shooting white police officers – is that they flooded the social media platforms and the consciousness of users, and raised a debate about their role. This is precisely what was needed to lay the groundwork for the spontaneous outburst this past weekend.

For a certain phenomenon to pass the point from conceptual idea to viral social phenomenon, three basic conditions must be met: the readiness of the technology; an extensive infrastructure network; and the willingness of users to adopt it. When it comes to live-streaming video on social media, the first two conditions were met many months ago. But the events of the past few days show that the right moment only came now for the viral outbreak of live social media broadcasts.

Historically speaking, we can highlight two similar events that symbolized a turning point in television technology. The first was the first Gulf War in 1991, in which live grainy green images of scenes of warfare were sent to viewers worldwide. The fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 was another turning point, in which amateur shots filled out the bigger picture for the networks. That event was filmed by masses of people, holding digital recording devices, who happened to be at the scene and were quick enough to capture the horrific moments. They sent their footage to the traditional networks, who then broadcast them to the entire world.

The revolution in live social media broadcasting technology means that a billion and a half channels can broadcast whatever’s happening in every corner of the world at any given moment. All this endless content is being distributed in real time to anyone who wants it, unmonitored and uncensored, free of charge and unstoppable. The bridge that was crossed these past few days could dismantle the business model built around the old idea of a television channel with a studio that broadcasts to the public or to subscribers reached by cables or special antennas – all of the latter motivated by economic or political interests.

The main page for all of these channels – https://www.facebook.com/live – has turned the computer screen (there is still no mobile interface) into a converter for live broadcasts from all over the world. Many of the clips are short, not interesting and of poor quality, and often do not show significant events. However, that is no different from the situation today, in which a TV converter can stream 300 channels but in the end the average viewer always goes back to the same four channels.

It is still too early to guess in which direction the social media live-streaming platforms are taking us. Probably not even the people at Facebook, Twitter or YouTube can tell us exactly how live streaming will look in a year or two’s time. But one thing is clear: It is here to stay, and the first two weeks of July 2016 are the moment the platform went viral.