By James Lewis
Social media has forever changed the nature of coup d’états.
Coup d’états remain a remarkably common form of government change. To succeed, planners must follow a careful timeline in which they simultaneously seize the controls of government power along with the nation’s communication network. Since the advent of modern mass media, this has been addressed through TV and radio broadcast centers. Control of these lines of communication are needed to both silence the regime and to broadcast the insurrectionist’s own claim to power to otherwise neutral political and defense elements. Failing to do so can doom the delicate operation instantly. Such was the case in 1961, when French President Charles De Gaulle ended a coup with a televised speech. In 1981, members of Spain’s Guardia Civil captured the Congress of Deputies, but lost control when King Juan Carlos I denounced their acts on live TV. A silent broadcast center can be just as damning. Days after the atomic blasts in 1945, Japanese military officers succeeded in taking the imperial palace, but radio station workers refused to allow them airtime. With no one able to hear of their brief success, they failed to integrate larger elements of the government and the coup fizzled. But as mass communication evolves under the digital age, so has the communication component of a coup.
Digital information has altered the necessary maneuvers of a successful coup d’état, making the classic targets no longer sufficient. Decentralized communication, and the waning influence of TV and radio, has impacted government’s control of information. Communication channels remain a critical component, but the targets associated with controlling them have become nebulous, as either rebel or regime can use a single smartphone to broadcast mass communiques from anywhere on earth. This will impact both the timing and tactics of a coup and in the end, make them more challenging.
Successful coupists use timing as the foundation of their operation. Traditionally, they may wait until the country’s leader is out of the capital. This tactic has been used with success as recently as 2006, when Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, left the country on an official trip to New York. In his absence, the military seized the streets and government facilities; Thaksin could do little to reestablish control and organize allies using phone lines alone. In the 2016 Turkish coup attempt, a similar tactic was employed. President Erdogan had left the capital, putting him in a vulnerable position that the military exploited. The coupists succeeded in taking the traditional targets, including the TV broadcast centers. But, while they had a strong social media presence, so did Edrogan. Perhaps the Turkish leader had taken a page from nearby and recent events. Since the Arab Spring, social media has proven to be invaluable in popular revolution as a way to circumvent official narratives. For example, in the final months of the Qaddafi government, social media was used initially by protesters and ultimately, by rebel paramilitaries. It is also currently being used by Iranian protesters, despite government crackdowns on internet usage. It follows that similar tools could be used during the more delicate operations of a coup attempt. President Edrogan used the popular Facetime chat application and addressed supporters during the night’s critical moments, echoing the television appearances of President Charles De Gaulle and King Juan Carlos. The results snowballed, and loyalists flooded to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara – largely relying on social media applications to communicate with one another.
Naturally, the tactics of a coup d’état are evolving alongside technology. Though coupists still need to capture government buildings, deploy roadblocks, and, for as long as people still watch TV and listen to the radio, control broadcast centers, controlling the narrative on social media is a new requirement. In order to successfully establish legitimacy, future coupists must address this by changing both their timing and their targets. Short of a national internet blackout, there are limited ways to prevent government leaders from using cellphones and laptops to reestablish control and end an ongoing coup. A simpler solution is targeting the leaders physically. Instead of waiting for the leader to leave the capital before staging a takeover, coupists may increasingly elect to capture or kill them as part of the operation. This is a difficult endeavor as armed specialists often protect leaders, and coupists are limited in their means of personnel and firepower. Nevertheless, decentralized mass communication has made the capture/kill option more attractive, despite its challenges. Future coups may focus on physically targeting leadership, which means fewer disposed leaders in exile, and more in shallow graves.
While social media is rapidly changing the framework of coup d’états, it is important to remember that most coup-prone nations are not as developed as Turkey. Many of those at the greatest risk for a coup do not yet have widespread internet access, which may account for social media’s limited role in coups in both Zimbabwe in 2017 and Burkina Faso in 2015. In Zimbabwe, only 23 percent of the population has regular access to the internet, as opposed to Turkey’s 58 percent. Burkina Faso, a nation that has gone through several dramatic government upheavals in recent years, has an internet access rate of a mere 14 percent. But even in the most poverty stricken of countries, internet access will eventually expand. Future leadership in these nations, and around the world, will increasingly rely on the internet and social media to address their population and project their legitimacy. Coupists will have no choice but to accommodate this into their clandestine planning.
James Lewis is an analyst based in New York City focused primarily on East Asian defense affairs. In 2011, he graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Social Science and a specialty in Diplomacy and War.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.