Ed Finn: Smartphone camera is not a de facto tool of democracy
Political strongmen often use social media to consolidate power, he says
Editor’s Note: Ed Finn is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, where he is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English. A former journalist for Time, Slate and Popular Science, he is the co-editor of “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future” (William Morrow, September 2014) and author of “Culture Machines,” a book about the present and future of algorithms (MIT Press, forthcoming). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to the botched coup attempt this weekend revealed something important about the laws of power in social media. Like other turning points in the Middle East since 2011, the news was relayed first and foremost by smartphones.
But unlike the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which many called the “Facebook Revolution,” in Turkey the revolutionaries were not the ones pointing the cameras.
Instead, the world watched in amazement as the military units operating on the night of July 15 seemed to follow a classic 20th-century model for a coup d’etat: seizing the state TV studio, which the insurrectionists duly accomplished at 12:13 am on the 16th, forcing the announcer to read a statement on their behalf.
Eleven minutes later, Erdogan cleverly responded by getting himself on the air via a FaceTime call to CNN Turk. It was a remarkable moment to watch, with the head of CNN’s Ankara bureau, Hande Firat, holding a lapel mic up to an iPhone. Erdogan managed to appear at once presidential and intimate, striking a balance between his assured rhetoric and the tenuousness of his connection to the media universe.
At one point, the video cut out while someone else tried to call the phone, underlining the leader’s luck at managing to get on air from (we presume) his vacation in the beach town of Marmaris in the midst of an extremely chaotic night.
Perhaps realizing their mistake, the junta took over the CNN Turk studios three hours later, emptying the facility even as the staff continued to broadcast. But, of course, it was too late: Erdogan had successfully sent the message to his supporters to get out on the streets, and that is exactly what they did.
There are many reasons why this coup failed, and why Erdogan maintains such a powerful grip on Turkey. But this particular moment signals a broader truth about the nature of politics in an age of social media.
Tahrir Square, the recent documentation of incendiary police killings in the United States and countless other stories have shown us how ubiquitous smartphone cameras and proliferating social media platforms can empower individuals.
But Erdogan reminded us that not all social media users are created equal. The laws of power apply, and those with influence find it easiest to use social media to get even more.
The smartphone camera is not a de facto tool of democracy. It just magnifies whatever it is turned on – and strongmen like Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are learning to use that immediacy to their advantage.
The design of the iPhone tells us how FaceTime conversations should be conducted: we cradle the phone a few inches from our face, bringing us into close connection with someone else doing precisely the same thing. Erdogan’s turn with FaceTime gave viewers an intimate, almost visceral experience of his presence in a moment of crisis. Assad has been trying for more modest propaganda gains with the Syrian presidential Instagram feed, offering a – shall we say – tightly curated view of life filled with family cameos and humanitarian photo ops.
That digital intimacy is transforming all kinds of political exchanges, creating a new kind of cinema verité that is as familiar to Katy Perry as it is to Donald Trump. Live video is empowering powerful eyewitness testimony, but it is also giving politicians another way to leverage the cult of celebrity and to short-circuit traditional media filters.
When that happens, the ground rules of discourse shift from news reporting to the comments section. Savvy politicians use social media to say things they can only get away with on those platforms, maximizing their (theoretically) unscripted nature as a way to push the envelope far beyond what would be acceptable in other media formats. Donald Trump’s circulation of the now-infamous Star of David image is one recent example.
At the same time, live video amps up the relationship between politicians and constituents even further by creating the visual impression that we are an arm’s length away from power. Consider President Obama trading friendly Twitter barbs with Prince Harry over the Invictus Games, a Paralympics-style competition for wounded military service members and veterans.
The premise of Prince Harry’s response video is that we are watching an unscripted reaction from Queen Elizabeth to the Obamas’ original taunt; we have a front row seat to a form of 21st century public banter between world leaders that would have been unimaginable in the halls of Kensington Palace even a decade ago.
This kind of high-wattage digital intimacy brings unintended consequences. In many ways we’re just beginning to discover what persuasion and decision-making mean in the era of constant connection. Trump swept aside challengers in his primary field because he understood this new reality far better than anyone in the Republican Party, and the coming election will be a kind of referendum on the business of politics in the United States.
But for Turkey at least, the answer is already settled: through massive purges Erdogan has eliminated even the hint of opposition, drawing his country ever closer to him, as he did his iPhone camera during the coup.