One of the most underreported aspects of the fallout of the attempted coup was the ongoing trauma that both its direct and indirect victims face until today.
On the night of 15 July 2016, Turkish people experienced the traumatic coup attempt as it unfolded on both social media as well as television. On social media, people posted video footage of helicopters shooting protestors and tanks on the streets.
In terms of broadcast media, key moments included when former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim went live on NTV news to inform the public of the coup attempt, when various media outlets reported that Chief of General Staff had been held hostage and when a false announcement was made that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had taken over the government.
The crucial moment was when President Erdogan connected with the Turkish citizens at 12:26 am via CNN Turk to let them know what has happened. A night full of emotions and chaos, it was not until dawn the next day when clarity and order resurfaced.
A large body of research has pointed towards the significant impact of exposure to violence as well as violent or distressing media coverage to trauma. At first, it was restricted to people’s immediate experience of the coverage, but as more research came in, it became evident that mediated experiences could also be linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The effects of PTSD, such as having negative thoughts, avoidance of related people or places, insomnia, anger or difficulty concentrating, to name a few, can be felt months or even years after being traumatized by what people see on social as well as broadcast media. Could it be that the experience of the July 15 coup attempt, whether on the streets or through broadcast and social media, can be linked to national trauma and consequently PTSD?
In order to answer the question, it would be helpful to look at studies that have examined the impact of media coverage of terrorist attacks, as the July 15 coup attempt could be classified as one.
Terrorist events are by design traumatic events intending to erode victims’ sense of safety and security. An example of such an event was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) on the morning of 11 September 2001. According to research conducted about two months after the attack, more than 4 percent of the study sample had PTSD that was significantly associated with number of hours of 9/11 television coverage watched as well as the number of 9/11 related graphic events watched on television.
Further, a study that looked at all existing disaster coverage research (including both terrorism and natural disasters) showed that most studies found a significant positive association between disaster television viewing and mental health outcomes also included, besides PTSD, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, complicated grief and substance abuse. Clearly, there is a chance that a significant number of Turkish people developed trauma and other mental health issues after exposure to the trauma that ensued from the July 15 coup attempt, especially if they lost loved ones.
One cannot discount history when looking at the impact of media coverage of the July 15 coup attempt. It was not the first time the military had taken over or attempted to take over democratically elected governments in Turkey, so the people’s fear of losing their democratic system was real – however, people’s exposure to media coverage of earlier coup attempts was restricted to radio coverage and was neither live nor graphic.
Studies have not linked disaster coverage via radio with trauma or PTSD yet, so the July 15 coup attempt—with its prolonged coverage and images continuing to live online—was ‘special’. Unfortunately, the situation was not much better if there was exposure to the violence of the July 15 coup attempt via social media, also linked with the development of PTSD.
According to this study, around sixty-five percent of a sample of Kuwaiti children who reported viewing televised images of violence from the Gulf War developed PTSD symptoms. Other studies reported the same findings. This is important, considering Turkish children were also exposed, via media or otherwise, to violence and chaos both on the night and afterwards. Sadly, PTSD in childhood is linked to several health problems later in life, including hypertension, obesity and heart disease.
There is no cloud without a silver lining, however. The live broadcast of President Erdogan and his appeal to the Turkish people to defend democracy, rapidly circulating images and videos on social media of fellow countrymen dead or injured, as well as news of both government and opposition leaders coming together to denounce the coup also led to the effective mobilization of the Turkish people.
The potential for disaster coverage to ‘function as symbolic wounds’ leading to political action was evident during the July 15 coup attempt as ordinary people took to the streets to defend their democratic rights. Another example of this potential was during the so-called Arab Spring, when social media platforms became sources of information as well as inspiration.
Two years onwards, democracy has prevailed. The Turkish people have re-elected President Erdogan. However, the trauma continues to live on in their collective as well as individual memories.
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