Sarah Kendzior takes on the "cute cat theory" which she finds unconvincing, for different reasons than I have in this post on Wired State, where I call into question the technologists' own grab for power with these social media tools, and their reductivist view of the cat-loving masses -- and the nature of the revolutions that only bring to power state loyalist technologists.
Sarah pragmatically raises a place where the theory doesn't seem to work -- the region of Central Asia:
The “failures” – the many countries where the circulation of evidence of state crimes through social media prompts no change in state practices, and in some cases, dissuades citizens from joining activist causes – tend to go unmentioned. They are, I suspect, more the norm than the exception, and they have proven the rule in former Soviet authoritarian states.
I suspect the answer lies less with problems unique to the former Soviet Union than it does with a central assumption of the “cute cats” theory: that the exposure of wrongdoings inspires people to make things right. In authoritarian states, the circulation of state crimes often serves to confirm tacit suspicions, and in some cases, to reaffirm the futility of the fight. Fear, apathy, cynicism and distrust as are as common reactions to these quasi-revelations as are outrage and a desire for change.
There's another emotion it inspires -- a belief that the beatings "can't happen to me" because *that other person* "went too far". The belief that the victim "had it coming" because he crossed a line that others feel they are smarter never to cross is very, very deepseated in these countries, starting first and foremost in the very journalists' and bloggers' corps where you look for human solidarity on these cases. It's a kind of conservativism or collectivism gone wrong. I've found this time and again in working on cases in these countries -- fellow journalists, let alone mere users of Twitter, don't have a sense of corporate solidarity that can transcend their other inherent sense of negative collectivism.
Of course, the Marxist movements and Soviet regime spent nearly a century eradicating that sense of human solidarity in a million ways, through brute repression and the displacement tactic of creating ersatz unions and associations loyal to the state.
"Trust, fear, and apathy" appear because after long manipulative and cynical use of the association and the collectivizing and the coercion, anyone stepping up to rally somebody for a cause is going to be seen as insincere, cynical, power-hungry and sinister. And indeed, they still often are.
I disagree with Sarah's take on the impact of the "donkey bloggers" -- it's not the only case through which to understand the events in Azerbaijan. The Internet wasn't entirely open as she claims; and the story isn't over. The case of Eynulla Fatullayev, the imprisoned journalist who was the CPJ awardee, is illustrative -- the Council of Europe's involvement helped set a precedent that will long serve for the struggle for freedom of expression, and ultimately Fatullayev was freed.
Kendzior mounts a disturbing thesis as she documents the futility of protests: "In the Journal of Communication article, we suggest the opposite: that greater documentation and publicizing of suppressed dissent is often what derails political protest."
While that may be temporarily true, ultimately it's the documentation and protest that works, and to suggest that it is futile and harms more incremental reforms in fact is to provide a certain morally troubling argumentation for not bothering with human rights work, and inevitably to legitimize only the regime's narrative. (Please tell me what *else* prevails when you stop documenting abuses and let the regime do all the talking -- only cat pictures?).
I look forward to reading the entire article, but so far it sounds like much of what Evgeny Morozov achieves: arguing that we should do nothing, because authoritarian states are really strong and really cunning and clever about using the Internet, too, so we shouldn't challenge them with misguided Internet freedom programs.
I hope to translate and publish my interview with Fatullayev soon, but he said simply that indeed all political and intellectual life had simply moved to the Internet, given how the authorities controlled and censored the media, and refused to register some organizations or literally even razed buildings. When I asked whether that didn't make the free media and democracy movements far more vulnerable to be turned off at a flick of a switch, he disagreed, saying that temporary setbacks couldn't surmount the flexibility and impermeability that people obtained by going digital.
The problem with Kendzior's thesis is that it doesn't have a long enough timeline nor can it explain how situations can and do change. A year ago there was only Ludmila Alexeyeva, a liberal dissident form the Soviet era insisting on constitutional norms and Art. 31's promise of freedom of assembly, and showing up on Triumfal'naya Square to try to put them into practice on the 31st of every month. Alongside her was the extremist Limonov of the national-bolshevik party who was happy to see a universal right advocated that he hoped to use to put in an illiberal system.
These two and few others were demonstrating month after month, with so many of them arrested, including even Boris Nemtsov, the former governor of Nizhny Novgorod region, that the Russian RFE/RL journalist wrote a manifesto seeming at odds with the radio's mission advocating an end to futile creation of victims that had as their logic only larger illegal rallies that would attract greater police crackdowns.
No one predicted that a year later, 50,000 or even 100,000 people would emerge from their Live Journal and Facebook torpor to actually march with creative placards on the street with specific demands about removal of corrupt officials and changes to the electoral system, a long with freeing political prisoners and registering parties denied legality. To be sure, the program is very modest, and neither fulfills all the liberal dreams of Alexeyeva nor satisfies anything like the extremist asperations of Limonov or a Zyuganov. But it does tell you that if you mount a theory of futility, better be prepared to scrap it when you are overtaken by events.
To be sure, Moscow isn't Tashkent and Moscow isn't even the rest of Russia. But it is being watched closely by intellectuals and regime officials alike throughout the region.
And I'll be the first to say that there's no massive revolution like the Arab Springs to come out of the snow revolution; it's largely only in Moscow, only for a time and easily manipulated by some of the state loyalists already in the mix, or forced to become too extreme -- and then discredited -- by some of the nationalists more extreme than Putin. Even so, we're along way from 30 people demonstrating for 31 when this many people become to articulate their grievances -- they will have some impact, even if it isn't overthrow of post-communist autocrats. And therefore we need theories that explain that other than lolcats -- even Berdymukhamedov was pressured not so much by the West, but by his own people's love for Turkish film and music videos and chat rooms, to open up even state-controlled Internet cafes.
As for Zhanaozen, Kendzior has called the "information war" "ugly" because a state loyalist blogger taken on an official trip did not respond to the legitimate social pressure he was under by less loyal bloggers.
That's not a legitimate war of narratives or an information war waged by the state against other equally strong opposition movements; that's a state information blockade in which rightful demands for more credibility and accountability shouldn't be seen as "uncivil," and which the accommodationist stance taken toward it by some approved bloggers is rightfully challenged, even if some of those doing the challenging might be as tendentious as the state in their telling of the story.
Online media isn't really so diverse or so contentious -- the commentator with the handle "Edilbay" has nailed it -- small numbers of regime tools exploiting the anonymity of social media can very easily make it seem as if there is a raucous chorus on behalf of cynicism or the regime or both.
Change can be very, very slow in some places because of the trauma of massive state terrorism, civil war and foreign wars on the population for decades. It has taken 25 years for the Turkmen government to begin to use the word "glasnost" even tentatively in a bid to legitimize their power, as Gorbachev did. The consequences for him were unpredictable; there many not be any consequences yet for Turkmenistan. But the send button has already been pushed.