Donkey parody video which led to sentencing of Azeri bloggers to jail.
The troubling article by Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce published in the Journal of Communication is now published here behind a paywall, where it will cost you $35 to access the article for 24 hours. Just like those old heady days of reading samizdat overnight -- except for that $35 part! Needless to say, I can't spend a day's grocery bill on these newly-baked "networked authoritarianism" gurus, so I will see if I can either get it in the NY public library or perhaps someone will have a copy in their office. Funny, both of them complain about paid academic content and boost open source stuff on Twitter, but their own article will cost you.
I wrote about my concerns related to their article here and here -- prompting both Kendzior and Pearce not only to react with thin-skinned fury but to start attacking me for "poor analytical skills" etc. myself. Academia is a terribly closed society and they are exemplary of some of the worst aspects of it -- stifling criticism, suppressing critics (Sarah assists Nathan Hamm in moderating at Registan, and is responsible for my banning from that site for criticizing the notorious Joshua Foust).
Like Evgeny Morozov, Kendzior and Pearce are anti-utopianist regarding the Internet and take almost glee in informing you just how bad authoritiaran states suppress it and how foolhardy dissenters are to resist this. And like Morozov, they discount anything but their own grim message and essentially counsel scholars -- and by implication policy-makers -- to accept this status-quo and not attempt to change it or look for alternative narratives. In reacting to hypotheses -- and documented evidence -- in the Middle East and Russia that purport to show that increased social network participation is leading to increased political activism (and that this starts with exposing the regimes' crimes), Kendzior says:
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.
The ellusive and changing and contradictory creature known as "the Internet" may not lend itself to firm pronouncements taken only in time-slices (the paper deals with the period 2009-2011) and things may be getting better or old conceptions being unravelled, but that's not the affair of anthropologists -- they need things to stay put.
In many places in the world, including in this region of Central Asia, documenting abuses by the regime leads to change. It may not be massive as in Tahrir Square or even in Bolotnaya Square, but it is something. Not so for Central Asia and the Caucasus, as Kendzior writes:
"In the Journal of Communication article, we suggest the opposite: that greater documentation and publicizing of suppressed dissent is often what derails political protest."
I reject this thesis myself, and it's fairly easy to do so as more and more episodes pile up. As I noted, when protesters uploaded a video of an abusive governor in a province in Azerbaijan he was ultimately fired; protestors who had been arrested were freed; and increased scrutiny was given to the problems of injustice. Shh, don't tell Kendzior and Pearce! The story completely falls outside of their paradigm; indeed, it didn't fit in the framework of this EurasiaNet, author, either, but eventually the pressure of events caused him to revise his telling of the story.
It's not necessarily an indicator of anything big, given that Facebook is relatively new and there are other local social networking sites with more relevance, perhaps, but there are now 782,000 on Facebook in Azerbaijan, and their numbers have increased significantly as we can see from Socialbakers. By the way, Uzbekistan's numbers on Socialbakers, which Katy Pearce fiercely contested and demanded to know about the methodology -- as if this respected commercial agency cooperating with Facebook to report on its growth couldn't be trusted! -- are now rising substantially again -- to 128,680. That defies Kendzior's complaint that the growth rate was slowing so much last year that the numbers couldn't really be said to be evidence of a "surge". Look at the graph again. In all the countries of Eurasia except Turkmenistan they appear to be taking quite a jump. Sometimes the facts of real life get in the way of your academic thesis.
Regrettably, Luke Allnutt of RFE/RL tends to chase every "progressive" social media fad story that comes along has now celebrated Kendzior and Pearce -- and in a manner that I have to say is frankly disgusting -- by essentially trashing the "constricted" Soviet-era dissidents and "fractious" opposition today and indicating there is some shinier new Internety bunch who are "beyond politics" and now have "social media" instead of parties. Ugh:
When I first heard about Azerbaijan's "donkey bloggers," I couldn't help think of an opposition politician I had met on a reporting trip in the town of Lankoran, close to the border with Iran. The head of the local Musavat Party, Yadigar Sadigov, a genial and intellectual man, seemed to be the personification of the marginalized opposition in the former Soviet Union. His office was small, dark, with a few academic tomes, and posters curling up on the wall. He seemed resigned to the fate of being in a state of perpetual and nominal opposition. You didn't get the impression that this was an organization that was going to take down the Aliyev regime.
The donkey bloggers, on the other hand, were young, web-savvy, and English-speaking. The poster boys of Internet activism, Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli were jailed for 2 1/2 years for making a video mocking the government, which involved a man dressed up as a donkey. They were representative of a new generation, unburdened by the fractious politics of the traditional opposition or of the constrictive paradigms of Soviet-era dissidents. What tied their generation together were not political parties or ideology but rather social networks and the Internet.
Sigh. I shouldn't have to spend too much time explaining why Soviet-era dissidents were in "constrictive paradigms" -- but it might have to do with facing 7 years of labor camp and 5 years of exile merely for writing critical samizdat. I suppose it's fashionable to think of anti-communist Soviet dissidents as hopelessly mired in Cold War categories, but Sakharov's "Thoughts on Progress" and Solzhenitsyn's "Letter to Leaders" still make very interesting and relevant reading -- and there's the added creepy part where Putin embraced some of "Leaders" and visited Solzhenitsyn.
The age-old debates about whether capitalism or communism is better, or whether they even work, didn't go away, as unfashionable as the progs find it in the US -- it's still the essential argument of the Internet, collectivism and "sharing" and copyleftism and memes, or the individual and freedom of expression and privacy.
So to suggest that the opposition figures in places like Azerbaijan are marginal, doomed, out of touch, fractious -- gosh, that wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that they are too often persecuted and sent to jail, would it!
But even without that repression -- let's take the years in Belarus in the 1990s and 2000s when the fractious opposition struggled to survive there, with some political arrests but nowhere near as many as there are now -- who among the Europeans or Americans can really cast the first stone in calling these people "fractious" because they argued whether you should be resistant or pragmatic about Russia; whether you should follow European culture of tolerance and pluralism or Eurasian culture of orthodoxy and conformism; whether you should have social democracy or democratic socialism or Christian democracy; and so on.
These are all real issues about which people are really fractious, in Brussels as well as Washington. My God, we only have two political parties -- European countries routinely have 3 or 6 or more major parties. Why can't there be fractiousness? And understandably the intellectuals -- the liberal intelligentsia -- will be in tiny minorities. Even in Russia, these parties can't get registered because of arbitrary hurdles. How much more so in Central Asia and the Caucasus?
So the entire stance towards the phenomena of oppositions in these countries is misguided and morally wrong, refusing to respect people's sacrifices, the situation they are really in, and failing to place the blame where it belongs -- on the regime (and its replication of the miniature regime inside of many people's heads).
The Internet, in fact, offers a way to overcome some of the marginalization and to explicate views more freely and widely and overcome some of the ideological gulfs. The fact that 50,000 people in Moscow from four very different ideological tracks could cooperate enough to protest the basics about election fraud is significant. And there are smaller-scale protests in the countries of Central Asia that signify the same thing.
But not according to the Kendzior-Pearce authoritarianism thesis -- "In short, diffusion of digital material doesn't always have democratic consequences," says Allnutt.
Yeah, we get that. See Egypt, see the Muslim Brotherhood. But does anyone really think that the Internet still didn't have an effect in amplifying the liberal dissdent options, and that these are foreclosed forever now?
You would never, ever guess from Allnutt's blog post about this paper (he never mentions it) that the donkey bloggers were freed from jail by campaigns that in fact were largely conducted on the Internet and led to a European Court decision. Writes Allnutt:
The key finding of the paper is that in the years surrounding the imprisonment of the donkey bloggers "the government has successfully dissuaded frequent Internet users from supporting protest and average Internet users from using social media for political purposes." While many politically engaged Azerbaijanis still held a strong affinity for the donkey bloggers' cause, their support for activism during this period waned.
Perhaps they reported a period accurately, but I'm not going to take their word for it, seeing how they behave online in suppressing any alternative to their own notions (Kendzior tweeted that she was considering going to the police (!) about my blog criticism (!) because it constituted "stalking". Could we start documenting the networked authoritarianism that starts at home, ladies?)
More to the point, I reject -- as I suspect others will -- any notion that this paradigm then holds -- that the "smart" thing to do for the cool kids in Azerbaijan, especially as the EuroVision attention will fall on them, is not to blog about repression because it will drive people away. If they want to be the shiny, happy, people that Luke seems to prefer to those wacky fractious party members and holey-sweatered intellectuals in dingy offices, then they should just do social media for the sake of social media, and just talk about superficial stuff and the social media phenom itself -- that way you stay out of trouble, kids!
As Luke puts it in a header, the regime has sent the message: SCREW WITH US AND YOU'LL WIND UP IN JAIL, and so he puts together the relevant lessons from the disturbingly sinister landscape Kendzior and Pearce portray:
The government managed to create a compelling counternarrative -- a narrative they knew young, well-educated, ambitious, politically engaged Azerbaijanis would listen to: screw with us and you'll wind up in jail. Donkey blogger Emin Milli is quoted in the paper as saying: "This is the way they function. They punish some people and let everyone else watch. To say, 'This is what can happen to you.'" They seek to effect cognitive change and "exploit the preexisting political culture of the population, which we argue is characterized by cynicism, apathy, and an aversion to risk." The authorities could only do all this by keeping the Internet open.
Good thing many people continue to disregard this sort of warning -- starting with the very donkey bloggers themselves who defied the "cognitive change" -- and their supporters! That Soviet-style governments have for a century been making object lessons of people in key sectors of society to control others by example isn't news and isn't an insight -- what's more interesting is that people have been resisting this anyway for decades and especially in recent years. Cognitive change? I don't think so.
Oh, but this is an academic paper that delivers the facts -- at least, the facts in a context free of the stream of current events. Allnutt quotes from the paper:
The government strategy against digital media use for political purposes worked, and the number of people agreeing that protest showed the government people were in charge plummeted between 2009 and 2010 from 53% to 27%. Similarly, only 38% of daily Internet users disagreed with protests, and this rose to 70% in one year. In other words, although there was little change among Internet users in general, support for protests fell dramatically among those who used the Internet the most.
The arrest of the bloggers was thus targeted at an elite group: frequent Internet users who would hear of the arrests online and become afraid to use the Internet for activism.
So did that stick? And another question occurs to me: how was this sample of people put together, and did the regime have anything to do with funnelling the "right" sort of subject toward the researchers? We all know the "happiness" poll in Turkmenistan is worthless precisely because of that phenomenon of regime-controlled study. So we're absolutely sure that there was no such government interference in this study, are we? Not even the problem of the "networked authoritarianism" that starts with friends and friends of friends of the researchers?
The authors have an explanation for why even increased numbers of people on social media still doesn't challenge regimes as it might:
In addition the government, increasingly wary after the role social media played in the Arab Spring, targeted high-profile social-media activists. State media went into overdrive to warn of the dangers of social networking: psychological damage, ruined families, criminality, etc. That campaign has not been successful as, for example, the number of Facebook users is continuing to grow in Azerbaijan. More people on Facebook, however, doesn't necessarily mean more political people on Facebook. "Although their negative opinion of the government may not have changed, they are now less likely to make their discontent known," Pearce and Kendzior write.
Just describing the scene? Or taking a certain tacit satisfaction in the fact that the narrative of small bands of dissidents starting revolutions or spawning larger protest movements will be overthrown with this paradigm -- everyone will have to go slow, incremental, and cautious or they will fail.
Isn't that how the regime likes it? And that's why repeatedly, I question why this thesis is being pushed so hard, through Registan and Twitter and blogs, and now through a special day-long conference featuring these authors with precisely this perspective and no others.
The study is a good reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Internet activism and that "scholars should consider the political cultures of authoritarian systems before assuming the Internet offers an effective means to contest them."
But actually, the Internet *does* offer an effective means to contest authoritarian systems. Always and everywhere. That's why authoritarian regimes try to stop them, duh. And people then fight back. They may lose for awhile, but then they resume. Good Lord, why should we consider the political cultures of authoritarian systems?! They are false and concocted and sometimes collapse in a historical moment.
The mistrust and cynicism about people stepping up to dissent against the powers-that-be is something Kendzior and Pearce come back to again and again, but being "scholarly" they don't ever challenge it. Yet with a thesis that says we "must" have some nuanced approach to using the Internet to challenge authoritarians in basic ways, essentially they cede ground to the regimes. The situation is not as bad as they claim, and we can say that without being wild utopianists; it's also troubling to cater to the notion of authoritarian systems as some kind of successful project. It never is for long. We must prepare for that day. We don't prepare for it by claiming that we can work toward "activism without activists," to cite another creepy notion of Kendzior's.
Allnutt tries to combine a techie sounding realizing about the Internet's architecture while embracing the "nuanced" view of this paper:
Internet control often works at the layers of infrastructure and code, for example with filtering systems. What's interesting in Azerbaijan is how the government is operating at the level of ideas. The authorities exploit "problems of cynicism, insecurity, and trust particular to post-Soviet political culture." In a self-censoring and fearful society, instead of simply trying to filter or legislate out dissent, the authorities instead tried to compete by offering a counternarrative.
"Post-Soviet political culture" shouldn't be taken as a given or a monolith or a permanent obstacle. Yes, Soviet sovokism is metasticizing everywhere, yet the realization of its kudzu-like growth is also increasing and there are more attempts to uproot it (and primarily on the Internet). As I've commented before on these theses, people in fact surprise you in these countries in how much they overcome their fears and help each other.
To be sure, there has arisen a kind of New Class of people who are those technological sophisticates that so impress Allnutt with their shinyness who are nasty about the potential of dissent and protest, who sneer about the generations of dissenters gone by, who always suspect the worst possible motives in anyone who stands up for justice. Registan commenters are a good example of such figures -- trashing dissidents and opposition, cynically blasting Western radio stations, i.e. claiming that any emigre journalists who criticizes the terrorist suspect Muhtorov are working for their "masters" in the US anti-terrorism campaign.
People like that aren't to be merely documented as phenomenon, much less coddled on forums like Registan; they should be actively debated and resisted. That there aren't more people available to do this from the safety of the Western Internet that faces none of the risks in Central Asia is the real surprise.