Sarah Kendzior has another disturbing piece posted -- this time on Al Jazeera -- which reiterates and enlarges her past work that drives us to the conclusion that social media sites with light or non-political commentary are to be preferred and even privileged as a means of social change over sites with hard-core human rights and opposition reporting.
In the past, human rights groups served as the primary liaison between local activists and the international community. In the era of social media and Google Translate, this is no longer the case.
The socializers are especially preferable to "loud proud political refugees" as she dubs the exiles hated by the regime of dictator Islam Karimov -- so much that he is widely believed even to send his secret police to make assassination attempts on them.
As this will be a long polemic, I'll start with the conclusions in case that's all you have time for.
What is the cumulative and net affect of all of Kendzior's argumentation?
o the individual human rights activist doesn't matter anymore; he is replaced by amorphous anonymous masses online in mediating reality to fellow citizens and the world at large;
o real-life human rights groups don't matter and human rights methodology doesn't matter; they are replaced by scraps of comments and anecdotes that somebody -- anthropologists perhaps! -- have to put together to form a "broader picture";
o non-political sites that can sometimes get away with things under the radar are more important than political groups that directly challenge the regime as they may survive longer (except they don't);
o we should focus on trying to record, mirror and/or save such lighter social websites because as ephemera they may be lost (like some Egyptian sites) (no matter that groups inside the country or outside the country are making painstaking human rights and social reports that they submit to international bodies);
o we should privilege a theory of connectivism/Internet collectivism for knowledge and social change that moves incrementally and rhizomatically rather than confrontationally and openly as it may be more successful
o ordinary people who express their opinion anonymously are ultimately more important than intellectuals who confront the regime
If you think this sounds extreme and is a tendentious reading of Kendzior, see her own conclusions:
What do you do about a site like Arbuz - a privately owned forum which was shut down not by the government, but by the owner, out of concern for the people who used it? When analysing the potential of the internet for political change, we should try to see the present from the perspective of the future.
Many Uzbek websites that contain content censored by the state remain - but others are gone due to censorship, fear, or neglect. With each erasure, the narrative becomes more selective - which is, of course, the way life worked until the internet.
Kendzior gives us the essence of her "little guy" theory of history that faintly echoes Eleanor Roosevelt's famous line about human rights taking place in "small places"
The closure of Arbuz shows how digital activism manifests itself not only through petitions and campaigns, but through the casual conversation of an apolitical crowd. Human rights activism often rewards unambiguous cases of suppressed dissent: the persecuted journalist; the censored site; the loud, proud lobby of the political refugee.
But that is not the only way dissent spreads online. It exists in the web's quiet corners, stoked by citizens who might never overtly align themselves with activist causes - and whose ambiguous plight offers little recourse.
That's completely false. Human rights activism in fact does NOTHING OF THE KIND. The patient, painstaking daily work of people like Elena Urlaeva is precisely made up not of the "loud, proud lobby" but of ordinary people -- cab drivers, people with gas bills, farmers, disabled and elderly. Story after story is about people you've never heard of, not doing anything especially brave to stick out, but doing something they may have thought was not going to get noticed, and then got them caught by the state wheel of repression, like these women. Masses of stories in the reports of local human rights groups and organizations like Human Rights Watch are about what happens to ordinary people affected by the absence of the rule of law.
As for this "loud proud lobby of the political refugee" (sigh) -- that's disgusting, frankly. For one, what's wrong with being a loud refugee abroad? My God, we're living in a time when an imam who actually lived fairly quietly in Sweden had an attempt made on his life because he had opposed Karimov for years. Why can't political refugees be loud and proud? They have an important job to do: oppose a bloody oppressive regime. For two, in fact, most of the ones I've encountered in my years of work on Uzbekistan are pretty modest and quiet and unsung.
And I'm not at all convinced the Arbuz.uz does the things she claims -- raises important social and political topics in non-confrontational under-the-radar ways packaged in among the math tricks and funny stories. I frankly would like to see some links to the material rather than take her impressionistic say-so about it.
I've challenged Kendzior's theses before in this regard here (on her answer to Ethan Zuckerman's "cute cats theory" of Internet protest growth), here (on her joint paper with Katy Pearce on what derails political protest on the Internet), here (on her response to Twitter's decision to censor by country), here (on Registan's coverage of the harassment of two Uzbek students) and on Twitter -- but she's not someone who can handle criticism or dissent.
Nevertheless, these highly disturbing theses that work overtime to undermine local and international human rights activism do need to be challenged head-on -- and I'm actually not the only one who thinks that, as I've discovered. Others have grown increasingly concerned about these strange efforts to undermine human rights activism not only from Kendzior but Registan's antagonist Joshua Foust and others at the Central Asian discussion site.
Andijan and Arbuz.uz
In the Al-Jazeera piece, Kenzior gives us a clue as to what has shaped her understanding of social media and values. In 2005 she "watched a massacre reveal itself online" -- through Arbuz.uz, "a multi-topic discussion forum founded in the late 1990s" (whose name means "watermelon" in Russian) where she found a window on to the society:
Uzbeks who once used Arbuz to swap recipes or gossip about pop stars now were using it to share news reports and first-hand accounts of the incident. As international organisations struggled to document the Uzbek state's crimes, a largely anonymous internet forum took on the burden of witness.
Then the same thing happened with the pogroms in Osh leaving at least 400 dead.
As in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz officials attempted to control the flow of information - and once again, Uzbeks flocked to Arbuz to discuss what happened. Threads on the Osh violence received hundreds of responses. They also attracted the attention of state officials in Uzbekistan, who saw how the forum had become a repository for political content.
I checked the Wayback Machine for the (now-closed) arbuz.uz site, which isn't really a site where people trade recipes or talk about pop singers -- it's more like a nerdy page with optical illusions, math problems, jokes, curious stories, etc. -- sort of a Redditt but with the feel of Highlights magazine or Our Weekly Reader. It's in Russian, so I could read it easily -- but looking at the two dates for which there were snapshots in May 2005, I couldn't see anything at all about the massacre. That doesn't mean it's not there -- it just doesn't strike me as the most promising place to look. There was Radio Ozodlik and other emigre web sites, you know?
Even so, Kendzior mounts a theory based on her impressions at the time and since then, and then laments what happened to the source for her theory:
Uzbek activists now use the internet to promote their causes themselves - although it is a debatable improvement when apathy, not inaccessibility, is what deters the world from noting their plight.
In January 2011, Uzbek state security officials arrested several citizens who posted on Arbuz, accusing them of "extremism". The website was shut down, only to return a month later with political conversations removed.
For Kendzior, this benign, vegetarian site used to chat about cooking or music (well, really about computers and cars) seems *better than* international organizations because it was authentic, run by Uzbeks themselves and able to reach them -- when international organizations couldn't. It was also useful again during the Osh events -- but then it revealed its terrible vulnerability -- the authorities, who completely control the Internet, could shut it down.
The implication -- and Kendzior indeed makes that implication -- that such sites are "better" or "more authentic" even if vulnerable are themselves strange claims to make that both domestic and international human rights groups let alone multilateral agencies wouldn't make because chat on a social site, where names are not given, where facts may not be able to be checked, isn't the same thing as a methodical, fact-checked human rights report. It's valuable as a source, and as first-hand witness material, but it's hard to know in these settings who the regime tools are, who the hysterics are whipping up hatred, and who the conscientious citizen journalists are. A human rights group will have professional methodologies worked out over years of trying to cover such situations and will know what questions to ask.
Blogs Aren't Human Rights Reports--and It Doesn't End Well
Example: when two students used the informal blog of Registan to report that they'd been questioned by Uzbek intelligence and threatened with "17 years of prison" if they didn't agree to work for the SBU, they didn't supply the basics -- we never learn the name of the agents who interrogated them, or their ranks; we never learn what article of the criminal code had "17 years" as its punishment (treason with especially aggravating circumstances?); we never learn the names or agencies to which they reported their problems in the US. All of this information may be available, but it wasn't presented, and when some cranks in the comments began to second-guess the students, they didn't always answer every question.
How did the Arbuz story end?
Arbuz's moderator, an Uzbek living abroad, asked users to post only "for fun" and to avoid political discussion for their own good. In the end, the responsibility was too much for him to bear - in December 2011, he shut down Arbuz out of fear for users' safety. Now, the oldest and most popular Uzbek-language forum on the internet is no more.
Moral of the story? Maybe it's merely that people who want to just swap recipes and chat about pop stars (well, who really want to share tongue-twisters and fractals) should just keep to themselves, and human rights groups censored at home should go on relying on sites abroad that can more safely publish incendiary stories of human rights atrocities. No sense in getting tortured and dead prisoners in your carbonera while you're listening to Lady Gaga!
But that's not the moral Kendzior makes. Her moral basically boils down to this: Don't ruin the slow-food movement evolutionary approach to reform by using it for the fast-food movement of revolution.
While she would likely deny that she is placing a value judgement on the preferable approach, indeed she is making a profound challenge to the "traditional" individual activist or freely-associated public human rights group with what she says next:
The loss of Arbuz raises the question of what constitutes activism in the digital age. In the past, human rights groups served as the primary liaison between local activists and the international community. In the era of social media and Google Translate, this is no longer the case.
And that's where I step in and ask very pointedly: why is Sarah Kendzior once again adopting a position that dovetails with the Uzbek regime's denigration and even oppression of human rights activists and groups?
And it's definitely fine to ask this question about academic theories that seem to correlate with the regime's agenda -- something that Registan never permits, preferring to shrilly denounce the questioner as an impermissible "McCarthyite" or "neocon" or "Soviet" -- merely for demanding basic accountability when views *do indeed dovetail with the official perspective*.
Goofy Internet Theories
Why on earth did Sarah Kendzior *ever* get the idea that individual human rights defenders and groups are no longer primary liaisons just because social media created the felt need of academics to devise goofy Internet collectivist theories?
First of all, despite her strenuous efforts to undermine them, these individuals go right on proving to be the main liaison with the international community in hundreds of ways -- and on social media -- duh. They are the ones to put out emails and bulletins to the web sites that cover the news, often at great personal risk and often facing jail time or harassment in various ways. There isn't a single social media site within Uzbekistan, or any external twittering bar-campers holding the "radical" human rights movement at a distance (as we've seen in Russia and Kazakhstan) that are replacing that role of the brave human rights activists.
It's ridiculous to oppose the two roles in any event, as I've shown with the events around Abadan (when Annasoltan tried to mount a similar modern theory of special Turkmen social media uniqueness) -- all kinds of people get the news out, from old-fashioned dissidents who have been at this work for 30 years, to newer citizen journalists, to exiles, to political parties inside or outside of the country, to Russian journalists, to Western broadcasting. Sure, bloggers and tweeters get the news out faster than groups working more methodically to check human rights facts -- but in fact a lot of the bloggers and tweets ARE the human rights activists, especially the younger ones.
To posit a theory of the "obsolete" nature of traditional kinds of activists (themselves in fact dissidents to the classic actors of Sovietology or its newer iteration, International Relations, which are states or professionals) is to overlook that these people are all on social media, too!
What this is really about is a struggle for power -- for some reason, these old-line activists even in their newer format really irk Kendzior and the other Registanis because they are outside her control and post what they want -- and she seems to implicitly blame them for upsetting somebody's recipe website needlessly (ok, their website with limericks).
Indeed, there is a struggle for power between individuals and groups and the networked tribalized "thought leaders" of our age, and that's part of it.
If the Activists Aren't In Jail Yet, Well, Let's at Least Collectivize Them
But Kendzior's theory actually goes further to that explicit collectivization a la Clay Shirky that is everywhere present in web discussions these days (Beth Noveck was one of the first to write about this "new form of democracy" online which merely looked a lot like the old democratic centralism of the Soviets). Kendzior now develops a theory of "activism without activism" that decidedly departs from the role of the individual brave person of conscience as actor, usually with their real name, and inevitably vaunts the collectivized online persona -- anonymous, functioning within a group or a communified social setting, coordinating consciously or unconsciously with others.
Kendzior even believes that the very anonymity of the Arbuz commenter (never mind that Arbuz is no more and that anonymity didn't save it from its nervous moderator!) is to be preferred to the individual of conscience. Pay attention closely to the pastiche she offers:
But the commenters who posted on Arbuz represent a different kind of activist - one whose ambiguous status affords them ambiguous protection. Arbuz never set out to be a political forum: with the exception of Andijan and Osh, its most popular topics were pop culture, Uzbek national culture, food and sports.
As the same audience took to Arbuz to make sense of the massacres, the site became a safe house for forbidden political views - difficult for state officials to control or to avoid. The diverse opinions of the Arbuz audience were logged by Google, where they would pop up in searches about Andijan and Osh.
Never mind that the majority of Arbuz posters were not involved in politics and had no intention of becoming so: The cumulative build-up of casual comments drew attention to events that governments were determined to obscure. Arbuz achieved activist aims without activist intent.
So -- here we are with rhizomatic knowledge and "all knowledge is on the network" -- the main feature of these posters -- even the *desirable* feature of the New Man -- is that he or she be not involved in politics. That's how we like them! They must not be serious, but "casual". That's how we like them! And instead of confronting the regime head-on, like those nasty exiles who were forced to flee (and now do their confronting from the safety of Europe, as Registani commenters like "Will" sneer), or those even more "pathetic" activists still in Tashkent who explicitly protest bad things and get dragged off to jail, these casual anonymous web folk don't take the regime head on, and just let the automatic compilative function of Google achieve the gorgeous mosaic.
Gosh, I guess that's why Uzbekistan never seems to change, eh? With activism like this!
Who Interprets the Ambigious?
More to the point, with a lot of casual commenters with little investment in the process, unable to take accountability (for understandable reasons) for their words, what really happens? Uzbeks are human beings, and their chatting is no different than anyone else's on Yahoo or Youtube equivalents. I've read a lot of the Russian-language comments on social sites -- and yes, Uzbeks often do write in Russian (on fergananews.com for example) so that others can understand them. And it's rare that anonymous comments are filled with insights. People are extreme, they spout off, they are cynical, they make off-handed cracks. THAT is what we're privileging above an old-fashioned human rights report? Huh?
And who is available to see this accretion of the casual? Well, gurus like Kendzior of course, and that's why I will push it further and theorize that this entire concoction is basically a theory for the New Class, the international elite that hopes to shape the Wired State, or networked decision-makers using modern social media tools to make policy. When everybody is anonymous; when everybody is casual; when everybody is in a native language that doesn't translate into Google (or even Russian, that you have to dig out from among the fractal pictures and LOLcats); who is in charge? The anthropologists who can interpret them for the rest of us, of course.
Human rights activists were -- are! -- so different! They try to make themselves understood plainly, and to a universal audience, invoking international norms (and that's why the regime doesn't like them, and would much rather have the recipe-trading fractal-publishing chatterers that Kendzior fetishizes).
Where did Kendzior get the idea that activism can take place without activists?! This is a silly idea all on its own, given the role that someone like Wael Ghonim, the Google engineer who led the protests in Egypt first from abroad, does in fact play in upheavals.
"Journalism Without Journalists"
But its genesis comes from another silly theory Kendzior references -- "journalism without journalists" -- which is more collectivist hoo-ha from the likes of Jay Rosen -- the theorist of the new media at NYU who has never worked in a newsroom in his life. Jay sneers at "the view from nowhere" as he calls the framework of universality that journalists at mainstream outlets maintain in presenting multiple perspectives on events in one story. There is a school of new media "curators" who believe they can serve up the news and crowdsource and crowd-edit it with Storify or Scoop.it or Twitter or Facebook -- all interesting and useful tools in their way (which I use, too), but no substitute for news judgement.
Here, Kendzior, with revolutionary scope, picks out what she likes about the "journalism without journalists" theory -- "content, and not the credentials of those who create it, is what matters". Of course, this is pure balderdash, because there is no such thing as disembodied content unattached to real people -- and individuals with personalities and ambitions at that. Our new media is filled with enlarged personas like Robert Scoble or Anne-Marie Slaughter or Andy Carvin who "curate" the news and tweet their nouveau worldviews as very much a function of their personal brand. Content and not credentials? Really?
Kendzior -- like others embracing faddish collectivism on the web -- loves the idea of "content and not credentials" because, well, then she has a role instead of political scientists or government officials -- or a human rights activist or a human rights organization in interpreting the Uzbek regime.
I'm a big believer myself in not obsessing about credentials -- credentials like PhDs in anthropology, for example. The story of Uzbekistan, a closed society, is a complex one and it's ok to have a wide variety of actors cover it in a wide variety of ways, even with sharp contrasts and conflicts, because the regime is deliberately suppressing information.
Rebecca Rosen is said to argue that "media protection should be less about defining whether someone is a journalist than protecting those who practice journalism". Except, if someone really is practicing journalism, they are a journalist, and not an activist shoving a camera into a policeman's face and screaming that the whole world is watching because... the policeman is there to remove him from the Brooklyn Bridge where he is blocking traffic.
Kendzior makes "ordinary people" more precious than activists with this statement:
One could also argue that the digital era breeds activism without activists, in which the content of a forum populated by "ordinary" people can have as crucial an effect as that created by self-identified political advocates.
But one need not argue this at all, as ordinary people doing sometimes courageous things in between recipe-hunting and self-identified and organized political dissidents are BOTH important kinds of people, and there is no need to fetishize the one over the other. The people she claims are "activists" aren't, well, so active. They disappear into the ether of Internet anonymity and we don't even see them come to demonstrations -- like the Facebook and Live Journal bloggers and readers do in Moscow, at least.
The People and the Intelligentsia are Not One
That sort of privileging of "the ordinary people", of course, has very, very deep roots in regime rhetoric and the rhetoric of the elite that helps the regime suppress dissent as a function of its own privileges. It's an attitude that is as old as the debate about the rift between the intelligentsia and "the people" in Russia; it continued in the KGB-inspired attacks on Sakharov and his colleagues who broke with the regime in implying that they were pursing "selfish ends" by raising cases of political prisoners, even for some financial or political gain in the West, instead of engaging in their "pure science"; it finds reflection in the rantings of Lukashenka that the intellectuals should stop chattering in the cafes and go out and bring in the potato harvest; it is most recently seen in Putin's weepy victory speech, in which he contrasts the people voting for him and making a strong Russia with those who didn't, and intrigued against Russia to destroy it, with help from abroad.
The idea that people who take on brave roles of dissident or human rights conscience in society are troublesome or problematic or outdated, and "regular people" -- just plain recipe-trading folks -- are the new and better agents of history -- is ultimately a small-minded, provincial, agrarian philosophy that isn't modern.
Kendzior is aware of some of the problems spawned by overly-depending on recipe-traders, however, as she admits that when the site is shut down, people have nowhere to go, and "few noticed, in contrast to the widespread outcry that greeted the censure of more overly political Uzbek websites like Fergahana.ru.
Why Political Sites are Needed
But that's why overtly political sites like fergananews.com – she calls it by an outdated name “ferghana.ru” which it dropped a year ago – she must not read it much -- are such a good thing. They gain visibility precisely because they don't pull their punches and people with real names take responsibility for the content. They connect with the rest of the world precisely because they are trying to reach readers in Russian and English in the region and the world. And if more people notice it, it's because the entire Kyrgyz parliament ruled to block the site; in the case of Arbuz, the owner himself opted to bow out of the stressful job of keeping it open.
Undeterred by the differences in scale between a news site with real, hard news on it blocked by a parliament, and a chat site shut down by its owner, Kendzior reaches for her pet theory:
Yet it is in these haphazard, amorphous forums that some of the most revealing and relevant discussion of politics in authoritarian states takes place.
Oh? Could we get a translation or a link to one of them?
Of course, these trees fall in a forest where no one but Uzbek speakers -- and quick students of even Russian-language ephemera -- can hear them! Except anthropologists...
Kendzior would likely be happier if the split between "the people" and "the dissident intellectuals" would remain, but she concedes:
Many Uzbek activists had no idea they were engaging in political activity until the government accused them of doing so. Once persecuted as dissidents, they reluctantly embraced dissident movements as a means to defend themselves against the accusation.
Well, not really. That is, maybe a few did. But there has never been a large number of Uzbeks on a benign popular site which was closed down, such that the people fought for it to re-open and enlisted the hardened human rights activists in their struggle -- because, well, the owner himself opted to close it. An untested theory...
Kendzior urges us to see the recipe sites as "political" in some inchoate sense and therefore "valuable". And sure, we can scour them, like we can the Turkmen site that never amounted to much, for, say, photos of disasters or tidbits about gas shortages.
Not all Information is on Websites
She then mounts another unsupportable thesis: "In authoritarian Uzbekistan, websites are the only places where unsanctioned accounts of state affairs are recorded."
That's simply not true. The web is the least of the places inside Uzbekistan that people can file reports to, and therefore email with attached reports and pictures continues to play an outsized role, along with attendance at international conferences, or meetings with foreign embassy staff. WikiLeaks lets us know how that worked if years of experience in the Soviet and post-Soviet states haven't.
Kendzior so admires Arbuz that she claims it is a "searchable catalog of state crimes whose ultimate impact we cannot predict". That baffles me. It is no such thing. Can we get a second opinion?!
Searchable catalogues of state crimes are prepared by people like the Expert Working Group who produce voluminous reports on violations of the rule of law. They are prepared by people like Nadezhda Atayeva who has produced comprehensive reports of the Andijan massacre. They're prepared by Umida Niyazova who has compiled huge numbers of field reports of forced labor in the fields. Why don't any of these actual working defenders matter to Kendzior?! Why would she have to undermine and distract from their work in order to post a theory that sounds as convincing as finding history by piecing together the shredded pages of books thrown up in the air in Vernor Vinges' Rainbow's End?
Our age with its social media is great for theorists -- anthropologists especially -- about crowds and people and masses doing things rather than individual state actors or famous privileged persons (the way old history used to work).
Yeah, we get it that little things happen in little places. But it often takes very big people, or at least big-hearted and selfless people willing to risk their freedom and come to national or international attention, to get justice. It's ok to fight for justice that way. You don't have to post a manty recipe and photo. You can write that your own son was tortured and you saw his wounds.