Last month Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center of Internet and Society, gave a lecture on how his “cute cats” theory of the internet applies to the Arab Spring. For those of you unfamiliar with the theory, Cory Doctorow sums it up in an rapturous review of the talk in the Guardian:
Zuckerman’s argument is this: while YouTube, Twitter, Facebook (and other popular social services) aren’t good at protecting dissidents, they are nevertheless the best place for this sort of activity to start, for several reasons.
First, because when YouTube is taken off your nation’s internet, everyone notices, not just dissidents. So if a state shuts down a site dedicated to exposing official brutality, only the people who care about that sort of thing already are likely to notice.
But when YouTube goes dark, all the people who want to look at cute cats discover that their favourite site is gone, and they start to ask their neighbours why, and they come to learn that there exists video evidence of official brutality so heinous and awful that the government has shut out all of YouTube in case the people see it.
Doctorow goes on to claim that the everyday use of social media technology leads to a sort of inadvertent activism. Accustomed to sharing apolitical content online, citizens use the same technology to post evidence of state atrocities:
The first thing that comes to mind after you capture a mobile phone video of the police murdering a family member isn’t “Let’s see, I wonder if there’s a purpose-built activist tool that I can use for distributing this clip?” Rather, the first thing that comes to mind is, “I’d better post this on Facebook/YouTube/Twitter so that everyone can see it.”
In Zuckerman’s view, the rote relay of controversial content enables revolution, as it provides a way for citizens to air their grievances (before the state censors them) and inflames their curiosity and rage (after). Zuckerman is careful to refrain from labeling the internet as some sort of miracle medium, instead inscribing its power to its very banality: it is a social platform, but one that turns political as revelations of state crimes enter the social sphere. He claims that this is what happened during the Arab Spring.
Zuckerman’s theory is a refreshing alternative to the common caricature of internet users in authoritarian states as revolutionaries in waiting. But it suffers from a fallacy that plagues much of internet scholarship: studies of the effectiveness of the internet in fomenting revolution are usually limited to where the internet was effective, because those successes, by definition, are the ones we know. 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.
Why has online activism in Central Asia failed to inspire the kind of public support we see in the Arab world? That is a big question, one that would benefit from the sort of long-term ethnographic examination that is sorely lacking in study of the internet, as fellow Berkman researcher Jonathan Zittrain has noted. 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.
This is not to say that the internet is not important. In many states, it is the only medium through which state brutality can be exposed. But the reception to online media varies as to the political culture of the people involved. The following cases speak to greater problems of trust, fear and apathy in post-Soviet political culture – problems that the internet does not solve, but often exacerbates.
The “donkey bloggers” of Azerbaijan. In 2009, activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were arrested after posting a satirical video of government corruption and wastefulness on YouTube. The case attracted international outcry as well as intense attention among the frequent social media users with whom Milli and Hajizada socialized online. Yet in the aftermath of the case – both activists were released in November 2010 – support for political protest decreased among frequent internet users, as a forthcoming article I co-wrote with Katy Pearce for the Journal of Communication makes clear. Why did this happen? At the time of the case, Azerbaijan, unlike many other former Soviet states, had an open internet, all the better with which to publicize the horrifying repercussions of using the internet for political purposes. The online publicity surrounding Milli and Hajizada’s plight did not inspire citizens to rise up, but to rethink the risks of participating in online activism.
The Osh events. The June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan was documented online from the moment it occurred: witnesses posted updates on Twitter and Facebook; observers uploaded their photos and videos to LiveJournal and YouTube; and Kyrgyz websites were awash in commentary – much of it speculative, accusatory, and inflammatory. As I noted in 2010, online coverage of the events constituted “a catalogue of sins, searchable and accessible, impervious to the human desire to move on”. The circulation of state and citizen atrocities through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter heightened a sense of futility surrounding the government’s capacity to intervene, and the population’s ability – and desire – to forgive.
Zhanaozen. “Kazakh Spring” is the “fetch” of Central Asia: try as you might, it’s just not going to happen. This is not to say the bloodshed in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan isn’t horrifying or important: it absolutely is. But there is no indication that the intense online discussion of the events, and circulation of videos showing police brutality, is going to lead to Arab Spring-style unrest. Instead, Zhanaozen reveals the extent that Kazakhstan’s authorities will go to make those who document the state its next target. It also highlights the diversity and contentiousness of online media among both Kazakhstani and Western audiences. Much as Zuckerman predicted, the videos from Zhanaozen have been widely circulated through social media, but their reception is far from uniform. As in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, news reports are viewed with skepticism, the motives of those both involved in the issue and reporting it are relentlessly scrutinized, and the risks to those who engage in political pursuits (even pursuits as banal as posting a video online) are all too clear.
Effective use of social media in authoritarian states is not only a matter of circumventing government censorship, but of securing and sustaining citizen trust. Both Zuckerman and Doctorow have spoken at length about the need to create tools that are safe and effective for activists, and their efforts are admirable. But the development of tools through which corruption and brutality can be exposed leads to an uncomfortable question: and then what?