Central Asia: An Exception to the “Cute Cats” Theory of Internet Revolution

by Sarah Kendzior on 1/8/2012 · 41 comments

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?

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This post was written by...

– author of 21 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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Edilbay January 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Sarah, interesting obesrvation. While I myself tend to side with sceptics of twitter-triggered revolutions, I think you fail to appreciate how in the case of Zhanaozen – the video of police brutality had tremendous impact on the domestic and international audience. While it didnot directly lead to Arab-style revolt, the technology that enabled a group of independent witnesses to document state terror and then mass spread the information – was a real game changer. Please do not be fooled by the ‘far from uniform reception’ – we all know of the groups (a few dozen users at most, not armies, really) of internet avatars being paid to generate the required reaction.
“Cute cats” theory is still applicable to the region.
It doesnt get falsified by the failure of each and every “donkey” video to cause another Tunisia.

Sarah Kendzior January 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Thank you for the feedback, Edil. I agree that Zhanaozen is a game-changer, but I see it as analogous to the 2005 Andijon events in Uzbekistan. The shootings confirmed people’s worst suspicions about the lengths to which the government would go to suppress dissent, but it did not inspire many people to embrace activism, either online or on the ground. In both cases, people have reacted with anger, fear and incredulity – but that does not necessarily lead to revolt.

Joshua Kucera January 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm

This is really interesting. But I wonder, too, what would happen if we looked at the long term. Zhanaozen hasn’t led to a Kazakh Spring yet, but the reaction to it (abetted by the internet) has probably chipped away at the government’s legitimacy.

Also, it seems like we should look at it in more than a binary way: does this cause a revolution, or doesn’t it? Perhaps this will make the government more responsive to citizen complaints than it was before (it seems like that may already have happened). While that’s not a revolution, it’s still bringing about some sort of democratic change.

Still, I don’t want to nitpick, this is thought-provoking stuff.

Sarah Kendzior January 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Thanks Joshua. I agree that we should not look at online media in a binary way – it’s a process, not an end game. However, that process involves complex emotions that are not always acknowledged in hopeful prognoses of internet-fueled revolution. I wrote back in 2010 that there is great value in online media in Central Asia despite the fact that it doesn’t necessarily lead to revolution or attract public attention, and I still believe that:


Edilbay January 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Excellent point made in/on April 2010.
Thank you, Sarah!

CMB January 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm

This all sounds about right. Just some small related points on the technical side: The Kazakh government didn’t need to take down youtube. Instead, they were able to target the exact videos they didn’t want seen (I could see all the cats I wanted, but not angry oil workers). I’m not an expert on this, but it seems that “Take down youtube now” is the lazy sledgehammer while making sure individual videos are not available is much more labour intensive. Of course, a proxy fixed this…

Nate January 9, 2012 at 9:55 am

Really interesting post, Sarah, and very useful to place Zhanaozen in the context of similar events in recent years in Central Asia.
I absolutely agree that political culture matters – I would go further to say that after being initially unprepared, the government has executed a fairly deft communications strategy relying on their grasp of two different political cultures: the international community’s, and the domestic audience’s.

Internationally, the government has managed the narrative effectively without making meaningful concessions: announcing they intend to invite international experts, but not formally inviting them; announcing there may be criminal investigations of police for shootings, but verbally acquitting the police in preliminary statements; making a show of firing officials, but replacing them with trusted inner circle figures.

All of these show a sophisticated understanding of Kazakhstan’s limited place in international awareness. So long as the government can keep the narrative from becoming wholly condemnatory (as happened with Andijon), what little attention there is will drift away. It’s all about alleviating the token pressure Western governments are obliged to exert by certain domestic constituencies, as none of those governments actually want to confront Kazakhstan. Even with the election coming up, it appears the government has navigated this period successfully.

Meanwhile what matters domestically most of all is maintaining physical control of Mangystau and the information there. This both helps the government control the dispersal of unpleasant facts (that there has only been one truly incriminating video is important), and demonstrates the futility of opposition – a very relevant message for those who might be disturbed by what they’ve seen and heard but are reluctant to take sides if they think there might be negative consequences. The extremely hostile online environment, perhaps aided by paid commenters and bloggers, reinforces that message of intimidation: being openly threatened for discussing Zhanaozen in anything other than official terms is a good way of letting people know the Internet is not a consequence-free space. Domestically the government’s message remains, “We are in control, and don’t you doubt it.”

As I said a couple weeks ago here, I think Zhanaozen matters a great deal because it reveals the depth of social alienation around the country, and sharpens domestic awareness of those conflicts. But until the state’s ability to monopolize access to information diminishes, I don’t see it contributing to any directed social movement, just to more localized conflict.

Sarah Kendzior January 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

You’ve written a really thoughtful and succinct summary of the international and domestic reaction to Zhanaozen; I hope others read it. I disagree slightly on the nature of the online environment. While there are certainly government plants working to shape the debate, as Edil pointed out, there are also Kazakhs who 1) sincerely support the government’s characterization of Zhanaozen or 2) are confused and frustrated and don’t know what to make of it all or 3) don’t trust opposition sources on principle (much like others don’t trust state sources on principle). This is not a two-sided story; it’s a prism of narration and interpretation.

Nate January 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I agree — certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression I consider the online debate solely about the government plants intimidating folks, or about oppositionists spreading unverified information, which there has also been a lot of. Real discussion is taking place, or if you like, an iterative process of interpretation and narration by people sincerely interested in what took place but distrustful of official sources on both sides. My main point is that that process is being shaped overwhelmingly by the government’s disproportionate advantage in resources and willingness to take drastic action.

Ani January 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Nate’s written a great comment on Kazakhstan’s narrative control, so I’ll focus on Azerbaijan and the donkey blogger case. I believe that the truly shocking thing to the Azeri online community was that Emin and Adnan weren’t seen as political activists, so no one expected that the punishment for filming a mildly satrical video would be even close to the jail sentences they received. When met with such a disproportionate response, most wise people decided that a principled retreat was in order. But the effects of the donkey blogger case are not all chilling: it has definitely put a dent in the Azerbaijan government’s international narrative. Whereas before, the government’s jailing of journalists and political activists put it within the spectrum of the usual human rights violations encountered in the less-than-free governments of the world, the spectacularity of this particular case has led to a challenging for supremacy of the usual PR narrative Azerbaijan puts out. The recent critical articles published in Der Spiegel (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,806769,00.html) and Le Figaro (http://madame.lefigaro.fr/societe/bakou-avoir-20-ans-pays-de-lor-noir-261211-204144) would not have been written and published before the Donkey Blogger incident. Now Azerbaijan is known not only for its oil, carpets, and music, but also as a place that imprisons and silences young comedians as well as other critical voices.

When and whether there will be a resurgence of online activism depends to a great deal on what happens in Azerbaijan’s neighborhood. A loosening of restrictions in Russia, which Azerbaijan still views as a model in its dealings with civil activists, may put greater pressure on the Azeri government to allow more criticism and demonstrations. The March 4 presidential election in Russia occurs merely one week before the planned March 11 political protest in Azerbaijan. And don’t discount the effect any further liberalization of critical media and protests in Armenia might have in Azerbaijan. Neither country wants to be judged greatly worse than the other, and right now Azerbaijan is falling back on that front. And of course, there’s Eurovision—who knows what effect that will have?

Sarah Kendzior January 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for your feedback, Ani — I’m glad you replied. You make an important point in noting that Emin and Adnan weren’t seen as political activists until they were arrested. This morning I gave an interview to someone who asked me how Azeri activists could protect themselves, and I said essentially the same thing: it’s difficult for activists to take precautions when they only become “activists” after the state tells them they are. When Katy and I conducted our study, we found that there was a real drop in support for protest – and that many Azeri bloggers had viewed the internet as a sort of reprieve from their political reality, only to discover that it is just as dangerous. I agree that the donkey blogger case brought international attention to the issue of free speech in Azerbaijan, but I’m not sure much good has come of that, other than of course Emin and Adnan getting released.

One thing I’d like to make clear is that the situations in Azerbaijan, and in other places I wrote about, can change, and the grimness of the current situation does not therefore mean activists should cease their work. (This is counter to Catherine Fitzpatrick’s asinine attacks on Katy’s and my article, which she leveled, in typical fashion, before the study has even been published. I continue to wonder why the otherwise excellent Eurasianet employs someone with such poor analytical skills.) But I don’t think that the exposure of state crimes through the internet will necessarily be the catalyst for mobilization, as Zuckerman implies in his talk. As you note, there are numerous factors that could contribute to change.

Jillian C. York January 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Good piece, and as you well know, I’m still in the early stages of learning about this particular region, so quite helpful.

Therefore, my only critique is toward your interpretation of the Cute Cat Theory. You write:

“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.”

I don’t see it as necessarily being that the exposure of wrongdoings inspires people to make things right. If that were the case, we would have seen far more activism around the 2005 arrest of Kareem Amer in Egypt or the 2000 arrest of Zouhair Yahyaoui in Tunisia. But we didn’t – instead, what we saw was that when governments blocked access to sites used by a critical mass of people in their everyday lives (such as YouTube or Facebook), those people would care enough to fight.

Therefore, it would take the longish-term blocking of one such site, one that has critical mass in a given country, to test the theory and that’s something I haven’t seen happen (though I admit I could be wrong) in that region.

Sarah Kendzior January 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Fair enough — there are more aspects to this theory than that which I (or Cory Doctorow) highlighted. And you are correct in noting that there has not been long-term blocking of a site that has achieved “critical mass” in Central Asia — in part because internet use rates are low enough that I’m not sure any website meets this criteria. (That said, internet use is growing exponentially in the region.) The most recent example that I can think of, the closure of the long-running Uzbek discussion forum Arbuz.com, met with outrage among Uzbeks in the diaspora, but I don’t know how Uzbeks in Uzbekistan reacted — in part, one might guess, because complaining about its closure is itself a risk.

Onnik Krikorian January 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Mention is made of Ethan Zuckerman saying that when YouTube etc. is taken down people notice. However, this didn’t happen in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, while many did back away from activism others didn’t, realizing they had now to choose between that and crossing the line, which they did and while others who hadn’t been activists prior to Adnan and Emin’s arrest become ones.

Now, it’s true, they are not a majority of the population, but that’s another issue especially in countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan where there is no majority support for the opposition. Instead, apathy seems to be more prevalent. However, that’s a different matter. Basically, if Ethan’s argument is about when sites such as YouTube get blocked and in the case of Azerbaijan this didn’t happen then this specific country isn’t relevant anyway.

All that said, however, there is a strong case for criticizing the obsession with new and social media tools as responsible for popular uprisings the world over, especially when I’ve pointed out in my own posts how less social media activism didn’t stop the opposition in Armenia from gathering significantly more people on the streets through traditional methods compared to Azerbaijan’s own social media coordinated actions last Spring.

In that sense, I agree with the idea that online tools do not a revolution make, and we never hear too much about these failures, but I’m not sure Ethan was saying anything differently. Indeed, in my own discussions with Ethan I’ve listened intently to his thoughts on ‘imaginary cosmopolitanism’ which pretty much boils down to assuming those we network with online or representative of the masses when in fact they’re often reflections of ourselves.

This, however, is a different matter so back to Ethan’s idea of YouTube being blocked. When 1 March 2008 happened in Armenia YouTube was blocked for a few days and people did want to see the video allegedly of police firing live rounds at opposition protesters. And it did grab the attention of people inside Armenia and abroad — YouTube being blocked, that is.

Interestingly, the block didn’t last long, and the government didn’t make the mistake of taking down LiveJournal. That would have created a stir in Armenia more than the restrictions placed on an online media that few trust or access anyway. In that sense, there’s some legitimacy in Ethan’s arguments although I think it would be wrong to suggest it would cause an uprising. However, I’m not convinced that Ethan believes that either.

Onnik Krikorian January 9, 2012 at 7:24 pm

I tend to agree with Jillian’s comment too, although might add that when YouTube was blocked in Turkey would be an interesting case study. Did it have a significant effect or not? I don’t know, but would be interested to hear more.

Regardless, in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan we never saw the Cute Cat Theory put to the test, although I’ll also admit I’m not sure blocking major online sites in countries with low Internet penetration and irregular use would create a revolution anyway.

Katy Pearce January 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I think that we are simplifying Cute Cat Theory here a bit.

I don’t think that Cute Cat Theory has to literally mean YouTube being taken down. It is more generally that people get used to doing the things that they want to do on the Internet (pr0n, Odnoklassniki, games, whatever) and if the government blocks Internet services, those people that were enjoying their normal lives having fun on the Internet get upset.

I also make an argument here (http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/view/800/536) about ‘upskilling’ – that people’s experience with using YouTube, search engines, social networking sites or whatever allow them the skills to later search for political information. I think that this is within the framework of Cute Cat Theory.

Basically, frequent Internet users, as a group, remained stable between 2009 and 2010 in Azerbaijan. By stable I mean that there was very little growth and their demographic traits (gender, age, urbanness, education, wealth, etc.) remained the same between ’09 and ’10.

Yet there was a marked NEGATIVE change in attitude toward activism in Azerbaijan – BUT ONLY amongst those that use the Internet frequently. Every other group of people in Azerbaijan had no change in attitude. And in Armenia and Georgia there was no change as well.

Anyway, when the paper comes out (hopefully in the coming weeks), Sarah and I can discuss more.

Jillian C. York January 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm

It is more generally that people get used to doing the things that they want to do on the Internet (pr0n, Odnoklassniki, games, whatever) and if the government blocks Internet services, those people that were enjoying their normal lives having fun on the Internet get upset.

Agreed. But I still think that’s different than Sarah’s summary.

Katy Pearce January 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm

PS, Jillian, we’re proud to be in the same JoC issue with you, Will, Zeynep, etc. 🙂

Jillian C. York January 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Moi aussi! It might be the first journal I ever read cover-to-cover!

Ethan Zuckerman January 9, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. It’s very helpful to get your read on the power and limitations of social media in the Caucuses and Central Asian context.

I should clarify one point – when I started writing about the Cute Cat theory in 2007-8, I was trying to explain one of the consequences of censorship, not offering a general theory of internet and social change. The final third of the first public talk I gave on the idea (http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/03/08/the-cute-cat-theory-talk-at-etech/) focused on the ways in which China had found ways to provide social media platforms while continuing pervasive censorship – in other words, I’m very open to the idea that this theory doesn’t work everywhere.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about recent events in Central Asia to comment on your analysis in detail, but I’ll offer two quick thoughts. Since the Cute Cat theory was proposed to deal with censorship, it’s not entirely surprising that matters played out a bit differently with the donkey videos. Had the state moved to shut down the videos, or block platforms hosting the videos, instead of arresting and beating the creators, we might have seen a broader public movement. Violence against social media creators is certainly one way states can try to silence dissident voices.

As for the situation in Osh – Zeynep Tufekci has observed that the power of social media is that it lets people share their opinions with a wider audience. (I’d add that you only reach a really wide audience when online media is amplified by offline media.) In cases where there’s widespread anger aimed at a single target – Tunisia, Egypt and now, perhaps, Nigeria – that amplification effect may be able to bring people into a movement. When there’s deep, widespread disagreement – Bahrain, Syria – what may come into sharper relief is conflict and tension… and governments are often able to leverage that tension into a case for increased control.

Thanks for reacting to the piece, and I’ll try in the future to make clearer what I see as the limits and applicability of these ideas.

-Ethan Zuckerman

Sarah Kendzior January 10, 2012 at 8:20 am

Thank you for your response, Ethan, and for the clarification on your theory. It is great to hear from you. Regarding Azerbaijan, you raise an interesting point. Since spring 2011, the Azerbaijani government has led a campaign to demonize not only online activism, but social media use in general. I think that it’s more likely that sites like Facebook will be blocked in the future, so perhaps your theory will be put to the test. However, I still think there are social and political factors that make public protest there less likely even in the case of widespread censorship.

Regarding Osh – yes, the anger was not directed at a single target, but I’m not sure anger is ever that uniform. In the Central Asia examples I gave – and in others I didn’t mention, like the Andijon events of 2005 – anger emerged online and on the ground along with confusion, frustration, resignation, fear etc. I suspect this was also the case in the Arab uprisings, so I guess my question remains: why has online activism in Central Asia failed to inspire the kind of public support we see in the Arab world?

Again, thanks for reading and responding — I appreciate it!

Katy Pearce January 9, 2012 at 10:56 pm

I’d like to add that in Azerbaijan there is a demonizing of social media that is going on… a discouragement of use (which happens through a variety of ways) that of course differs from censorship and in my eyes may be a more effective way to control the citizens’ use of technology.

Chris Rickleton January 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Cheers for this enlightening piece.

I agree with your points about Zhanaozen and Nate’s point that the government’s overwhelming resource advantage is a sufficient deterrent to many would-be-revolutionaries, online or non-online. I also think Kazakhstan’s sheer size plays a role. Kazakhstan is not like Kyrgyzstan, where whole villages in the regions can empty out and converge on the capital in the space of a few hours, so any Kazakh spring would have to have incredible internal momentum.

Even if Nazarbayev didn’t enjoy popular support, therefore, I don’t see any alternative to him dying in office. But I do think that the next generation of Kazakh political society (which many assume, in contrast to Turkmenistan, will be at least slightly more pluralistic) will have to be less reactive, and more proactive when it comes to their relations with social media and the internet.

I have argued that this is already happening in Kyrgyzstan (http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/12/29/kyrgyzstan-ravshan-jeenbekov-and-the-facebook-generation/) albeit to a limited extent.

In Kazakhstan, where facebook/twitter/general internet penetration is higher and extends further out into the regions, a trend whereby emerging politicians use social media proactively to cultivate followings and communicate with the people arguably has more potential, providing the post-Nazarbayev shake up sees an increase in political pluralism and a more politicized Kazakh society.

I am definitely in agreement that social media in Central Asia remains an important level of analysis, especially in the non-binary sense Joshua suggested, and look forward to more posts of these sorts of posts on the topic.

srg January 10, 2012 at 5:33 am

You misunderstood Cory Doctorow’s argument and this is a classic case of two ships passing in the night and not seeing each other. Your arguments are about the effectiveness of online activism. Cory’s argument was about one online venue being more effective than the other. So regardless of how successful e-activism is in the long run Cory’s argument was that one form is better than the other. He stated walled garden apps are only known too activists while open platforms are accessed by everyone and when they are shut down it calls attention to the activists, i.e. a larger audience is reached and even when shut down the act of shutting them down exposes a larger audience to the relationship between activists and the state. His argument was always between walled platforms (like hidden tor blogs) vs open platforms like youtube, and saying one is better over the other even though it exposes activists to more risk. Your argument even if 100% true has nothing to do with his because it addresses e-activism in general and does not compare the effectiveness of these two different types of e-activism and his article in fact never needed to be mentioned at all. Refuting his argument would be saying that a walled platform is better than an open platform.

While I like the info in this article, and the scholarly (instead of polemically) written article on caucusesedition is outstanding (so I’ll be looking for your article in the J. of Communication) where I have a problem with this is that you’ve disproved an example used to illustrate a theory not the theory itself. Just because you don’t like the window dressing doesn’t mean you fault the whole house, the window dressing can be changed if the foundation is still good.

Clearly activists have to use different tactics and methods in central asia because its not the same as the arab spring but it seems like the cute cats theory could be a usable tool for, in your words, “securing and sustaining citizen trust” and the fact that it didn’t in this case is because of the message and its deployment not the theory.

Sarah Kendzior January 10, 2012 at 9:18 am

I wasn’t responding to Cory’s argument – I thought Cory did a great job of summarizing important elements of Ethan’s argument, so I included his summary in the text. But thank you for your comments.

srg January 10, 2012 at 5:42 am

Basically the sense I get from your caucasus edition article is almost like competing political campaigns (except with one side being exceptionally violent and the only one with the means to violence) so the problem isn’t the theory per se but that the activist campaign did not effectively compete with the government campaign.

So clearly there is a need for a rethink on strategy and perhaps a strategic rethink within this theory would be effective or perhaps you would get true counter example if they chose an offline strategy and that was more successful.

Onnik Krikorian January 10, 2012 at 6:59 am

Katy, while I agree there is a demonizing of the use of the Internet I’m not entirely sure it’s as simple as that. For example, not only is Facebook use continuing to grow at reasonable levels, but the pro-government camp is also getting its youth online too. The activity by the IRELI Public Union is very noticeable indeed.

Yet, at the same time, despite the ‘revelation’ that Azeri opposition and independent activists had ‘Armenians’ on their Facebook pages (one of the ways the government tried to discredit its use), I didn’t see any of those named delete those contacts. Moreover, from my own experience, I’m also making more contacts in Azerbaijan and often the communication is open.

Now, that’s not to say that social media will result in major upheavals in Azerbaijan (or Armenia) and I still stand by the fact that the Cute Cat Theory was not put into practice there, but rather we seem to assume that activism plus social media means mobilizing the masses. As we know that’s not the case because the opposition has failed to provide an alternative and is sometimes loathed by many as much as the government.

Meanwhile, regular Internet use is quite low according to CRRC data, and most people didn’t want to get involved in any activism prior to Adnan and Emin being arrested (or 1 March in Armenia) let alone after. Some did, but most didn’t, and I also accept that some who were involved did shy away. Nevertheless, I do remember the day at an office in Yerevan when students came in and were agitated to find YouTube blocked.

They didn’t support Levon (in fact some voted for Serzh), and they never spoke about politics usually, but the blocking of YouTube affected them. Not sure it would make them join the opposition, of course, but they would feel peeved with the government. The block was gone not long after so we’ll never know, but the indication were that it had an affect.

Interestingly, rather than block LiveJournal, however, pro-government supporters continued to be active during that state of emergency period and the president had a LJ page set up for him at the time. I do remember, however, thinking that had LiveJournal been blocked so many more people would have been affected than by the blocks put on RFE/RL etc. So, in this sense, I agree with Ethan although don’t think it would lead to activism.

For some, maybe. For the majority, no. They would likely just shrug their shoulders and curse the government until such a time when a viable alternative emerged. But it’s true. Take down A1 Plus, RFE/RL etc. and only online opposition activists would really care. Take down LiveJournal, YouTube etc. and you’d affect a lot more people. Well, among a small number of Internet users anyway.

Onnik Krikorian January 10, 2012 at 7:11 am

I also think that it’s interesting that Azerbaijani activists continue to use social media and are increasing their activity in this area. That the masses aren’t signing up, perhaps, is more to do with a lack of interest than being scared off. I also think this is the same in Armenia where non-politicized actions for online users are significantly more successful than politicized ones, albeit still a tiny minority.

I also think approach matters. If people bombard me with pro-opposition and anti-government material from Armenia and Azerbaijan it doesn’t take long before I get tired because most of the time they don’t take the time to offer an alternative. They assume the government is so bad that everyone will follow, but forget to spend the same amount of energy in convincing people that another way is possible.

I also think that both offline and online activism in the Caucasus is vital, especially as I do agree that we’re talking about small ‘elites’ when it comes to blogs and Facebook (sometimes using only English, for example). That’s for Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course. I can’t speak about Central Asia.

Katy Pearce January 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm


“Since the Cute Cat theory was proposed to deal with censorship, it’s not entirely surprising that matters played out a bit differently with the donkey videos”

Onnik Krikorian January 10, 2012 at 8:57 am

Just to clarify, though. When it comes to the possible role online activism can play in the Caucasus (and as Azerbaijan is there and it’s mentioned it’s relevant to this post on Central Asia), I do agree with the points made in this interview with Sarah just tweeted by Katy:

Azeri government increases its control over the Internet

However, I don’t believe that the Cute Cat Theory comes into play here, and I also don’t think the arrest of Adnan and Emin is the main reason for low online political activity in Azerbaijan. Just as in Armenia, many people have also become tired of it all. Nothing is ever so black and white.

Even the fact that while political activism might be low online, attempts to demonize Facebook in general (and not referring to political activity) has not prevented a continued increase in the number of users. The issue of political activism in the Caucasus is much more complex.

Even in Armenia where no online activists have been arrested, online political activity is not more noticeable than in Azerbaijan. Indeed, it is much less, but that has more to do with available methods to use and so on. Anyway, take away the cute cats and I agree with the interview.

Joshua Foust January 10, 2012 at 9:07 am

In all seriousness, sentences like this:

“Since the Cute Cat theory was proposed to deal with censorship, it’s
not entirely surprising that matters played out a bit differently with
the donkey videos”

Are why I joined the Internet. Now carry on with an otherwise serious conversation.

Jillian C. York January 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm


Ethan Zuckerman January 13, 2012 at 2:17 pm

I should make it clear that I chose my career solely so I could write sentences like that with a straight face.

Sarah Kendzior January 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm


Katy Pearce January 10, 2012 at 9:08 am

FWIW, we only briefly mention the Cute Cat Theory in the JoC piece. It is really about the effect of a government’s reaction to/behavior in an event on a group of people (frequent internet users) versus another group of people (non-users) with regard to a topic which is related to said event.

Onnik Krikorian January 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Katy, I think my main issue with this post is reference to that Cute Cat Theory and specifically it’s relation to Azerbaijan (and by extension to Armenia and Georgia).

Therefore, take that out of the equation and I’m looking forward to the JoC piece. For sure, the fixation with social media revolutions from the media (usually by non-tech journalists) is tiring me.

I’ve always said, as Sarah says in her interview, the Internet is just a tool,. It depends on who uses it, where, how, and when (and probably in combination with other methods).

At the same time, however, most recently mentioned by Ethan, there’s an element of ‘novelty,’ and this also influences how governments treat social media.


But this is where Ethan shines. While he definitely has a dream for the Internet, he’s also well aware of its limitations and how it is not living up to those initial hopes.

But this has nothing to do with the Cute Cat Theory although when it does and when it is seen not to work, Ethan will be one of the first to say so.

Not that I believe ‘theories’ should be applicable here. We can merely observe case by case.

Oldschool Boy January 12, 2012 at 1:15 am

If somebody expected “Kazakh Spring” in the wake of the Zhanaozen event, he is completely ignorant of the situation there. First of all, although Kazakhstan in general is far from ideal, the socioeconomic situation in Zhanaozen is an outlier. Here is a post on it:http://yvision.kz/post/214963.
Second, beside the video with police firing on the rioters, there are videos and reports documenting rioters brutality towards unarmed police, government workers and businesses.
Third, the government managed to portray the situation as attempts of some renegades to destabilize Kazakhstan. And since for most citizens stability of the state is more important that lives of few rioters in far and isolated Zhanaozen, the general society will rather justify the police actions.
The “Arab Spring” actually worked against anything like that in Kazakhstan and other former USSR republics. Because, while for most Western people it looked like a triumph of “freedom” in the Middle East, in Central Asia people’s perception it was destruction of states, anarchy, social disorder, deaths and looting as the result of intervention of oil thirsty Western countries.

Sarah Kendzior January 12, 2012 at 8:22 am

Thank you for your comments — I think these are important points, especially the last two paragraphs.

Alima Bissenova January 12, 2012 at 9:24 am

I agree with old school boy…and only want to add that stability is a fundamental VALUE not only for the regime in Kazakhstan but for the people as well…

So, anybody, who is attempting to destroy this value is seen as a renegade…

I think it is quite understandable…After all the Americans and the British continue to peacefully live even with the emergence of all kinds of footage incriminating their soldiers abroad or their policemen (UC Davis)…Why it is assumed that once the Kazakh or others see some footage they should all rise???

Dr RedBook January 16, 2012 at 12:07 am

Good point…
In fact I’m glad to see that some deceive themselves with this hard-to-believe stuff of things, like Kazakh SprinG…

Jeremy Druker January 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Thanks to everyone for this fascinating discussion, which prompted me to look a bit further into some of these issues and blog about the likelihood of online activism in Uzbekistan over at our TOL editor’s blog here: http://eastofcenter.tol.org/2012/01/the-prospects-of-facebook-activism-in-uzbekistan/. Just a few quick points, some of which were already raised in one way or another, in the above comments:

–Sarah’s first post was obviously thought-provoking, but I think the title was somewhat misleading. As some people have noted, it’s hard to say Central Asia is an exception to the “cute cats” theory, or least the part about many people growing irate when popular sharing sites are shut down because a) none of these sites really yet have the enormous popularity that they have elsewhere; and b) they haven’t been uniformly blocked yet. Sarah has already acknowledged this, and rightly points to the shutdown of the Arbuz.com site as potentially one example, but then dismisses because its popularity was mainly out of the country. That’s also what I was told.

–The fear factor remains extremely powerful in Uzbekistan. I was told of one example of a young woman getting completely spooked by vaguely critical comments left on her Facebook wall and then deleting all of them and more. I’m sure that’s pretty typical. I also heard but couldn’t find confirmation that Facebook has been banned at universities during class, in the wake of some incriminating videos that were posted on YouTube in the fall.

–I haven’t seen much press yet on the Uzbek government’s launch of its own social network, Muloqot.uz, which was launched in the fall with support from the state telecoms company. It’s apparently getting increasingly popular though one can be sure that the secret services are monitoring the service closely.

Taken together, the Uzbek government seems to be succeeding in using these tactics — real and rumored banning of Facebook or at least some pages on Facebook; launching its own social network; and shutting down a forum that was threatening but not too popular in the country — to limit online dissent. For a government that I’ve heard takes sometimes months to track down new proxy servers and ban them, that was surprising.

I wonder if officials are also thinking about a corollary to Ethan’s theory. If you get a lot of unwanted attention by shutting down a popular service, shouldn’t you simply flip the switch when traffic is still not that high?

Anyway, for more on these points, please see the post and I welcome comments here or there.

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