Earlier this week, Small Wars Journal published an article by Matthew Stein, a research analyst currently working at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, discussing the role of videos recorded and posted by citizen bystanders in the information battle to control the narrative over the police’s violent crackdown on protesters in Zhanaozen last December. Stein’s article provides a fairly straightforward summary of the different videos showing the police firing on protesters and how the ways in which the government has built a narrative for the incident. On the significance of the appearance of these videos, Stein writes,
Finally, the significance of these videos is that the people of Zhanaozen were able to get information on the incident out into social media despite the government’s control over access. People using social media to publicize incidents that might not otherwise be noticed is not a new trend, as can be seen from worldwide events in 2011. However, this is the most noteworthy example from Kazakhstan, much less Central Asia, of this happening. Due to the effect that the first video (Zhana Ozen 3) had, it will not be the last time that people in Kazakhstan document an incident on video and make it available for a wide audience.
Dissemination of documentary evidence without state filtering is a fairly recent phenomenon in Central Asia, though some, including myself, would argue that Kazakhstan is late to this, at least in regard to high profile events, especially compared to Kyrgyzstan, where there are several earlier examples, including 2010’s overthrow of President Bakiev and especially the ethnic violence in Osh. More importantly though, the significance of information going unfiltered into social media and out to a wide audience is overstated. As internet use increases in Central Asia, it should come as no surprise that some of these people use the internet to distribute content like the Zhanaozen videos.
In his final paragraph, Stein points to the emergence of a struggle between state and society to control the narratives around controversial events. There is a story to be told about how these authoritarian states respond to erosion of their information dominance, but in many ways, it is singularly uninteresting. Almost every state tries to shape narratives, and in Central Asia, the state controls the story by keeping political groups, social and religious groups, and the media on a short leash. Central Asian governments have stepped up some restrictions and monitoring of social media. Security services are adept enough at disrupting off-line political activity planned online, and governments are finding ways to convince people to avoid the internet.
Like my colleagues here at Registan, I have found expectations of a Central Asian spring in the near term or the assumption that the Arab Spring would have a measurable impact on Central Asia to be based on fundamental misunderstandings of the region. Political culture matters. A lot. Government plays a critical role in nurturing fear, distrust, and political apathy, but their success is aided enormously by their political opponents and the societies they govern perpetuating this culture themselves. And research on Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan suggests that at least in the near term, the internet has exacerbated these problems.
Of course, all of these things — the relationships between state and society, the discussions within society, and political and cultural attitudes — are dynamic. Timelines extend well beyond the near term. The documentation and discussion in social media of events like Zhanaozen or ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan is important because it preserves events. Stein is looking in the wrong place for meaning. The real significance of this documentation and presentation is in how and whether it changes society’s modes and norms for discussing sensitive political, social, and cultural topics and how those changes subsequently change political culture. The state’s reaction is just a continuation of a long-running dynamic.
I do not find the future as bleak as we sometimes make it sound when we focus on the near term. It is, of course, incorrect to characterize any popular uprising as entirely reliant on the internet. Twitter, facebook, etc. can only catalyze offline factors. Trends like the popular revival of Islam, failures of economies to meet rising expectations, the growth of ethno-linguistic nationalism, and demographic shifts all suggest heightened chances for political instability in the medium- to long-term. It is difficult to look at how the internet is being used in Central Asia at present and not see it playing an organizing and catalyzing role in the future should these trends keep drifting Central Asia toward instability. However, it is absolutely impossible at present to predict how or when the internet will play an appreciably important role. The only thing that is certain is that more clarity on these questions comes from focusing on discussions and practices within society than from monitoring the state-society dynamic.