A fascinating discussion over at the Central Asian blog, Registan.net, has been taking place this past week about the possibility of Internet-fueled revolution in Central Asia. The debate coincides with recent reports about increasing numbers of Internet users in Uzbekistan, and the surging use of Facebook.
In light of those developments, I thought I’d survey a few Uzbeks that I know to ask if they felt that those numbers would translate into more online activism and any additional pressure on the authorities to loosen their domineering grip on society. The uniform answer was “no” and the prime reason: “fear”.
Everyone agreed about the upsurge in Facebook use and how it had become standard for most young people to have their own profiles, as IWPR pointed out already last September:
Most of my friends started surfing the net this year, the main reason being social networking sites, which are becoming very popular in this country,” a university student in the capital Tashkent, who did not want to be named, said. “Almost all young people who have mobile phones are internet users here. It’s now normal for young people to have a Facebook profile, which they use to try to express themselves.
Still, those that I spoke to doubted that Facebook would be used anytime soon for Arab-spring-like political activism. People are still just too afraid. One person I spoke to gave me an example. Let’s call her Tania. So Tania was posting comments in a discussion on her friend’s Facebook wall about the arts week organized by the president’s daughter last year. Tania was questioning the use of public money for the event, but was not rabidly critical of the presidential family. Nevertheless, her friend got spooked and deleted all of Tania’s comments and any others that might be deemed critical.
Tania felt that almost no one would dare to post overtly political comments on their profiles.
So far, the Uzbek authorities have not become antsy enough to opt for a wholesale shutdown, though, according to IWPR, the authorities did get pretty nervous in the wake of the Arab spring and “pages where Uzbek users were posting and commenting on news from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya became unavailable.”
They also apparently got nervous when some young people took to YouTube last year to post videos from school. As RFE/RL reported back in October, there have been at least a few cases of something possibly resembling Internet activism among students. I say “possibly” because it’s impossible to know the motivations of those who placed two videos up on YouTube, one showing the daughter of a local prosecutor screaming at and beating her teacher, and the other depicting a bunch of young men waving money at their instructor. Were they posted to show the special treatment that politically connected kids get in school and to highlight corruption inside universities? In any case, one Uzbek that I spoke to claimed that the government had reacted by firing the two teachers, expelling the girl, and passing a measure restricting the use of Facebook in classrooms.
I couldn’t find independent verification of any of that and inquiries among some other Uzbeks failed to turn up much beyond a news story from last August that talks about the creation of a new committee to monitor the media. But simply the rumor of a Facebook ban might be sufficient to make others think twice about posting anything potentially inflammatory. And if Facebook carries the “taint” of something dangerous, users might be more likely to use something like Muloqot.uz, which was launched in the fall with support from the state telecoms company – intended for Uzbeks within the country, and in all likelihood closely monitored by the secret services.
If Muloqot.uz managed to offer serious competition to Facebook, that could negative the potential consequences of a theory highlighted in the Registan debate: Ethan Zuckerman’s “cute cats” hypothesis. Ethan, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center of Internet and Society and an old friend of TOL’s, has made the very valid point that the masses generally don’t care or even know about if some single site monitoring human rights is shut down, but they become irate if their government blocks entire services – say YouTube or Facebook – that they regularly use to post pictures of their cats or to do some other non-political activity. They also tend to become more knowledgeable about abuses because they start to wonder why the authorities decided to turn off their favorite site in the first place.
To avoid that scenario, the authorities could simply decide not to wait for the user numbers to get big enough for people to really care if Facebook or YouTube connections come up empty. In December, for example, the arbuz.com web forum shut down, a place where people had posted critical comments, including attacks on the government for not doing more to protect ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan during the recent conflicts there. But the site was used mainly by the Diaspora and the move didn’t elicit a major response from within the country.
Given the fear factor, it’s hard to imagine all this new online activity making a difference without many other developments occurring “offline” at the same time. What would happen, however, if usage continues to rise exponentially, the authorities don’t turn off the lights, and at least a small fraction of those new users started to post critical comments on Facebook or at least to access the pages of people living abroad that might not be as scared as their peers to post something controversial?
In other words, .1 percent of 106,000 users (the current number) might present no threat, but what about .1 percent of 1 million?
Screenshot above is from Muloqot.uz.