Social Media Users Collectively Speak Up: Evidence From Central Asian Kyrgyz Republic

Social Media Users Collectively Speak Up: Evidence From Central Asian Kyrgyz Republic

Bahtiyar Kurambayev (Independent Researcher, Kyrgyzstan)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2495-3.ch002
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Abstract

An analysis of online community activities in the former Soviet Union Kyrgyz Republic shows that social media can facilitate an effective organization and expression of ideas in a constrained media system. Specifically, online users were able to collectively and successfully speak their minds when the country's lawmakers planned costly projects, ultimately causing these plans to be dropped. Also social media users facilitated spreading information about the abuses of power and government incompetence in the 2010 and in 2005 revolutions, causing presidents flee the country in both cases. These findings suggest that the internet can facilitate a broad and effective civic and political engagement. The implications of these findings in this media restricted context are discussed in relation to collective action theory.
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Introduction

The purpose of this chapter is to examine the wider implications of the internet and other new communication technologies in the former Soviet Union Kyrgyz Republic (sometimes known as Kyrgyzstan). Specifically, this chapter addresses how online communities utilize these technologies in pursuit of their collective goals, including revealing and opposing government incompetence and/or abuses of power (Calingaert, 2010). Overall, a great deal of research already exists about the power that online communities wield by using social media tools and the internet particularly in non-democratic countries. Studies have been published, for example, about uprisings after 2009 elections in Iran (Wojcieszak & Smith, 2014), massive political protests in Egypt (Tufekci & Wilson, 2012), the online justice movement in Guatemala (Harlow, 2012), protest mobilization in Tunisia (Breuer, Landman & Farguhar, 2014), awareness of electoral fraud in parliamentary elections in Russia (Reuter & Szaknyi, 2015) and similar examples in many other locations. A plethora of research suggests that people use the internet to engage civically and politically (Nash, 2013, Margaretts, 2013; Boulianne, 2009; L. Hoffman, Jones, & Young, 2013). This chapter extends and supports prior research by analyzing how online communities have used social media and the internet to generate public engagement and political action in the context of the semi-authoritarian republic of Kyrgyzstan.

The significance of the internet can be noted by the fact that some repressive and authoritarian state leaders who had been in power for many years or even decades were removed by force with the help of new communication technologies. People in countries headed by these repressive leaders were able to bypass official restrictions and still organize opposition (Cottle, 2011). Paris-based Reporters without Borders, a non-governmental organization dedicated to freedom of expression and information around the world, lists some of the above mentioned countries in its “Enemy of the Internet” list. This list identifies countries for their “disruption of freedom of information with propaganda, surveillance and censorship.” Cottle noted that the striking factor about the massive waves of uprisings and mass protests held during the “Arab Spring” was the use of the internet to get their messages rendered, especially on social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs.

Yet, some argue that the internet can play a negative role for democratization. Morozov, for example, maintains that the internet makes it easier for dictators to control information and restrict it by sophisticated filtering and monitoring software. It also makes it easier for dictators to gather information about dissents. According to Morozov, “the present excitement about the internet and its potential role in opening up closed society is wrong because such interpretation is based on ‘selective and, at times, incorrect readings of history’” (Morozov, 2012, p. xi). Furthermore, repressive governments can use both legal and technological tools to maintain control over communications and conversations on the internet and via mobile phones (Bowe, Freedman, & Blom, 2012; Calingaert, 2010). To support his argument, Morozov (2012) discussed the case of Iranian protests against presidential election result in 2009 when the “Iranian police began hunting the internet for photos and videos that showed faces of the protestors- numerous, thanks to the ubiquity of social media” (p.11). Morozov noted that police then sought public help in identifying those faces by publishing via state news outlets including television. He noted that the Iranian police were able to arrest several dozen people. He also said that “compromising the security of just one digital activist can mean compromising the security-names, faces, and email addresses- of everyone that individual knows” (p. 21).

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