When I first heard about Azerbaijan's "donkey bloggers," I couldn't help think of an opposition politician I had met on a reporting trip in the town of Lankoran, close to the border with Iran. The head of the local Musavat Party, Yadigar Sadigov, a genial and intellectual man, seemed to be the personification of the marginalized opposition in the former Soviet Union. His office was small, dark, with a few academic tomes, and posters curling up on the wall. He seemed resigned to the fate of being in a state of perpetual and nominal opposition. You didn't get the impression that this was an organization that was going to take down the Aliyev regime.
The donkey bloggers, on the other hand, were young, web-savvy, and English-speaking. The poster boys of Internet activism, Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli were jailed for 2 1/2 years for making a video mocking the government, which involved a man dressed up as a donkey. They were representative of a new generation, unburdened by the fractious politics of the traditional opposition or of the constrictive paradigms of Soviet-era dissidents. What tied their generation together were not political parties or ideology but rather social networks and the Internet.
The events of the Arab Spring have demonstrated the tremendous power of digital technologies in helping citizens mobilize, chiefly by organizing and documenting the crimes of their states. A fascinating new paper
in the "Journal of Communication," written by Katy E. Pearce from the University of Washington and Sarah Kendzior from Washington University in St. Louis, argues that in the case of Azerbaijan the opposite is true, in that "greater documentation and publicizing of suppressed dissent can derail political protest." In short, diffusion of digital material doesn't always have democratic consequences.
The key finding of the paper is that in the years surrounding the imprisonment of the donkey bloggers "the government has successfully dissuaded frequent Internet users from supporting protest and average Internet users from using social media for political purposes." While many politically engaged Azerbaijanis still held a strong affinity for the donkey bloggers' cause, their support for activism during this period waned.
The authors argue that the Azerbaijani government's response is a case of networked authoritarianism, "a form of Internet control common in former Soviet states where manipulation over digitally mediated social networks is used more than outright censorship."
'Screw With Us And You'll Wind Up In Jail'
The paper studied social media and online activism from January 2009 to August 2011 and also public-opinion data from 2009 to 2010. In that period, the authors found that "between the two years, frequent Internet users became significantly less supportive of protests against the government, indicating that the government's campaign against online activism was successful."
For some Azerbaijanis, the Internet has become a way of bypassing state media, with its sanitized and sycophantic coverage of the Aliyev regime. In 2010, about one-third of all Azerbaijanis had access to the Internet, the majority of them urban, wealthier, and better educated.
From the arrest of the donkey bloggers in 2009 to their release in 2010, the case was a cause celebre among young Azerbaijani activists -- and indeed for human rights activists abroad. In other contexts such cases have managed to unite and galvanize opposition, but in this case the opposite seemed to be true.
The government managed to create a compelling counternarrative -- a narrative they knew young, well-educated, ambitious, politically engaged Azerbaijanis would listen to: screw with us and you'll wind up in jail. Donkey blogger Emin Milli is quoted in the paper as saying: "This is the way they function. They punish some people and let everyone else watch. To say, 'This is what can happen to you.'" They seek to effect cognitive change and "exploit the preexisting political culture of the population, which we argue is characterized by cynicism, apathy, and an aversion to risk." The authorities could only do all this by keeping the Internet open.
What is most revealing about the survey data is that between 2009 and 2010, overall there wasn't much change in attitudes to protest. But when narrowing the focus to "Azerbaijan's small group of daily Internet users," a different story emerged:
The government strategy against digital media use for political purposes worked, and the number of people agreeing that protest showed the government people were in charge plummeted between 2009 and 2010 from 53% to 27%. Similarly, only 38% of daily Internet users disagreed with protests, and this rose to 70% in one year. In other words, although there was little change among Internet users in general, support for protests fell dramatically among those who used the Internet the most.
The arrest of the bloggers was thus targeted at an elite group: frequent Internet users who would hear of the arrests online and become afraid to use the Internet for activism.
So while increased Internet use and more people joining Facebook might mean a greater number of people find out about the "donkey bloggers," there is a flip side: more and more Azerbaijanis, who might be open to challenging the regime, will be aware of the government's ruthless response.
In addition the government, increasingly wary after the role social media played in the Arab Spring, targeted high-profile social-media activists. State media went into overdrive to warn of the dangers of social networking: psychological damage, ruined families, criminality, etc. That campaign has not been successful as, for example, the number of Facebook users is continuing to grow in Azerbaijan. More people on Facebook, however, doesn't necessarily mean more political people on Facebook. "Although their negative opinion of the government may not have changed, they are now less likely to make their discontent known," Pearce and Kendzior write.
As the authors point out, countries in the former Soviet Union are often neglected in analyses of the Internet. "These countries have a unique approach to Internet regulation that represents a 'middle path' between open access and censorship."
Internet control often works at the layers of infrastructure and code, for example with filtering systems. What's interesting in Azerbaijan is how the government is operating at the level of ideas. The authorities exploit "problems of cynicism, insecurity, and trust particular to post-Soviet political culture." In a self-censoring and fearful society, instead of simply trying to filter or legislate out dissent, the authorities instead tried to compete by offering a counternarrative.
The study is a good reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Internet activism and that "scholars should consider the political cultures of authoritarian systems before assuming the Internet offers an effective means to contest them."