Last week I presented during the “lightning round” of Google’s Internet at Liberty conference. This meant that I had to turn an extensive study Katy Pearce and I did of internet freedom in Azerbaijan into a five-minute spiel. The full version of that paper is here, a shorter version for Caucasus Edition is here, and if you want the really short version, here is the text of my Google talk:
Most scholars assume that greater access to the Internet encourages support for dissent. We found that in authoritarian states, the opposite can be true. Azerbaijan is a small petrostate that was once part of the Soviet Union. Since 1993, it has been ruled by a father and son dictatorship. Media has long been censored in Azerbaijan, but the internet has posed a new challenge to the stability of the regime. The internet is both unpredictable and a prime venue of unsanctioned content. It threatens what post-Soviet authoritarian states value most: power through consistency, and consistency through power.
While most post-Soviet authoritarian states have responded to the internet by censoring it, Azerbaijan has gone in a different direction. They seek to control the internet not through censorship, but through openness: what Rebecca MacKinnon calls “networked authoritarianism”. States that practice networked authoritarianism do not block online dissent outright. They compete with it, in this case making an example out of online dissenters in order to affirm the futility of activism to a disillusioned public.
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 attention as well as outrage among the frequent social media users with whom the bloggers interacted online. From the arrest of the bloggers in 2009 to their release in 2010, the case was a popular cause among Azerbaijani activists. In other contexts such cases have managed to galvanize the opposition, but in this case the opposite happened.
In the aftermath of the case support for political protest decreased significantly among frequent Azerbaijani internet users –the very people who were most supportive of the bloggers and outraged by their arrest. Frequent internet users were the only group to experience this drop in support during this time, and no other demographic variable accounts for the shift.
Why did this happen? It happened because leaving the internet open made it easy for the government to publicize the horrifying repercussions of even mild, humorous forms of dissent. Had the state censored the bloggers, they would not have been able to instill this fear. Only by making the Internet open could they reach the frequent Internet users who had come to be seen as a threat. As Milli remarked, ‘‘This is the way they function. . .They punish some people and let everyone else watch. To say, ‘This is what can happen to you.’ ’’
The case of the Azerbaijani bloggers challenges assumptions that an ‘‘open Internet’’ and ‘‘transparency’’ automatically increase support for activism. In 2009, before the arrests of the bloggers, one Azerbaijani activist compared going on Facebook to being in the movie The Matrix, where the fog of apolitical ‘‘real life’’ was lifted and political problems were confronted. Azerbaijan’s online campaign against social media activists and use of violence against them reminded Azerbaijani Internet users that there is no barrier between the virtual world and real life: both are dominated by the regime. Networked authoritarianism is particularly effective on a population that views the Internet as a refuge from their political reality, instead of as a means to transform it.
In authoritarian states, the online circulation of government atrocities often serves to confirm people’s worst suspicions. Fear and cynicism are as common reactions to these quasi-revelations as are outrage and a desire to fight for change. Our research argues that we need to consider the political cultures of authoritarian states before assuming that the Internet will automatically inspire people to contest them.