St Louis, MO – Seven years ago, I watched a massacre reveal itself online. On May 13, 2005, hundreds of civilians were shot and killed in Andijan, Uzbekistan, after the Uzbek government ordered troops to fire on a mass protest. Within days, the government enacted a media blackout, expelling foreign journalists and rounding up witnesses. In Uzbekistan, many remained unaware that anything unusual had happened. But on the internet, details of the violence emerged.
One of the main websites Uzbeks used to post information about Andijan was Arbuz.com, a multi-topic discussion forum founded in the late 1990s. Uzbeks who once used Arbuz to swap recipes or gossip about pop stars now were using it to share news reports and first-hand accounts of the incident. As international organisations struggled to document the Uzbek state’s crimes, a largely anonymous internet forum took on the burden of witness.
Two years ago, I again watched an Uzbek massacre online – this time in Kyrgyzstan, where riots in the Uzbek-majority city of Osh left hundreds dead. As in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz officials attempted to control the flow of information – and once again, Uzbeks flocked to Arbuz to discuss what happened. Threads on the Osh violence received hundreds of responses. They also attracted the attention of state officials in Uzbekistan, who saw how the forum had become a repository for political content.
“Uzbek activists now use the internet to promote their causes themselves – although it is a debatable improvement when apathy, not inaccessibility, is what deters the world from noting their plight.”
In January 2011, Uzbek state security officials arrested several citizens who posted on Arbuz, accusing them of “extremism”. The website was shut down, only to return a month later with political conversations removed.
Arbuz’s moderator, an Uzbek living abroad, asked users to post only “for fun” and to avoid political discussion for their own good. In the end, the responsibility was too much for him to bear – in December 2011, he shut down Arbuz out of fear for users’ safety. Now, the oldest and most popular Uzbek-language forum on the internet is no more.
The loss of Arbuz raises the question of what constitutes activism in the digital age. In the past, human rights groups served as the primary liaison between local activists and the international community. In the era of social media and Google Translate, this is no longer the case.
Uzbek activists now use the internet to promote their causes themselves – although it is a debatable improvement when apathy, not inaccessibility, is what deters the world from noting their plight. Greater attention tends to go to the international human rights organisations, who campaign for specific policy goals: the renewal of EU sanctions, the release of political prisoners.
These groups operate in a predictable backchannel of condemnation and approval: petitioning an indifferent regime over its offences and applauding in the rare instance they do something right. Their advocacy efforts have done little to alleviate Uzbekistan’s 20 years of entrenched authoritarianism – nor should they realistically be expected to do so.
But the commenters who posted on Arbuz represent a different kind of activist – one whose ambiguous status affords them ambiguous protection. Arbuz never set out to be a political forum: with the exception of Andijan and Osh, its most popular topics were pop culture, Uzbek national culture, food and sports.
As the same audience took to Arbuz to make sense of the massacres, the site became a safe house for forbidden political views – difficult for state officials to control or to avoid. The diverse opinions of the Arbuz audience were logged by Google, where they would pop up in searches about Andijan and Osh.
Never mind that the majority of Arbuz posters were not involved in politics and had no intention of becoming so: The cumulative build-up of casual comments drew attention to events that governments were determined to obscure. Arbuz achieved activist aims without activist intent.
Many have said that we live in an era of journalism without journalists, in which content, and not the credentials of those who create it, is what matters. Rebecca Rosen of the Atlantic has argued that media protection should be less about defining whether someone is a journalist than protecting those who practice journalism – meaning those who share valuable information.
One could also argue that the digital era breeds activism without activists, in which the content of a forum populated by “ordinary” people can have as crucial an effect as that created by self-identified political advocates. Much like bloggers who are “only bloggers”, the inadvertent activists that frequent venues like Arbuz often have little recourse when things go wrong.
When Arbuz shut down, few noticed, in contrast to the widespread outcry that greeted the censure of more overtly political Uzbek websites like Ferghana.ru. Yet it is in these haphazard, amorphous forums that some of the most revealing and relevant discussion of politics in authoritarian states takes place.
An ‘alternate history’
“When analysing the potential of the internet for political change, we should try to see the present from the perspective of the future.”
Defining activism in Central Asia has always been tricky. Many Uzbek activists had no idea they were engaging in political activity until the government accused them of doing so. Once persecuted as dissidents, they reluctantly embraced dissident movements as a means to defend themselves against the accusation.
Treating neutral online venues as political sites is a sure way to get them labelled as such by regimes. But not seeing them as political – and therefore vulnerable – means that we risk losing valuable information. The loss of Arbuz mattered most to the Uzbeks who frequented it, but it is also a loss for history.
In authoritarian Uzbekistan, websites are the only places where unsanctioned accounts of state affairs are recorded. By using the internet to discuss controversial and violent events, online commenters inadvertently create an alternate history – a searchable catalog of state crimes whose ultimate impact we cannot predict.
Long-running forums like Arbuz are a cumulative threat. It is not one comment that prompts state ire, but a discussion; not one discussion, but years of debate preserved in pristine digital memory. Dictatorships are known for their inflexibility, their timelessness, their aversion to compromise and change.
On forums, the volatility of online debate is combined with the automation of its archive – a stubborn continuity of content that strangely mirrors the relentlessness of a surveillance state. It is this digital trail that seems to pose the greatest threat to authoritarian stability – for every crime the state commits, so grows the counter-narrative of critique and condemnation.
Until, one day, it is gone.
What do you do about a site like Arbuz – a privately owned forum which was shut down not by the government, but by the owner, out of concern for the people who used it? When analysing the potential of the internet for political change, we should try to see the present from the perspective of the future.
Many Uzbek websites that contain content censored by the state remain – but others are gone due to censorship, fear, or neglect. With each erasure, the narrative becomes more selective – which is, of course, the way life worked until the internet.
Now anyone can preserve and mirror sensitive political content – but who should, and for what purpose? When does the desire to document citizen reaction to important events trump an understandable desire for user safety?
This is not a question limited to Central Asia: researchers who tried to store online documentation of Egypt’s revolution found that, within a year, 10 per cent of their materials were gone, removed or abandoned by their owners.
The closure of Arbuz shows how digital activism manifests itself not only through petitions and campaigns, but through the casual conversation of an apolitical crowd. Human rights activism often rewards unambiguous cases of suppressed dissent: the persecuted journalist; the censored site; the loud, proud lobby of the political refugee.
But that is not the only way dissent spreads online. It exists in the web’s quiet corners, stoked by citizens who might never overtly align themselves with activist causes – and whose ambiguous plight offers little recourse.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist at Washington University in St Louis who studies politics and digital media.
Follow her on Twitter: @SarahKendzior