Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Two Can Play at That Game: Social Media Opportunities in Azerbaijan for Government and Opposition

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Two Can Play at That Game: Social Media Opportunities in Azerbaijan for Government and Opposition

Article excerpt

Abstract: Much has been written on the ways in which the Internet benefits opposition movements, in particular in authoritarian regimes. And while some acknowledge that the Internet also provides opportunities for authoritarian governments as well, few have looked at the Internet and social media as a space for back-and-forth actions between the sides. In Azerbaijan, social media allows both the ruling regime and oppositionists to engage with each other and Azerbaijani citizens in new ways. Social media provides the regime with an alternative medium to harass the opposition and demonstrate its power to the citizenry. And while there is a social media presence, the traditional opposition parties do not leverage all affordances of it, however oppositionists not affiliated with traditional parties are leveraging social media to build audiences and engage in action. While the regime is currently "winning" the social media battle through the use of its resources, the new and creative ways that oppositionists are using social media for connective action could prove to be a successful means of dissent.

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The authoritarian state of Azerbaijan has a unique way of regulating the Internet and social media to maximize its opportunities for simultaneously promoting itself while deterring dissent. Instead of using high-level filtering, it instead uses psychological techniques to create an environment of self-censorship (and increasingly is using policy mechanisms to enforce the psychological controls.) The government also monitors and punishes social media-enabled dissent. Nonetheless, oppositionally-minded Azerbaijanis use social media as a promotional tool, an information dissemination medium, and for some--though not the traditional opposition parties--an organizational tool.

This article will describe how the opposition uses social media for organizing, using the Connective Action framework to understand different opposition uses of social media for action, and explain how the government controls the online space. Analysis of how the two sides use the Internet enhances understanding of how social media can enrich not only our understanding of the Azerbaijani political scene, but also how social media and politics intersect in more authoritarian contexts, a perspective that is sorely missing from current writing on social media and politics. Social media has enabled both the government and the opposition to engage with each other and Azerbaijani citizens. For the government, social media provides an alternative medium to toy with the opposition and demonstrate its power to the citizenry. The traditional opposition, on the other hand, does not effectively use social media to engage it audience. However, oppositionists not affiliated with traditional parties are leveraging social media to build audiences and engage in action.

Background

Azerbaijan, one of the most authoritarian of the post-Soviet states according to Freedom House, typifies the social control that post-Soviet rulers have over their peoples. (1) Due in large part to oil revenue, the regime can easily preempt any opposition. (2) However, because the regime allows low-challenge opposition candidates to run for office, Azerbaijan is an "electoral authoritarian" state where elections are held, but always reflect what the regime wants. (3) The key elements of Azerbaijani politics are: 1) the personalist-clientelist nature of Aliyev's rule, where patronage-based elite factions demonstrate loyalty and become dependent on resources allocated by the ruling party; 2) deficient stateness and endemic corruption, which dominate all aspect of political life; and 3) a marginalized political opposition, which exists but represents few organized interests. (4) Additionally, the citizens of Azerbaijan experience a general sense of apathy and fear (5) and a lack of trust in others. (6) As such, Azerbaijani society is self-censoring. …

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