Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Social Media and Online Public Debate in Central Asia: A Journalist's Perspective

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Social Media and Online Public Debate in Central Asia: A Journalist's Perspective

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

The emergence of the Internet and the growing participation of people, especially youth, in social media constitute positive change for Central Asia.1 Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are more connected to the world than ever before. Despite several of the governments' wide-ranging attempts to restrict the Internet, the flow of information through social media is unstoppable. While some political observers debate whether these governments would block access to social media altogether to curtail politically sensitive discussions, this author contends that by doing so, they would be making a serious and ultimately unsuccessful gamble for three specific reasons.

First, to varying degrees, all of the Central Asian governments have already accepted that the world has gone online. They understand that in order to be seen as a modern society, attempts must be made, however superficial, to adapt to the Internet landscape; even in Central Asia the idea of "e-government" has become the word of the day. Kazakhstan now offers electronic government services, an ambitious project that was launched in 2005.2 In cooperation with South Korea and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Uzbekistan started its electronic government in 2014.3 Perhaps not fully cognizant of its ramifications, authorities at the highest levels have made the political decision that state institutions should begin to provide online services and also promote state policies and interests over the Internet.

Second, people under 49, who tend to be active online, are the over-whelming majority in each of the countries of Central Asia.4 As such, any attempt to constrain access to the broader world or to slow down the free exchange of ideas presents these governments with an impossible choice: become modern or maintain repressive control.

Third, in social media, as in any other mass medium, what drives the audience is the quality of the content and the way it is communicated. As any social media user, whether very experienced or just beginning, will readily share that what keeps her engaged in social media is a sense of forward motion, the anticipation of what will come next, and a desire to shape it. A journalist's perspective on the power and promise of social media in Central Asia is that it creates unprecedented opportunities for critical thinking and discussion of the region's challenging realities for a wider audience than had hitherto been possible.

Drawing on the author's long experience using social media as a broadcast tool as well as a way to moderate and facilitate discussions on news, politics, and various social topics, this article explores the significance of social media for Central Asia not only by examining the phenomenon from a macro-level perspective, but also by explaining the logics that drives social media users. The analysis looks at the strategies and concerns of Central Asians as they increasingly engage on Facebook, Twitter, Odnoklassniki, and other social networks. Personal experience as a social media user, both as a journalist and a native of the region also inform what follows.

Access to the Internet

Social media cannot exist without widespread access to the Internet. Central Asia is far behind many regions in terms of Internet penetration and especially the speed of the worldwide web. But this relative lack of infrastructure has not prevented the governments of the region from boasting improvements to the network. In Uzbekistan, for example, authorities claim that in just the first month of 2014, the Internet became 15 percent faster. 5 According to Netindex.com, which reports on real-time global broadband and mobile performance data, speeds of accessing the Internet in Uzbekistan have increased from an average 0.46 Mbps in 2004 to 2.71 Mbps in 2014. 6 However, Uzbekistan still lags far behind Kazakhstan at 16.7 Mbps, Kyrgyzstan at 12. …

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