Crisis in Kyrgyzstan Shows Need for ‘Responsible Content’

    by Anne Nelson
    June 22, 2010
    An April uprising in Kyrgyzstan ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Photo by David Trilling

    Back in 1996, my Columbia University colleague Jack Snyder and his co-author, Karen Ballentine, published a ground-breaking article called Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas. The essay used Serbian broadcasting and Rwandan radio to illustrate how hyper-nationalist media could be used to incite political violence.

    Today’s online media have the potential to be used in a similar fashion — and this has been the case with the current ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan. Prior to this development, online media have played many positive roles in Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics, according to David Trilling, the Central Asia news editor for EurasiaNet.org, an online news service supported by George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

    The media development community must keep the need for responsible content on the agenda -- along with ways to promote it in life-or-death situations."

    “Before the April uprising that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, social networking sites and chat rooms such as diesel.elcat.kg were becoming the last fora for critical reporting on his corrupt regime,” Trilling told me. “As [Bakiyev] silenced Kyrgyzstan’s few trusted, independent media outlets, bloggers filled the information vacuum. But reporting anonymously, many bloggers have a tendency to stretch the truth or report rumor as fact. By undermining the credibility of the profession — because Internet reportage is lumped into the same category — these bloggers hurt the few journalists brave enough to report accurately without fear or favor.”


    Crisis Drives Online Traffic

    Trilling oversees an operation that scouts out journalists to form a regional network of online reporters whose work is vetted and edited. Those who fail to meet standards of accuracy and independence are first warned, then dropped from his site’s roster.

    Trilling noted that the rising conflict in Kyrgyzstan drove new traffic to online media.

    “There was an information blackout during the April uprising,” he said. “As the protests gained strength, Bakiyev cut off international Internet traffic, forcing Kyrgyz to rely for information solely on Internet sites hosted locally.”


    Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city

    Kyrgyzstan has roughly 5 million people. The principal ethnic groups are the Kyrgyz (about 70 percent of the population), Russians (roughly 9 percent), and Uzbecks (about 15 percent). Uzbecks are concentrated in the south. For decades, these populations were locked in the grip of Soviet authoritarian rule, but after independence in 1991 the country became subject to local despotism and ethnic rivalries.

    Internet penetration in Kyrgyzstan has zoomed from near zero in 1998 to over 850,000 people in 2008. But the country has struggled to create public information systems via any medium. Government censorship of print and broadcast outlets has led many citizens to the Internet. Trilling said that has been a mixed blessing, especially during the recent crisis.

    “In the absence of credible, trusted local media, many Kyrgyz turned to social networking sites and chat rooms, where rumors ran wild,” he said. “At one point on the first or second day, a rumor quickly spread that 50,000 Bakiyev supporters were marching on Bishkek, spreading panic throughout the city. Other posts reported erroneously on casualty numbers and international invasions, sometimes terrorizing the population. More than once, I heard, ‘Tomorrow there will be shooting again in Bishkek.’ Many think such rumors may have been spread by Bakiyev loyalists to sow panic, or regional intelligence agencies interested in expanding their influence over a worried population.”

    Of course, sites such as EurasiaNet and Global Voices Online have helped to provide a remedy for the information blackout. The BBC is enlisting crowdsourcing with its online call for local eyewitness reports.

    Local online media have also played a positive role.

    “Social networking sites and text messages were useful for spreading essential information,” Trilling said. “Some reported where volunteers could donate blood; others where volunteers could sign up to join people’s militias, or druzhiniki, which helped restore order in the absence of a police force.”

    Social Media in the Developing World

    In many ways, Kyrgyzstan serves as a laboratory for an ongoing debate on the Twittersphere regarding the role of social media in the developing world. Think Poli Sci 101. Rousseau sees man as fundamentally well-intentioned, while Hobbes says man’s failings are only mitigated by controlling his baser desires. The so-called “cyber-utopians” (such as Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, NYU’s Clay Shirky, and Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier) stress the positive aspects of social media in democratizing access to expression and harnessing the will to do good.

    They are countered by the more pessimistic vision of analysts such as Evgeny Morozov, who warn that, in the wrong hands, social media serve as catalysts for ethnic violence and political manipulation.

    In a recent briefing at the Center for International Media Assistance in Washington, Patrick Meier (updating a prior presentation) warned that even a platform as powerful as Ushahidi cannot function in isolation: “Its success depends on the strength of the underlying organization, staff, program, policy, and monitoring and evaluation framework.”

    The problem, he said, “is the vacuum of data-driving empirical studies on impact. Now you just have anecdotes — Morozov versus Shirky.”

    Kyrgyzstan’s current conflict offers another set of anecdotes that, in themselves, cannot define a new theoretical or policy framework; in fact, they offer ammunition for both sides in the Utopian-versus-Hobbesian debate. But with enough time and purpose, a collection of anecdotes can become a study. In the meantime, the media development community must keep the need for responsible content on the agenda — along with ways to promote it in life-or-death situations.

    Photo of Osh by Margaret Morton

    Anne Nelson teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and consults for a number of foundations on media issues. She’s on Twitter as anelsona. She was a 2005 Guggenheim fellow for her recent book, “Red Orchestra: the Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of
    Friends Who Resisted Hitler.”

    Tagged: clay shirky crisis cyber-utopian evgeny morosov freedom of speech kyrgyzstan ushahidi
    • Aaron

      I’d have to side with the cyber-utopians in this context. It seems to me that the potential for social media to do good far outweighs the dangers of false rumors upsetting a populace. This seems particularly true when the alternative is iron-fisted rule and an absolute control over information by a central government.

      Sure, the population will have to get used to filtering this new form of media, but the more opportunities they have to exchange information with their countrymen, the better they will become at telling the good information from the bad and the truth from the lies and exaggerations.

    • susannah vila

      Great post, Anne! Just FYI Patrick Meier is not the founder of Ushahidi; he helped incubate it and got them their first round of funding.

    • Anne Nelson

      Thanks, Susannah — I made the correction.

    • Anne, great contribution to this discussion. I think it’s good that tempering voices are made about the Twitter revolution, both to reduce the hype but also to capture the usefulness of it. Still, I see what you’re saying as old media wiser heads trying to position themselves as gatekeepers and attempting to control this firehose. And while that might be a laudable civic project, I don’t think that will ever be able to be done. It’s a good idea to have respected and skillful correspondents like the Eurasianet writers especially in the region (I’m one of them in NY) to do some “quality control” on the myriad anonymous and unchecked source material out there.

      On the other hand, I’m concerned about the idea of any one person, or organization, or credentialed network, even very qualified, developing Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval on this or that tweeter. Follow/Don’t Follow. List/Don’t List. End of story, nothing more is needed. Aside from the problem of unfair judgements that might be made making public hit lists by default (journalists don’t have a central committee that decides who gets to be a journalist in old media), I don’t think blocking or deleting from lists work on the Internet which is designed deliberately to go around any blocks, for good or bad. So those unqualified people and state propagandists are still getting the mindshare and with their followers, they might even get street cred.

      This discussion becomes very abstract without concrete examples, and mainstream media journalists who have tried to be concrete, like the Times correspondent on Iran so pilloried by Ethan Zuckerman, have been accused of “harming the movement” if they expose people they view to be compromised by the state.

      But let’s take an easy case, the anonymous tweeter @djalalabad who is tweeting tendentious stuff that sounds Bakiyev-related, asking strange intelligence-agent like questions and putting out false rumours, like the “50,000 marching on Bishkek”. The fact is, that when that happens the people following the topic #Kyrgyzstan generally can say, as we said to figures like this: “And you are…?” and begin to question them in the same space. They can be blocked or engaged or disparaged, but you wouldn’t want the Twitter devs to arrogate to themselves even more power over the public commons than they already have by accepting abuse reports for “false reporting” and banning free speech.

      So the social task is still to either polemicize with them, or merely to passively look at what they are doing as leaking government data or spinning propaganda which has to be reviewed to an extent to understand what’s happening in the region.

      As I’ve found from extensively debating them, the problem with Shirky and Zuckerman, who is on the OSI media board, isn’t that they are mere Twitter cyber utopianists. It’s more about them wanting to bake a “progressive” ideology into these tools and flog them to extract “progressive” goals. They are *selective* about their utopianism in line with their “progressive” world views that they’d like certain Twitter revolutions to fit in. Clay Shirky first tells us “here comes everybody” to handily undo the private property and capitalist structures of the newspaper industry, then backs off and says advance-guard “experts” are needed to lead the people whom he will vet. It’s the same with the ideology of Beth Noveck, who also flogs the democracy of social media until she then needs to ensure it doesn’t get too democratic — and shuts off comments on her Gov 2.0 White House website for the Office of Science & Technology.

      So Ethan will pronounce Moldovan Twittering as “not a Twitter revolution” because its mainly expats trying to topple a communist government, but celebrate twittering in…Fiji if he happens to be there and part of the tweeters.

      Morozov is indeed pessimistic and Hobbesian, and in a way it’s a corrective of the utopianists, but I’m troubled by the ultimate take-home message he leaves us with, which seems to go like this: “Totalitarian governments and extremist movements will always win because they have the power and ability to manipulate or silence social media’ and therefore…we should do nothing. We should just…attend workshops at think-tanks where we are told these truths and shut up and leave the driving to the credentialed gurus.”

      Sorry, not going to happen. Not for me and other activists, and not for ordinary people who keep using twitter and going around both the utopianists and the rejectionists.

      Twitter (“boring on the outside, Narnia on the inside,” as one user described it today) is an ecosystem interacting with other social media and real-world institutions. It cannot save the world or reform human beings but it also accelerates saving and reforming activity when it interacts with other networks and institutions. I think it’s important that networks of people who use their real names and mitigate the anonymous factor, as well as anonymous people who aquire credibility by being consistent and reliable with facts, are developments that will occur over time just as they have on websites on web 1.0.

      On Kyrgyzstan specifically, I found that it was a lot more useful on the April 7 events, when lots of urban intellectuals in Bishkek and in the region or internationally used Twitter in combination with Diesel and AKIPress.org, etc. With the Osh ethnic conflict, it has been less useful for 2 weeks as it has mainly been used only to express opinions by those not on the scene, by anonymous faction fighters or government tools. It’s started becoming more useful as international humanitarians who used to be utterly silent about their work are using it to broadcast basic facts that mitigate against rumours in a situation where the government has turned off the local TV. It’s still too expensive and difficult for local activists actually in the field to use up the cell phone minutes and the attempts to pull up a constantly “down” website to post.

      The story of Twitter, which I’ve used since becoming an early adapter in 2007, isn’t that some anonymous propagandists and extremists can use it to spread a rumour that there are “50,000 people marching from the south.” The story of Twitter is that there are dozens of other people who say “No there aren’t, and who are you, and here’s what I know.” And it is that freedom of democratic participation that must continue to be enabled by the devs and by the gurus, because self-selected credentialed filtering by the powerful is not the answer to the failings of old and new media.

    • Haq

      Good article. There have been several interesting articles and debates on the role of the internet in Kyrgyzstan on Registan.net. One of them took on Morozov.



    • we have too many corrupt journalists in some parts of the world. Citizen journalism is much better than corrupt journalists with money handed over to them by politicians

      olga lednichenko

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