Jasur Mammadov, Vusal Azizov (GIPA (Georgia) MA students)
After the event of the “Arab Spring,” social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, became popular in Azerbaijan. Facebook was employed in political mobilization. In 2012, a number of political events were created with the use of Facebook . The Government used the police against demonstrators. It even created the commission on the use of Internet Commission, subordinated to the Press Council, aimed at keeping social networks under control.
This research intends to explore the effects of Azerbaijani government’s new Internet use policy on the youth activism. This topic is important to explore, as youth activism is the key, if not the only, form of active social and political movement in Azerbaijan, and the policy may become potentially restrictive of this movement. This study will contribute to the knowledge about governments’ response to social network use in political youth activism in the developing countries.
FACEBOOK AND POLITICAL MOBILIZATION
Public demonstrations, boycotts, and other forms of protest are normal forms of achieving political change for citizens in mature democracies. The same is not true for those who live in countries that experienced the Third Wave of democratization in the 1970s and 1980s. For them, disillusionment with the performance of democratic regimes led to a decline in protest behavior. Political action movements in Third Wave democracies have had three elements in common: the dominant role of youth; the absence of political parties as the main organizers; and the widespread use of social media as means of political action. It is the latter trend, of course, that is most interesting from a communication perspective. Considering their disengagement from conventional politics, the key role played by youth is also noteworthy (Valenzuela, 2012).
In the few years prior to the 2011 revolution, Egyptian political activists specifically sought out strategies through new media tools to (a) educate citizens to recognize their unjust social circumstances; (b) achieve consensus that the lack of justice must be redressed; (c) mobilize large groups of citizens to demand their rights and exercise their public will in street protests; (d) achieve and maintain discipline during protests and to respond to police brutality with nonviolence; and (e) inform the international community about the regime‘s debasement and suppression of ordinary Egyptian citizens (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).
Interestingly, each of the new media tools was best suited to play a different role during the revolution. For example, Facebook was effective as a means of finding others with similar political views and planning street protests; YouTube was well suited to promoting citizen journalism by broadcasting activists‘ videos which were then picked up by satellite television channels and seen around the world; and Short Message Service (SMS) and Twitter enabled on the-move coordination and communication. Twitter was also used for outreach to the international media and diasporic communities. Such widespread and easy access to these online communication tools posed new and threatening challenges to autocratic regimes and their censored media outlets. The simultaneous and coordinated utilization of all these different types of social media created a very strong communication network which became difficult to disrupt (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).
It is clear that the Facebook is one of the most important tool for political conversation among the younger citizens. What is Facebook, and what kind of network is it? Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites (SNS’s) are defined as sites that have three features.
– First, SNS’s allow their users to construct a profile, available either to everyone on the Web, every member of the site, or only to their friends on the site itself.
– Second feature of an SNS is that it allows users to build a network of “friends” or connections to other users. Users can send messages to these friends, write on their public spaces (in Facebook users have “walls” where their friends can leave comments, pictures, and links), and browse one another’s profiles. This profile typically features pictures and personal data like interests and tastes. In other words they allow you to take your existing social network and publicly articulate it.
– The third feature is the ability to browse your own connections or friends and those of other people in the system. The degree of browsing freedom varies from site to site, but even when profiles are closed to you on Facebook, you can still browse that person’s friend list. The history of SNS’s is replete with individuals using the sites for purposes other than those intended by the designers. For instance, Myspace was launched to compete with the failing SNS Friendster, but almost immediately became a platform for bands to share their music, advertise upcoming gigs, and gain new fans.
Primary function of Facebook is to connect people virtually. But it serves other functions including as tool of political discussions (Valenzuela, 2012). Logically, we derive that Facebook is also useful for political discussion by the opposition members
Facebook was intended as a closed network for Harvard students, and has evolved into an organizing tool for political oppositions in authoritarian systems, among many other uses (Faris, 2008).
For starters, in an authoritarian system in which opposing the state can earn you an arrest or worse, Facebook allows you to identify other individuals who share your antipathy to the regime, and, crucially, you can check out that persons friends list to see if they are on the up-and-up.
The group function is particularly popular on Facebook, where the application allows each group’s administrators to post a mission-statement on the front page, manage their own wall, and coordinate activities together. Joining a group allows you to come together with a set of like-minded people on any particular issue. There is a sense of legitimation in this kind of group-formation. Crucially, forming a group on Facebook costs no more for the individuals involved than paying the costs of internet access. According to the different experts the people of Facebook are sons of the middle class….located throughout the country (Faris, 2008).
The crucial point is that if weak ties are critical to building bridges between different tight-knit social networks, then blogs and social networking sites like Facebook might have an incredibly important role to play in amplifying weak ties, making them transparent and usable, and simplifying the process of activating them. In other words, Facebook takes dormant social ties and makes them active, takes musty acquaintances and wipes the cobwebs from them, and can potentially plug you into social networks you never even knew you wanted to be a part of. This is important for the idea of social movements because of past difficulty in simply transmitting information to people who might conceivably want to join your group if they wanted to. It helps build “bridging capital” between diverse groups of people who might otherwise not think to work together for a common cause. For activists seeking to oppose the state, the disembodied networking of blogs, social networking sites, wikis and other forms of technological opposition all make it both more difficult to take out hubs, and lessens the consequences of doing so. A large number of nodes need to be removed from the system before the network itself will cease to operate properly. To put it more directly, while the state can conceivably shut down any one human rights organization, it cannot erase the accumulated experiences, knowledge, and wisdom of its members, which exists independently of their physical headquarters and is situated in a larger, denser network. On the other hand, it is exceedingly easy for the state to reach out and use repression on individual members of the network (Faris, 2008).
FACEBOOK IN AZERBAIJAN
Facebook in Azerbaijan has 1,072,400 users and grew by more than 171,800 in the last six months. Facebook penetration in Azerbaijan is 12.92% compared to the country’s population and 25.37% in relation to number of Internet users. The largest age group usage is currently 18-24 (48 %), followed by the age 25-34 (24%) users. The are 65% male users and 35% female users in Azerbaijan (http://www.socialbakers.com, 2013, April 1).
65-70 percent of Facebook users live in Baku. About 15 percent users live in the cities like Sumqayit, Ganca, Lenkoran and Shirvan. About 15-20 percent users live elsewhere in the country (Jasur Mammadov, 2013).
Facebook users often share political videos. For instance, in 2012 head of executive power of Guba district Rauf Khabibov in the meeting with residents of Guba said “Guba residents are betrayal of nation, the state, the land and their own families”. The video of his speech was posted on Youtube on December 2011 and it went viral among district residents. The video outraged the public and in February 2012 thousands of protestors gathered outside the administration building of Guba and demanded Rauf Khabibov’s resignation. Some demonstrators also set Khabibov’s house on fire. Protesters destroyed and looted regional administration building.
The strength of Youtube was huge in those protests. It arises question would residents know how government official stigmatized them if the social network did not exist?
By 2013, excitation and tension among the users of social networks began to increase. The first rally which was planned via Facebook was held in January 12 and was devoted to soldier deaths. Then social networks were main tools to organize the protest action in Ismayilli region of Azerbaijan where people demanded the resignation of a top official because his relative insulted residents. Government deployed a lot of forces to this region and used different tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd of people. In January 26, rally in Baku related to protest in Ismayilli was planned via Facebook. The next rally which was held in March 10 was also devoted to soldier deaths and differed with the majority of participants.
After these rallies police took into custody young people and the court decision states that the activists, who are accused of making calls on Facebook, placed “illegal” appeals on Facebook and invited citizens to take part in illegal protest and procession. The activists reiterated in their testimonies and at court hearings that they did nothing illegal by disseminating invitations on Facebook for participation in peaceful protest and that on the contrary, this right is given to them by the Constitution of Azerbaijani Republic.
In the beginning of the June, two famous Facebook pages of Azerbaijan opposition – “Istefa” (“Resign”, with more than 200 000 members) and “Xilas” (“Salvation”, with more than 150 000 members) were disappeared. And three pro-govermental pages (which supported Ilham Aliyev and his policy) “Prezidentə dəstək – 2013 (“Support to President – 2013”, with more than 100 000), “Azərbaycana baxış” (“View to Azerbaijan”, with more than 200 000), “Azərbaycan 2013: Qələbə!” (“Azerbaijan 2013: Victory”, more than 100 000) were disappeared too. Opposition representatives suspect that there was a role of government.
During 2013, Facebook played critical role of planning the protest actions. For example, the invitation to participate in the January 12’s action was sent to about 120,000 people. For the January 26 event the figure is 70,000, and for March 10 it was 180,000. The number of people who participated in the actions is 20 percent of the people who “confirmed” his or her participation via Favebook. For January 12 about 17,000 people confirmed their participation. For January 26, 5,000; for March 10, 22,000 (Jasur Mammadov, 2013).
Some governments think that social media, especially Facebook is threat for them. But the authorities’ efforts to block out information, ended up “spurring people to be more active, decisive and to find ways to be more creative about communicating and organizing (Huang, 2011)
For example Turkey’s Transportation, Maritime and Communication Minister Binali Yıldırım said that social media could “provoke great masses”. He announced that the country is planning to block access to Facebook and Twitter in order to prevent a “threat to public safety.” (Rial, 2012). This statement was sounded before Gazipark protest action in Istanbul. Likewise, the minister stated that these platforms facilitated the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, calling them “revolutions of communication.” He said that social media may have caused “good things to happen there but it could also be used to provoke great masses and misguide them.”
During May, 2013, 25 persons have been detained by Turkish police for circulating misinformation on social networks. According to government authorities these people are accused of “calling on people for protest.”
Prime Minister Rejep Taip Erdogan also clarified that social networks are the mechanism of circulating lies and create threat to unity (BBC, 2013).
Turkey has 31 million Facebook users and 9 million Twitter users; 18,4 million of them use internet 34 hours per month (Rial, 2012).
In the case of Syria, the Assad’s regime has severely censored Internet use, blocked access to global websites and social media platforms (especially Facebook and YouTube), and monitored bloggers, who face intimidation, arrest, and torture, all of which has sharply limited Internet access and use (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).
In the Egyptian context, activists and political figures have found their blogs and social media websites hacked, and on the other side of the political divide, anti-revolutionary figures have also had their websites targeted, including attacks by a group calling itself the ― Egyptian Knights. In addition, political parties and other organizations have also found their websites targeted, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Ikhwan Online web forum was attacked by the hacktivist group Anonymous. A Salafist party had its Facebook page defaced with photos of scantily clad women (Khamis, Gold, Vaughn, 2012).
The French organisation Reporters Without Borders released in March its list of the 12 “Enemies of the Internet”. China, Cuba, North Korea and Syria are at the top of the list, but other countries are under surveillance, such as Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. However, with this new measure, Turkey may climb up soon a big number of positions (Rial, 2012).
In Azerbaijan, Government’s attack on the freedom of expression and opposition activities on social networks came soon. The first, high level officials declared that some foreign powers are interested in destabilizing the country and they use social networks, especially Facebook to realize their “crafty” plans. Then (May 4th) Bakcell and Azercell, two leading mobile operators in Azerbaijan, suspended providing free access to social networks “0.Facebook.com” and “Free Mobile Twitter” to their subscribers. Despite the fact that the message of the mobile operators states that temporary suspension of services is due to technical problems, some experts and opposition media believe that the decision of the two leading mobile operators to stop providing free access to social networks at the same time, may have political background (Mammadov, 2013).
In May 14th, Azerbaijani Parliament adopted amendments to article 147 (slander) and 148 (insult) of the Criminal Code establishing a legal punishment of up to six months of imprisonment for slander and insult by the users of the social networks. The new amendments are primarily targeted the Facebook activists who have recently been enjoying freedoms in criticizing the Azerbaijani government on the Internet without much pressures from the Azerbaijani government. And in June 4, President Ilham Aliyev signed a bill passed by the parliament that would criminalize defamatory and offensive views expressed on the internet. Now it is possible to launch a criminal case against online activists posting critical views on the internet referring to the Articles 147 and 148 of the Criminal Code, and jail them for up to three years. Immediately after this Štefan Füle, Commissioner for EU enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy shared his opinion via Twitter: “Azerbaijan: freedom of expression must be enhanced not limited, concerned by the final adoption of law on internet defamation”. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, expressed serious concern related to this issue. Wary of the chilling effect that these provisions are bound to have on those wishing to use the Internet to raise legitimate critical voices, Nils Muižnieks and Dunja Mijatović also expressed concern that the new changes will further erode the already limited space for free expression in the country (Reuters, 2013).
During this period some opposition youths complained that some videos about Azerbaijan officials were deleted from their Youtube profiles. They think that it might be related with complaints of some people close to government to Youtube company (Mammadov, 2013).
FACEBOOK AND POLITICS IN THE WOLRD
It is proved people who originally join Facebook to keep up with friends, hold discussions or admire their favorite singers or soccer teams become more involved in politics. Their attitude to facebook evolves in different way. Constant reading of posts, likes, comments, and shares on political issues make users more active and change their political views.
In most countries in the Arab world facebook has been one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and two years before Egyptian revolution which toppled Husnu Mubarek in Egypt it ranked third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians had Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group were on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. (Shapiro, 2009). Like in Azerbaijan under Mubarek freedom of speech and the right to assemble were limited in Egypt. Facebook used by young people to speak freely to one another and encourage them to form groups, was irresistible as a platform not only for social interaction but also for dissent.
The tendency in such developing countries as Chile, Azerbaijan, Turkey etc. shows people that are unhappy with their government meet on facebook groups to debate and plan events. People who do not have access to regular media assemble virtually, communicate freely about their grievances thus venting their anger on posts which is very effective and potentially can influence on people’s opinion.
Research shows that it is technically possible for government to block networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Orujlu, 2013). Because there is strong government control or a government-related monopoly over the internet infrastructure in Azerbaijan, it is possible to filter the internet in the country. If they block the social networks, it will be difficult to enter to these sites, but there will remain some opportunity to use these social networks. But experts don’t believe the government can block the social networks for a long time. It could be possible for a short time, for the election period, but it will cost the government. To close or limit social networks is a very sensitive and difficult issue (Novruzov, 2013).
2013 is an election year in Azerbaijan, and evidently the government understands the role of social networks in this important year, and it is possible that the government’s latest moves about the internet are related to elections. The government has increasingly attempted to exercise greater control over the Internet, though it remains much less restricted than print and broadcast media, which are the main sources of news for most citizens. In the Law on Mass Media of 1999, the Internet was categorized as part of the mass media. Because of this, all rules applied to the traditional media, which are considered to be highly problematic, could also be used for Internet regulation (Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, 2013).
Research shows that the issue is not related that how the government will use technology to limit entrance to social networks. The issue is how Government wants to create fear in society, and what will be the psychological effect of these plans. But they have the technical means to follow people who are active on social networks. Some developed partner countries provide the special technologies which will be used to control the social networks (Novruzov, 2013). So, the government doesn’t think about total control over social networks users. They think about the scenario to punish about 3-5 active people, and then make a special PR campaign about it and create general fear in society. But if they close Facebook in Azerbaijan, it would be one of the main factors against the government (Orujlu, 2013)
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