Are the Internet and social media a "liberation" technology (Diamond, 2010)? If you read the news coverage of the "Arab Spring" a decade ago (yes, a decade) you might think so. Turns out it's not so easy.
I won't do a full literature review in this thread, but suffice to say that lots of research has gone into this over the last decade. On net it possibly is, but there's also a _lot_ of repression and censorship going on.
Since the president of Azerbaijan is currently going viral dunking on the BBC and turning an interview around while deflecting criticism of his own online censorship and human rights abuses, let me highlight one paper specifically covering censorship and repression in Azerbaijan.
A common argument for why more Internet = more Freedom is that as long as protest is publicised, it will create a feeling of solidarity and highlight state weakness: don't repress => protest is safe, let's protest!, do repress => fuck you, now we protest.
Pearce & Kendzior argue the opposite: the more the government publicises repression, the less people are going to protest.
They analyzed data spanning two years (2009-2011), looking at data from Azerbaijan on social media use and online activism, public opinion surveys, and interviews and found that ...
"between the 2 years, frequent Internet users became significantly less supportive of protests against the government, indicating that the government’s campaign against online activism was successful." (Pearce & Kendzior 2012, p. 284)
If you're into Structural Equation Models and other methods-y stuff, check their paper. I'll re-tell their story of the "Donkey Blogger Arrests" (p. 286f) to illustrate why the president's point that the "Internet isn't censored" is mere deflection.
In 2005, the Azerbaijani government violently cracked down on protest after elections. In 2009, two members of a "very online" (young, elite) political activist group were arrested. Why? A video they made:
"In 2009, [...] posted a YouTube video parodying the government [... importing] donkeys from Germany. In the video, a group of solemn journalists interview a donkey [...] and note that this donkey would be afforded more civil liberties than Azerbaijani citizens"
"Two weeks later, [they] were having dinner with friends when they were attacked by two unknown men. They went to the police, assuming that the incident would be investigated. Instead they were arrested for ‘‘hooliganism’’ and sentenced to 30 and 24 months imprisonment"
This was highly publicised, and in the following months "support for activism dropped precipitously among [young, online Azerbaijanis]".
One of them later said: ‘‘This is the way they function. . .They punish some people and let everyone else watch. To say, ‘This is what can happen to you.’ ’’
Stepping back from the paper, the point here is that you don't need explicit, obvious _online_ censorship to repress dissent _both online and offline_. So statements like "but everyone's on Facebook!" mean nothing.
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