Can social media level the playing field in competitive authoritarian regimes? Azerbaijani pre-election report, part II.

October 7, 2013

Continuing our series of Election Reports, yesterday we featured a pre-election report on Wednesday’s Azerbaijani elections from Farid Guliyev, a PhD candidate in Political Science at Jacobs University Bremen and the list editor of the Azerbaijani Studies group, and Katy E. Pearce, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.  Today, Pearce and Guliyev return with a second pre-election report, this time focused explicitly on the role of social media in the campaign, a topic that has relevance far beyond Azerbaijan as we begin to think more seriously about the role of social media in competitive authoritarian regimes.

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Given government control of mainstream media, social media provides a space for opposition-minded Azerbaijanis to get and share information, discuss politics and sometimes organize collectively. However, the Internet in Azerbaijan is not an oasis of free expression.

Internet use has diffused relatively slowly in Azerbaijan. Some 71 percent of Azerbaijani adults have never used the Internet, as of late 2012, and only 9 percent of Azerbaijani adults use the Internet daily. 13 percent of Azerbaijani adults, as of late 2012, are on a social networking site. The strongest determinants of frequent Internet use are education, age, living in a city, gender (male), and economic well-being. And the determinants of being on a social networking site are gender (male), frequent Internet use, education, age, economic well-being  and living in a city. Thus, the Internet is by no means a place for all Azerbaijanis. Nonetheless, young, male, well educated capital city dwellers are online and on social media.

Determinants of Azerbaijani Internet usage (Katy Pearce/The Monkey Cage)
Determinants of Azerbaijani Internet usage. (Katy Pearce/The Monkey Cage)

Because of the government control of the mainstream media, in the past few years many opposition-minded Azerbaijanis have used the Internet to express their political views. With the growth of social media, especially Facebook, this sort of political deliberation has increased. As the openness of the Internet became an attractive space for activists, the Azerbaijani government took notice and began formulating a policy to control this space. As in the print media sphere, the Azerbaijani government understood that allowing some independence can provide benefits. With the Internet and social media, a little bit of freedom can provide the government with insight into what the opposition elite are thinking, as well as an excellent and systematic monitoring tool. Some freedom on the Internet can also allow the Azerbaijani government to appear democratic. However, the Azerbaijani government does have to control the Internet and social media to ensure that dissent does not go beyond what it considers a safe level.

In the pre-election period, social media has served a few purposes for the opposition. First, parties and supporters use social media to distribute information about candidates, effectively working around the government’s control of the media. While this is not campaigning per se, it does increase awareness of candidates, albeit to those that are already interested in the opposition. Secondly, social media provides a space for deliberation. Long Facebook comment threads allow oppositionally-minded Azerbaijanis to discuss issues, demonstrate their positions, and show support for others. With a lack of freedom of assembly, this plays an important role in strengthening political discussion. Similarly, social media provides a space to coordinate and organize collective action. 2013 has been a particularly strong year for digitally-enabled collective action in Azerbaijan with many Baku-based protests and rallies, as well as successful fundraising activities taking place in social media. The government has reacted to these actions swiftly (prohibiting forms of fundraising online and arresting organizers, for example), which is perhaps the best evidence of the effectiveness of this organizing.

Oppositionally-minded Azerbaijanis have learned from organizing these actions and now with the election campaign specifically, the opposition candidate Jamil Hasanli has used social media to promote himself and used Facebook events for rallies. His Facebook page and associated Twitter account post photographs and videos from rallies, quotes, promotional materials, and events. While the social media campaign is not as sophisticated as what one sees in the United States or even compared to neighboring Georgia, given the lack of resources that the opposition has and the relatively recent choice of Hasanli, the efforts are notable.

However, government and pro-government forces are also active on social media. For example, the president’s official social media content is used both as a PR tool and for information dissemination. It also allows for citizens to perform their loyalty through flattering comments and “likes.”

Pro-government organizations and individuals also use social media for information distribution and campaigning of a sort, but also engage in trolling of opposition-minded Azerbaijanis. Memes, hashtag hijacks  and digital kompromat (embarrassing materials) have become par for the course in the last year in Azerbaijani social media and this election is no different. While certainly opposition-minded Azerbaijanis have responded with their own memes, this sort of content does not go unnoticed.

The hashtags associated with this election #azvote13 and #secki2013 have all been “taken over” by pro-government Twitter users, thus rendering the hashtags less useful for information sharing. People are still using the hashtags, but because the pro-government forces can claim that they are “winning” the hashtag, it is another opportunity for them to demonstrate their power.

Social media are influence this election more than previous ones – but perhaps mostly as an accountability mechanism and possibly a deterrent to more excessive crackdowns. Nonetheless, the regime has the resources, the motivation, and the confidence to control the election in the ways that it has in the past, but this time resources, motivation, and confidence have all increased. The regime fairly effectively controls social media and likely feels that the social media threat is contained.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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