“This is What Can Happen To You”: Networked Authoritarianism and the Demonization of Social Media in the Republic of Azerbaijan


In a January 2012 article in the Journal of Communication, we contradict the belief that frequent internet use leads to greater support for dissent through a study of the “donkey blogger” case in Azerbaijan. Since the 2009 arrest of Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli, two activists sentenced to prison for posting a satirical video on YouTube, the Azerbaijani government has successfully dissuaded frequent internet users from supporting protest as well as discouraged many internet users from using social media for political purposes.  However, state attempts to dissuade the wider Azerbaijani public from using social media have been less successful.  This article analyzes tactics used by the government of Azerbaijan to dissuade internet users from engaging in activist politics through the frame of networked authoritarianism: a form of internet control common in authoritarian former Soviet states that emphasizes manipulation over censorship, and is increasingly emulated by other countries.  To support our theoretical findings, we conducted a mixed-methods study which included content analysis of three years of Azerbaijani media, a two-year structural equation model of the relationship between internet use and attitude toward protest, and interviews with Azerbaijani online activists.

Many assume that greater exposure to information technology leads to increased activism in authoritarian states.[i]  From Reagan’s proclamation that “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip” to Secretary of State Clinton’s “bet that an open internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries,” this assumption has structured policy as well as scholarship.  Faith in the internet’s potential to drive activism in authoritarian states is often fueled by a belief that information technology ended the Cold War.  The internet has been compared to Soviet-era samizdat, self-published works that promoted dissident activity.  Advocates of this analogy argue that protests are always worthwhile so long as you have a means to publicize them, as even suppressed protests create a sense of solidarity.  Shirky (2008), discussing the documentation of dissent in East Germany in 1989, notes, “if the state didn’t react, the documentation would serve as evidence that the protesting was safe.  If the state did react, then the documentation of the crackdown could be used to spur an international outcry” (p. 164).  He claims the same conditions apply to the internet era.

In the Journal of Communication article, we suggest the opposite: that greater documentation and publicizing of suppressed dissent is often what derails political protest.  We argue that this is particularly evident in the authoritarian countries of the former Soviet Union – the very countries, ironically, that fuel the misguided Cold War analogy.  Often neglected in analyses of the internet, these countries have a unique approach to internet regulation that represents a “middle path” between open access and censorship.  Their approach, rooted in the particularities of post-Soviet political culture, exploits problems of trust, cynicism, and insecurity in the population.[ii]  Other scholars of the internet have defined these internet regulation practices  as “networked authoritarianism”.  Rebecca Mackinnon defines networked authoritarianism as when “an authoritarian regime embraces and adjusts to the inevitable changes brought by digital communication”. States that practice networked authoritarianism do not strictly censor online dissent: they compete with it, making an example out of online dissenters in order to affirm the futility of activism to a disillusioned public.  This is what we believe happened in Azerbaijan.  Our study found that the Azerbaijanis who were most active online during the donkey blogger affair were the ones whose attitude to protest was most negatively affected by the crackdowns on activism.
We consulted a variety of data before coming to this conclusion. First, we looked at social media and online activism in Azerbaijani television, print, and internet media sources from January 2009 to August 2011.[iii]  Second, we examined public opinion data from 2009 and 2010 and found that between the two years, frequent internet users became significantly less supportive of protests against the government, indicating that the government’s campaign against online activism was successful. Third, we interviewed Azerbaijani online activists, and what they said validated our assumptions.  While Azerbaijani government has not deterred citizens from using social media, they have changed the attitudes of frequent internet users toward dissent.  That our findings oppose the conventional wisdom that access to the internet encourages support for dissent suggests that scholars should consider the political cultures of authoritarian systems before assuming the internet offers an effective means to contest them.  Our focus on former Soviet states is notable because as Deibert and Rohozinski (2010) argue, their tactics are increasingly emulated by other countries.

From the beginning, the government of Azerbaijan used a targeted approach to publicize the persecution of Milli and Hajizada. In our search of all Azerbaijani media content from June 2009 to August 2011, including print, television, and radio, we found no mention of the donkey blogger case in the mainstream government-controlled media, and only minimal, cautious coverage in opposition print newspapers.  This means that as the bloggers sat in jail in 2010, most Azerbaijanis remained unaware of their existence.  Any substantial information about the case was derived from the internet, including through non-credible government “astroturfers” posting pro-government commentary on blogs and Facebook, according to our interviews with Azerbaijani social media users, one of whom remarked: “There is no way that a villager, a poor person in Baku, or someone in a regional city would have any idea that Emin and Adnan exist.”  The arrest of the bloggers was targeted at an elite group: frequent internet users who would hear of the arrests online and become afraid to use the internet for activism.[iv]

In Azerbaijan, there is a non-relationship between frequency of internet use and support for political protest.  Unlike in the Arab world, where citizens were mobilized by the documentation of state crimes on social media, the arrest of Azerbaijani bloggers only demoralized frequent internet users.  We argue that this is because of the Azerbaijani government’s embrace of “networked authoritarianism”: the use of the internet to compete with and engage with internet activists through propaganda campaigns in cyberspace and physical force on the ground. Despite the low level of opposition in Azerbaijan, the government is threatened by internet use.  Their concern is rooted in a brand of authoritarianism particular to former Soviet authoritarian states, whose leaders lack clear ideological motives and focus on maintaining power.  The Aliyev government values stability above all else, and will go to great lengths to prevent the population to consider alternative forms of politics. Young Azerbaijanis, having grown up in a chaotic post-Soviet environment, similarly value stability and are averse to political risks.  The government capitalizes on this by making any political action online – even ones that are merely an expression of criticism, as in the donkey blogger case, instead of a rallying cry for action – seem risky.

Networked authoritarianism is a successful strategy because it represents a willingness to augment policy in response to changing politics. After the Arab Spring, the government declared not only online critiques of the government, but also a host of seemingly neutral social media activities as threatening to the national order and symptomatic of intellectual degeneration.  Azerbaijani mainstream press coverage of the Arab spring emphasized the number of deaths and noted the dissimilarities between Azerbaijan and Arab countries, but did not mention the goals of activists or their use of social media.  However, on the very day the “Arab spring” began, state officials arrested former parliamentary candidate and online activist Baxtiyar Hajiyev.  Two other online youth activists, Jabbar Salavan and Dayanat Babayev, were arrested in February and March 2011, respectively.[v] Unlike the donkey blogger case, the recent cases are being covered by the mainstream media, who run stories linking social media use with mental illness and treason.  Television shows describe “family tragedies” and “criminal incidents” after young people join Facebook and Twitter.[vi] In March 2011, the Azerbaijani government’s Chief Psychiatrist said that social media users avoid real-life communication, have psychological problems and cannot maintain relationships.  In May 2011, the Parliament discussed the bad influence that social media has on Azerbaijani citizens and began proposing new regulatory laws. The Azerbaijani government now seeks not only to exploit internet use, but to curtail it.

We argue that both the “donkey bloggers” and the online activism conducted by Hajiyev, Salavan, and Babayev, threatened the government not only by its content, but also by virtue of its very existence.  Their activity represented an ideological alternative which threatened to mobilize mass opinion on a geographically ambiguous medium: a tactic doubly threatening to authoritarian legitimation.[vii].  The administration cast the bloggers and social media activists as villains in a new national narrative that sent a harsh message about citizenship and internet use.  Initially they targeted a specific group: frequent internet users who had the greatest resources with which to question the legitimacy of the regime and, as young and educated citizens, perhaps the most to lose by doing so.  After the Arab spring, the government began to head off the next generation of potential activists by demonizing social media to the general public and allowing the newer online cases to be publicized in the mainstream press.

The government’s campaign against social media has so far been unsuccessful.  According to Facebakers, a Facebook analytic tool, in January 2010 there were 105,000 Azerbaijanis on the site, in December there were 279,000.  At the end of July 2011 there were 431,600.[viii] Two-thirds of the July 2011 users are under 24 years of age.  Unless the government attempts to block social media access entirely, it is likely that Facebook use will continue to grow.  The question remains how Azerbaijanis will react to the recent arrests of Facebook activists.  It is possible that, as in the donkey affair, the publicity surrounding the arrests will only further deter young Azerbaijanis from pursuing activism, as they will be more intimately exposed to its consequences.


The authors wish to thank the Azerbaijani activists with whom we discussed this project, as well as the Caucasus Research Resource Center.

[i]Kedzie (1997) argues that dictators who open their country to the internet for economic reasons inadvertently encourage democratic development.  Zuckerman (2008) claims that apolitical internet users logging on for entertainment purposes may accidentally discover political content and become radicalized in the process.

[ii] See de Waal (2011), Gutbrod (2011), Kendzior (2011), and Ries (2002) for analyses of the enduring problems of apathy and cynicism in former Soviet states.

[iii] Via World News Connection

[iv]Which, in 2010, was less than 10% of the Azerbaijani population, and primarily consisted of young well-educated wealthy capital city residents (Pearce & Rice, forthcoming).

[v] As of this writing all three remain in custody.

[vi]This would fall into the category of state censorship of social media to preserve the public good (Howard, Agarwal, & Hussain, 2011).

[vii] As Rahimi (2011) notes, “cyberspace presents a social space with mythic force”, producing “new senses that often reveal a new way of doing politics” (p. 173)

[viii] Part of the growth can be explained by the introduction of Facebook Zero (free access to Facebook via a mobile device) in July 2011, although the Azerbaijani government tried to prevent the application from entering the market.



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