The ability of social networking platforms to mobilize anti-government protesters is a well-documented phenomenon. But in the aftermath of recent political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, social networks also have proven themselves a useful tool for maintaining order, and for helping the victims of violence.
Before the April 6-7 events that sent former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev into exile, social media platforms had become a critical outlet for independent reporting and information sharing, given the Bakiyev administration’s growing control of mainstream media outlets. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
In the midst of the popular upheaval, a handful of social networking websites -- including Twitter and Facebook, but predominantly popular, local forums, such as diesel.elcat.kg and kloop.kg -- became the focal point of a massive online information exchange. In particular, Diesel – with nearly 40,000 registered users – established itself as a go-to source for information, as well as rumors, concerning the violence, looting, and the subsequent workings of the provisional government. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“Posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Diesel Forums provided immediate information later confirmed by credible news agencies. From these sources I was able to update my relatives in remote parts of the country with a phone call,” said Nazima Adbybekova a young woman from the southeastern city of Naryn now working in Bishkek.
Before the unrest, “Diesel was where everyone came for an honest and fair discussion on the political situation in Kyrgyzstan. This continued as protests grew in Bishkek and everyone needed quick and accessible information,” said Ajara Beishembaeva, chair of the Masters of Business Administration program at the American University of Central Asia.
To the satisfaction of many social networking users, such rapid-fire communications platforms were useful not only in helping to tear down of a corrupt administration, but in attempts to construct a new order.
Almost immediately after the collapse of Bakiyev’s administration, social media users shifted their focus, using networks to stop looting. For example, as rioters smashed shop windows and ransacked government ministries on the nights of April 7-8, social networking websites led the effort to organize volunteer, civilian defense brigades.
The volunteer groups saw their membership swell when online posts called for emergency protection. Organizers then published relevant contact information for interested individuals.
“People posted my phone number and the contact information of our druzhina [civilian defense group] on Diesel. If there were any problems for those facing the looters, we would receive a call and come immediately to protect and defend their property,” said Orzubek Nazarov, a former MP and champion boxer who founded the 3,000-member strong Spartak Druzhina.
On the street, civilian defense group members used cell phone browsers to check updated postings to track the movement of looters, Nazarov said.
Once the immediate threat of looting was contained, social networking was instrumental in organizing charity efforts to help those affected by the unrest.
“We used social media and networking sites like Diesel and Facebook to quickly raise money,” said Asel Kasenova, one of the founding members of the April Relief Fund, a group that raised more than $1,700 from local donors and over $3,500 internationally in one week.
Another charity effort provided material assistance to police officers who were deployed against protesters in Bishkek on April 7. Many members of security forces were afraid to come to work after the April events, fearing they would be blamed for the bloodshed and face retribution.
But hearing how young police cadets injured in the riots were unable to afford medical treatment, former journalist Sveta Shonarova created a Diesel post that immediately received widespread support across the country.
Spurred on by her efforts, Internet users sent food, medicine, and 10 kilograms of letters to police officers injured during the uprising. “The 10,000 visitors in two hours after posting was quite a shock. Everyone was willing to help, offering their time and wanting to donate their resources,” said Shonarova.
In an April 20 news release, the Interior Ministry recognized the role played by social media platforms and thanked Diesel users for assisting injured officers.
While beneficial in many instances, social networks during the April events also helped propagate false rumors, stoking fears and, possibly, inciting violence. “Of Course Diesel and Facebook were huge for informing people across the country [about events], but, at times, individuals with suspicious agendas spread lies and even dangerous provocations,” said Aizat Jakybalieva a local university student who followed the events of April 6 and 7 online.
In perhaps the most significant case of fear-mongering, one online post during the evening of April 7 reported that 50,000 pro-Bakiyev supporters were intent on converging on Bishkek, with the apparent intention of restoring the ousted president. The rumor was false, but it nevertheless circulated quickly, spreading panic throughout the city.
Diesel tried to curb such abuse by placing a moratorium on new registrants and introducing guidelines, but plenty of subsequent unsubstantiated rumors have made it into circulation. Some were later deleted.
There are some in Kyrgyzstan who believe that meddlesome foreign actors used the anonymity provided by social networking websites to carry out an information campaign against the Bakiyev government. And many fingers are pointing not westward, but to Kyrgyzstan’s large neighbor to the North.
A US Embassy official told EurasiaNet.org; “Look at the huge number of newly registered users on Diesel Forums leading up to the uprising. I’d say the Russian government was using the site as a way to influence events on the streets.”