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Social Media in Tajikistan's Election: A “Milestone” or Just “Noise”?

The recent presidential election in Tajikistan was unprecedented in terms of the amount of social media discussion it had stirred. It is unclear, however, whether that discussion really made any difference as the outcome of the November 6 polls was not too much different from the previous elections held in the country.

A “milestone”

On the BBC Media Action blog, journalist Esfandiar Adena asserts:

The run-up to the election has proved a milestone for social media networks in the country – with fierce political debate taking place online and opposition leaders using social networks to call for a boycott of the election.

He cites the criticism of the authorities’ decision to deprive Tajikistani migrant workers in Russia of an opportunity to vote and the discussion of the idea of a boycott of the polls as examples of the election-related debate that did not happen anywhere except social media.

In a different blog, Adena suggests that in the months running up to the elections, social media became “the battlefield for the most savage skirmishes” between the government and its critics. Another BBC journalist, Khayrullo Fayz, claims that the growing internet penetration and the increasing amount of political debate in social media “changed the atmosphere of the elections” in Tajikistan.

Some netizens agree with these claims. Temur Mengliev writes [ru] on Blogiston.tj:

Знаете, чем мне запомнились эти выборы? Тем, как активно они обсуждались в социальных сетях. И в “Одноклассниках”, и в “Фейсбуке”, и в “ВКонтакте” о выборах говорили намного больше, чем по телевидению и на собраниях “экспертов”.

Я уже писал о том, какую свободу и возможность быть услышанным дают социальные сети и блоги. На этих выборах интернет дал нам возможность обсуждать, критиковать, высмеивать, предлагать и выявлять нарушения в ходе выборов. А ведь только семь лет назад, на выборах в 2006 году, всего этого не было. Если сравнить эти два избирательных периода, то становится ясно, как много дал нашему обществу доступ к интернету.

You know what I will remember this elections for? For the way it was actively discussed in social networks. On Odnokassniki, Facebook, and VKontakte, the election generated much more discussion than on television or in “expert” meetings.

I have already written about how much freedom and an opportunity to be heard social networks and blogs give us. During this election, the internet gave us an opportunity to discuss, criticize, ridicule, offer suggestions, and to disclose electoral violations. While only seven years ago, in the 2006 [presidential] polls, we did not have anything of the sort. A comparison of these two elections makes it clear how much our society benefits from internet access.

The blogger believes [ru] that the increasing penetration of the internet in Tajikistan's society is having a transformative effect:

Сейчас все больше и больше наш народ начинает пользоваться возможностями интернета. Количество блогов и учетных записей пользователей в различных социальных сетях растет. Люди заходят в интернет уже не только для того, чтобы проверить почту и скачать музыку. Они читают, думают, и самое главное выражают свою точку зрения.Под любой статьей уже через несколько часов появляются десятки коментариев.

К чему это я? Да к тому, что интернет дает нам возможность пусте медленно, но менять нашу жизнь к лучшему. Наша политическая система обязательно изменится в недалеком будущем, и я уверен, что огромную роль в этих переменах сыграют молодые люди, вооруженные интернетом.

Our people increasingly use the opportunities afforded by the internet. The number of [Tajikistani] blogs and social media profiles is rising. People no longer access internet only to check their emails and download music. They read, think, and most importantly express their opinions. Any article generates dozens of comments within several hours after being published.

What is it all about? I believe that the internet gives us an opportunity to improve our lives albeit slowly. Our political system will surely change in the not very distant future, and I am sure that young people armed with internet access will play a major role in this change.

Several readers agreed with the blogger. Rustam Gulov commented [ru]:

Круто! Полностью поддерживаю Вашу точку зрения. Это действительно очень важно осознавать насколько Интернет имеет большой потенциал в решении вопросов общественно-политического значения…

Great! I full agree with your point of view. It is very important to recognize the great potential of the internet in helping resolve socio-political issues…

Digital Tajikistan shared a link to the blog on Twitter, suggesting [ru] that the way the government dealt with online criticism demonstrated that social media mattered:

The fact that the authorities cut access to websites and social networks so often also shows that they are afraid of the internet.

“Just noise”

Yet some netizens think that social media debate mattered little as it did not have any influence on the result of the polls. 

Commenting under Mengliev's blog, Izbiratel’ [Voter] wrote [ru]:

В интернете было такое ощущение, что реальные выборы, реальная борьба. А в жизни все осталось так же, как и было.

On the internet it seemed as if there was a real election, real struggle. In [real] life, however, everything remained the way it had been before.

Another user, Alexey Somin, chipped in [ru]:

Не нужно преувеличивать. Ну да, пошумели в интернете, погудели. Но шум он и есть шум. На выборы это разве повлияло?

Don't exaggerate. Well, yes, there was some noise and buzz on the internet. But noise is just noise. Did it have any influence of the elections?

But Blog Avestiyca suggests [ru] that even if active social media discussion did not have a major impact on the outcome of the polls, the very fact that the discussion took place should be applauded:

Признаюсь, мне впервые было интересно наблюдать за шумихой, творящейся в интернете. И именно что в интернете, ибо в жизни было тихо и спокойно, сколько общался с друзьями, все говорили: “Не поверишь – зайду в соцсеть и как будто не в Таджикистане, а где-нибудь во Франции! Страсти прям такие, ток вот в реале тишина”…

Но если взглянуть с другой стороны, то становится радостно от того, что люди поднимают головы и пытаются выразить свое мнение. Неуклюже, весьма бестолково, местами даже отвратительно, но пытаются. И это большой плюс, знак того, что людям уже остопиздела ситуация, когда тебя не ставят ни во грош, когда ты вдруг оглядываешься и понимаешь – имя твое никто и звать тебя никак.

I would like to admit that it was the first time when I found it actually interesting to observe the buzz on the internet. [It took place] only on the internet, while in [real] life everything was quiet and peaceful. Whenever I talked to my friends, they all said, “You won't believe it: when I log in a social network, it feels like I am somewhere in France rather than in Tajikistan. There is so much passionate discussion, although in real life things remain quiet”…

On the other hand, it makes me happy to realize that people are raising their heads and trying to voice their opinions. [They do so] awkwardly, stupidly, sometimes in an ugly way, but they are trying. This is a big plus. [This is] a sign that people are sick and tired of the situation in which they are seen as not mattering, like when you look around and realize that your name is nothing and you are a nobody.

Netizens have described the November 6 polls as an “imitation” of elections. The only genuine opposition candidate that had a slight chance of taking votes from the veteran president Emomali Rahmon pulled out of the contest early after not being able to collect the required number of signatures. After it became clear that the incumbent was facing five virtual unknowns in the polls, social media users reveled in mocking the president and his “challengers”. Some netizens contemplated a boycott of the election, although the idea never became very popular. At the same time, some Tajikistanis used social media to voice support for the incumbent (occasionally plagiarizing Putin's speeches and warning of near-apocalyptic scenarios in case of Rahmon's defeat at the polls). The official results gave Rahmon 84% of the vote, extending his two-decade-long hold on power in the country for another seven years.

  • Yoo Eun

    It is a truly thought-provoking question. In many parts of the world, social media does make lot, LOTS of noise and seems like setting topics for debates and even political agenda. However, there is always a huge gap between the actual election outcome/real changes and projections made based on the social media reactions. And people can easily get discouraged. Can we understand it just a ‘slow progress’ and think ‘as long as young people keep using social media to express their opinions, things will gradually get better’? OR is this can only be applied to few developed countries who have a strong democracy, and not the countries where corruption is widely prevalent?

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