Internet trolls a sign of the times for Central Asia?

As if censorship, blocked access, possible arrest, and even retaliation weren’t bad enough, now Internet users in Central Asia apparently have a new scourge to deal with in their fight to have their voices heard: the dreaded Internet troll.

This week, an article published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting takes a look at the growing trend of pro-government commenters and bloggers in Central Asian showing up to drown out possible opposition at any instance of online anti-government criticism. With more and more people getting access to Internet and authorities having an increasingly difficult time managing its citizens’ online activities, it seems as if Central Asian governments might actually be branching out into different–possibly softer–forms of information control.

From the article:

Tactics include crude abuse from online troublemakers in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to more sophisticated spoiling attempts in Kazakhstan, and online campaigns in Kyrgyzstan that are more like professional public relations exercises. The unifying feature is anonymity, preserved behind internet pseudonyms, and a desire to establish a pro-government narrative.”

In some ways, this isn’t exactly new.  We’ve posted in the past, for example, about Kazakh-hired PR firms ’polishing’ various Wikipedia entries. And it’s not like paid pro-government commentators is anything specific to Central Asia.  Last week in Russia, Anonymous hackers uncovered plans by a pro-Kremlin youth group to  pay bloggers to comment in support of Putin and against his detractors and opposition.

But it’s still hard to imagine what effect this new information offensive is having on Internet-savvy activists in Central Asia.  Already, bloggers and tweeters from the region have been struggling to have their voices heard by the outside world–especially after the Arab Spring. But now, what once used to be just voices in the wilderness trying to get a message out is now a veritable cacophony of Internet chaos, complicated by paid misinformation-ists and pro-government agitators.

While this trend is certainly worrying in the fact that many democratic voices will be drowned out by paid hacks and bot-nets, in a way it’s almost encouraging to see this shift in tactics on behalf of authorities. Central Asian governments, it seems, are now moving toward taking the fight over information to chat rooms and blog posts instead of just cutting off access.

It ‘s almost as if regimes in the region are realizing they are fighting an uphill battle for Internet freedom and that they can no longer rely on the heavy-handed censorship techniques they’ve relied on in the past.  Instead, they have to try and block out these voices by deploying their own PR battalions to sites across the Web, which can be expensive, and at best a zero-sum game.  But this could potentially put activists in a more powerful position to organize and get information out.  While they, of course, have to compete with this new riffraff, at least they’d get their voices out for thosewho know where to look.

And the IWPR article ends on a quite optimistic note, noting that, so far, the Internet trolls haven’t really been that much of a deterrent to CA Internet users. One Kyrgyz, quoted in the article said that despite the trolls, the Internet is still a place where “I can say what I think, find like-minded people, engage in discussions with them, and also debate with people who hold different views.”

But it seems that not everyone, however, has gotten these new marching orders.  Radio Free Europe is reporting that, in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek-language section of Wikipedia has apparently been blocked for several weeks. Wikipedia in Russian, Tajik and English, however, is still widely accessible.

C’mon guys, let’s get with the program here. Blocking Wikipedia is so 2011.

(Image: WikiCommons user JNL)

About the Author

Joshua Boissevain

Joshua Boissevain is a research associate and editorial assistant at Transitions Online. He's also a freelance journalist and photographer based in Prague. Find him on twitter at @joshboissevain.
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