Twitter in Uzbekistan: Analyzing an Intriguing Surge
Before you can have a "Twitter revolution" – first, you must have Twitter, and Internet or mobile phone access, of course. With thousands of political and religious dissidents tortured and jailed, and any unauthorized civic activity ruthlessly persecuted, Uzbekistan is very far from a Twitter revolution – or any sort of revolution at all. It may be setting itself up for one in the long run, however, as other dictatorships have found in the Middle East – and an intriguing burst of usage gives an inkling of what may come.
Last August, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, reported a story from the business site UzDaily.com about Twitter usage in Uzbekistan. Dom Sagolla, one of the creators of the micro-blogging platform, gave a presentation at the World Congress on Information Technologies. Combing through figures from various countries, he observed a surge in activity on Twitter from Uzbekistan, although the number of users remained among the lowest. Using data from PeopleBrowser, a firm that analyzes social media usage, Sagolla found that from comparisons of the date May 16, 2009 with May 16, 2010, Uzbekistan apparently led the world in growth rates on Twitter, followed by Indonesia and Venezuela. He thought this might hold some significance for tracking future technological or cultural developments.
Radio Ozodlik contacted media expert Tulkin Umaraliev who said that Central Asia in general, and Uzbekistan in particular, have been considered areas of little Twitter development. Umaraliev remarked that the sample of only one day could simply mean that people talked to each other more on that particular day, or could have had a chain reaction to something, as a “tweet” or short message counts as not just an original post, but a reply or a resending of anybody else’s tweet. He also noted that it is impossible to tell if some people are actually located in Uzbekistan; dissident twitterers and bloggers often hide their location to avoid reprisals.
Of course, here at EurasiaNet, we know what was happening on May 16, 2010: we published as a partner post the story RFE/RL broke about the sensational closing of the conglomerate Zeromax, one of Uzbekistan’s most powerful businesses, in which President Islam Karimov’s own daughter, Gulnara Karimova, was reportedly involved. The company -- once involved in everything from fuel to precious metals to construction to a sports stadium -- was seized and put into bankruptcy and its director jailed for a time. No doubt there were quite a few anxious business types as well as Central Asia watchers twittering that day.
Although Sagolla’s report doesn’t note it, this growth must have surged even higher the next month in June, with the regional and international concern about pogroms against ethnic Uzbeks in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Even so, Twitter usage remained at low rates, and in fact according to PeopleBrowser, Uzbekistan holds fifth place from the bottom of the list of countries where people use Twitter. Sagolla didn’t specify the numbers of users or tweets in Uzbekistan, so his findings have continued to be debated.
One way to get a rough sense of how many people are using Twitter from Uzbekistan is to search on the key word “Uzbekistan” or related words and see results (many involve sex trafficking and are NSFW). Some tweets will have geolocation data or hints like a link to a photo.
Twitter has some local competition -- a Russian-language service called 140.uz, with the same character limitations as Twitter, which can be used on either computers or mobile phones. Umaraliev says this service doesn’t have very many users either, but the number is steadily growing; there are many mobile phone users in Uzbekistan already texting SMS messages. The Twitter interface is not yet available in the Russian or Uzbek languages so a user needs at least a minimal familiarity with English to get started, and then he can type in another language.
People in Uzbekistan are increasingly motivated to search out alternative news media, as the state control of the media can get so severe that even stories the whole world is following, like the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the war that Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi is waging on his own people, aren’t being covered at all.
Meanwhile, Uzbek authorities have stepped up the paternal messaging on television: rock music is of the devil, and young people need to avoid such pernicious Western influences. Recently, Kamalak-TV, a cable provider of mainly Russian television (which isn’t so free itself but is degrees freer than the Uzbek national fare) discontinued service, sending people off to scour marketplaces for satellite dishes. The suppression of media only leads people to seek alternative news even harder.