Can Minor Languages Make Revolution? Uzbekistan and the codes of activism on the Internet

If you tweet a protest, and no one listens, does it make a sound?

On June 27, 2011, two television journalists from Uzbekistan, Malohat Eshonqulova and Saodat Omonova, were arrested. The women had been picketing the presidential palace of Islam Karimov—ruler of Uzbekistan for all of the former Soviet republic’s 23 years as an independent state—to demand an end to media censorship. In Uzbekistan, June 27 is Mass Media Workers’ Day: a holiday to celebrate Uzbekistan’s non-existent tradition of a free press.

Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state in Central Asia with some of the harshest restrictions on speech and media in the world. Activists, journalists, and others who voice critical opinions are routinely fined, detained and driven from the country. The only thing surprising about Malohat and Saodat’s June arrest was that it had not happened earlier. In December 2010, Malohat and Saodat were fired from the television station Yoshlar (Youth) after organizing a demonstration in the main square of Uzbekistan’s capital city, Tashkent. They had since sent 56 letters to President Karimov, asking him to address the constraints Uzbekistan’s journalists faced.

As Malohat and Saodat picketed in front of the palace, holding signs that read “Dear Islam Karimov, please grant us an audience,” President Karimov assured Uzbek citizens that an audience with him is always available. It is called the Internet.

“We fully support the desire of our fellow citizens to freely use the Internet,” Karimov proclaimed in a prepared speech. “I want to repeat once again: we absolutely do not accept the establishment of any walls or restrictions in the information world that lead to isolation.”

Like the premise of Mass Media Workers’ Day itself, Karimov’s claim was disingenuous. By 2011, Uzbekistan had developed the most elaborate system of online censorship in Central Asia. Websites sharing controversial information about politics or religion were blocked, and state security officials monitored which websites Uzbek citizens frequented. What Uzbekistan had not yet managed to control was social media—sites like Facebook and Twitter that had recently gained attention for their role as platforms for dissidents during the Arab Spring.

Malohat and Saodat saw an opening.

Unlike many Uzbek journalists, Malohat and Saodat were not sent to prison for their protest. After a 10-minute trial at which they were granted no attorney, they were found guilty under Article 201 of Uzbekistan’s criminal code (violating the procedure for organizing and holding demonstrations), charged a hefty fine, and set free.

In a media ecology that swings from the harsh demands of efficacy to the smug protection of apathy, defending the vulnerable can be interpreted as an attack. Anger and compassion are two sides of the same reaction—a reaction that demands accountability without providing easy answers.

Following their release, Malohat and Saodat followed their president’s advice: They went online. They announced that they were holding a hunger strike until an audience with the president was granted, and they were going to show it to the world.

Political demonstrations are rare in Uzbekistan. Since the early 1990s, nearly all Uzbeks who openly oppose the government have been jailed or driven into exile. When protests do occur, they are never covered by Uzbek state media, thus rendering them essentially invisible to the Uzbek public.

But technology had changed, even if times had not. In social media, Malohat and Saodat saw an opportunity to convey their message to both Uzbeks and people worldwide.

On June 30, they set up the Twitter account “Malohat va Saodat” (Malohat and Saodat) and proceeded to live-tweet their starvation strike. They tweeted about the challenges facing reporters in Uzbekistan, about the hypocrisy and corruption of the government, and about the physical agony they endured. They tweeted when they were hospitalized and when Saodat was refused treatment on the orders of state officials. They tweeted nearly on the hour for days, begging the world for assistance.

“Whoever is on the side of TRUTH, please support us,” they tweeted. Their message was desperate, impossible to ignore.

Except for one problem. It was in Uzbek.

Kimki HAQ tarafida bo’lsa bizni qo’llasin, iltimos,” they tweeted, to silence.

Over a three-week period, Malohat and Saodat tweeted 730 times. Their tweets garnered a few dozen replies from the very few—at that time, likely less than ten—exiled Uzbek activists on Twitter, and from the even fewer concerned Westerners who understood the Uzbek language. By the time Malohat and Saodat retired their account, on July 23, 2011, they had attracted 65 followers and no international media attention. Their story remained untold in Uzbekistan, where replying to the account was risky and reporting on its existence forbidden.

Malohat and Saodat’s near death on Twitter scarcely merited a retweet.

Why did this happen? After all, Malohat and Saodat had employed the same communications strategies that dissidents in other states had used to great success. Two months before, Bahraini activist Zainab Al-Khawaja had pursued a similar course of action, using Twitter to broadcast a hunger strike in protest of state oppression. Al-Khawaja’s online activism prompted widespread conversation (and criticism) among her fellow citizens in Bahrain and her efforts were covered by many Western media outlets, including The New York Times.

As television journalists, Malohat Eshonqulova and Saodat Omonova were censored in their homeland. As Twitter activists, they were ignored by the world. When the histories of online activism are written, Malohat and Saodat will not even be a footnote. But that, in itself, is a reason their story is worth telling.

“Awareness” vs. “Real-Life Action”

The struggle of Malohat and Saodat shows how the “rules” of online activism—that social media campaigns can inspire widespread support and even changes in policy—are in fact the exception. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed that “The medium is the message.” Today the medium is the message is the messenger, direct and unimpeded—in terms of the technical means to convey information. For that information to be shared, circulated, taken seriously and acted upon is another matter.

In recent years, the use of Twitter to draw attention to issues like corporate avarice, racism, sexism, police brutality and war crimes has prompted debate over whether online campaigns are effective political tools or distracting “slacktivism.” Those who deride Twitter campaigns as useless or harmful tend to be the ones criticized by its users. Opponents of Twitter campaigns range from foreign leaders like Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who proclaimed “There is a problem called Twitter right now and you can find every kind of lie there” before tear-gassing his people and banning online media—to the predominantly white US media outlets who coin terms like “toxic Twitter” to lambast the predominantly African-American Twitter users who critique them.

Other critics dismiss Twitter campaigns by refuting claims of efficacy that no activist actually made. “Can hashtag activism save kidnapped Nigerian girls?” the New York Times asked, alluding to the April 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign started by Nigerian activists to spread awareness of the crimes of Boko Haram. No one involved in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign claimed that the hashtag itself would perform such a feat. The hashtag was a plea—let these lives be worth something, let this struggle not be denied, let them not go silently.

But in a media ecology that swings from the harsh demands of efficacy to the smug protection of apathy, defending the vulnerable can be interpreted as an attack. Anger and compassion are two sides of the same reaction—a reaction that demands accountability without providing easy answers.

Twitter activism often seeks to prove that issues shrugged off by the advantaged as “just life” are problems that should be urgently addressed—the routine oppression of racial, religious or class discrimination; or long-running conflicts and wars. But after bringing public attention to problems, online activists are often criticized for not solving the problems themselves and thus creating “awareness” without “real-life action.”

Blaming online activists for not solving structural problems not only grossly underestimates the capacity of the average online activist to do so, but also serves to discourage the public from discussing problems and seeking accountability. It is condemnation masked as concern, used to demoralize and immobilize. People who write to sway the powerful from a position of powerlessness are usually dismissed—whether in Twitter or in print. But in an attention economy, deriding a campaign only publicizes it. If someone is mocking a Twitter campaign, then the campaign has accomplished its goal: making visible a problem that was never truly invisible, but which people refused to see.

That Twitter campaigns shared by millions of ordinary people are often dismissed for merely creating “awareness” poses an interesting problem. If “awareness” is regarded as meaningless in its own right, what does lack of awareness mean?

Where does it leave activists like Malohat and Saodat, whose Twitter campaign was not mocked, or dismissed, or rebuffed—but utterly ignored? Where does it leave those who speak in public only to hear the sound of their own voices? Who decides when online activism counts?

Attention must be paid

Over the past decade, the term “the attention economy”—conceived by economist Herbert A. Simon in 1961 to describe competition within mass media—has become a mainstay in conversations about digital communication.

“We’ve seen a rise in the ability to create media and advocate for your cause and your viewpoint over the past decade,” Internet theorist Ethan Zuckerman wrote in a 2012 piece reflecting on professional and personal media campaigns. “There’s been a massive rise in content available to all of us—and an accompanying rise in ability to choose what we pay attention to—over the past two decades. The result is an increasingly fierce battle for attention.”

Scholarship on Internet activism often positions attention in opposition to scarcity: If you are paying attention to one thing, you are ignoring something else. While a valid point, this framework plays down the structural constraints that prevent an online campaign from being heard in the first place.

Activists often use social media to voice their concerns because they have no other outlet. Social media can—to some degree—circumvent domestic censorship or subvert a dominant media narrative.

What social media cannot override is language itself—and the global hierarchy of languages that structures the international attention economy.

Free online services like Google Translate have made it possible for activists from many parts of the world—most notably, from repressive state like Iran, China, Russia and Bahrain that use non-Latin alphabets—to convey their message to an international audience. But this is not true for activists from all parts of the world. The languages unavailable through online translation services are often spoken in the countries least covered by the international media and the countries that practice the most severe domestic censorship.

The former Soviet republics of Central Asia are examples of states bearing this dual disadvantage. Activists from this region not only struggle to speak, but to be understood—both in terms of their political message and their literal words.

Uzbek is a Turkic language spoken by about 30 million people worldwide—most in Uzbekistan, but with a significant number in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as well. Over the past 80 years, the language has undergone numerous reforms designed to limit citizen knowledge or bolster state-sponsored objectives.

Prior to Soviet conquest, Uzbek was written in Arabic script, although most Uzbek speakers were illiterate. In 1928, the script was changed to Cyrillic—as were most alphabets in the USSR—and Russian became enforced as the language of politics, education and culture. To prefer Uzbek language to Russian was considered an insult to Soviet—that is, “universal”, that is, Russian—values.

When the anti-Soviet Uzbek opposition gained momentum in the 1980s, promoting Uzbek language and culture was key to their agenda. Writing in Uzbek was an act of self-determination, as was reviving the Uzbek-language works of the early 20th-century Uzbek Muslim reformist intellectuals—known as jadidists—killed during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

In 1991, Uzbekistan abruptly became independent following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Islam Karimov, then communist party secretary, became president and promptly co-opted the opposition’s Uzbek nationalist platform to fill the ideological void left by the Soviets while simultaneously draining the opposition of its unique appeal. He continued policies practiced under communism—surveillance, corruption and cronyism—under the pretext of Uzbek nationalism.

Part of being a good nationalist meant distancing oneself from the Soviet past so that few would draw comparisons to the neo-Soviet present. In 1995, Karimov announced that Uzbek would no longer be written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but would switch to the Latin script, which had briefly been employed in the 1920s prior to Russian domination. In an impoverished country like Uzbekistan, an alphabet change is difficult to achieve. Most Uzbek books, newspapers and other print materials prior to the 1990s are in Cyrillic—the Soviets destroyed many of the Arabic-script ones—and could not be easily replaced with Latin versions.

Today Uzbek citizens are required to master two alphabets. In practice, this does not always happen, leading to “generational illiteracy” in which Uzbeks of different ages greatly prefer one alphabet over the other. It is possible to find families in Uzbekistan in which elderly people learned to read Uzbek in the Arabic script, middle-aged people learned in the Cyrillic script, and young people learned in the Latin script. Confusion over spelling abounds, particularly when it comes to characters that are not included on Russian or American keyboards.

When an Uzbek activist decides to share her ideas on the Internet, she has to balance linguistic prerogatives that few in other countries have to consider. If she knows Russian, she has to decide whether writing in Russian—and potentially reaching an international audience as well as the 41 percent of Uzbeks who can read Russian—outweighs not being able to reach non-Russian speaking Uzbeks or seeming to value a foreign language over one’s native tongue. If she writes in Uzbek, she has to choose which alphabet—Cyrillic, to reach older generations and Uzbeks in neighboring former Soviet republics who only know the Cyrillic version? Or Latin, to reach the younger readers who comprise the bulk of Uzbekistan’s Internet users?

Accompanying the language and alphabet problems are the particularities of Uzbek grammar. Uzbek has an agglutinative structure that makes it less than ideal for platforms like Twitter that have character constraints. In an interview with Words without Borders, exiled writer Hamid Ismailov—one of the very few Uzbek novelists to be translated into English—describes how the structure of Uzbek creates a reader-writer dynamic poorly captured in translation:

In Uzbek all verbs are placed at the end of the sentence, so that is the most active part of the phrase, and the closer a word comes to the end the more important it is. So you can hold back the essence of what you are going to say to the very end. And unless you have heard the whole sentence you can’t fully understand what it’s about, or whether it’s a question, a statement, an exclamation, a wish, an intention or something else. In short, you apply different tools to a different reading of the same reality and then that reality becomes different.

This is not to say that Uzbeks do not write with brevity—Uzbek poetry, proverbs and pithy wordplay abound—but that straightforward declarations in Uzbek are rarely straightforward until they are fully declared. It is hard to do that on a medium that requires one to speak in 140-character increments.

When Maloat and Saodat took to Twitter, they faced numerous disadvantages. They spoke a language written in multiple alphabets and untranslatable through modern technology. They had to convey conviction and brevity in a language where the former is often expressed through the lack of the latter.

Most difficult of all, they had to deliver their message from a country where people are arrested for expressing their opinions, self-censorship is rampant, and most citizens deeply value stability even as they long for change. They had to convince a world that had never cared about Uzbekistan that they should care about Uzbekistan, while convincing Uzbeks that they themselves were acting as good Uzbeks, patriots who sought an audience with their leader. They had to attract followers online who feared being followed in Uzbekistan on the ground. They had to master the global attention economy while speaking in a fragmented language to a fragmented audience.

During their three-week, live-tweeted starvation strike, Malohat and Saodat switched languages, alphabets, and approaches. They started in Russian, then switched to Cyrillic Uzbek, then switched to Latin Uzbek, then switched back to Cyrillic. They alternated between commenting on broad political problems and sharing their private travails. They received responses from Uzbek political activists, reporters at networks like Radio Free Europe, and activists at groups like Human Rights Watch—in short, the same people who would know about the case anyway.

In July 2011, Malohat and Saodat ended their hunger strike and their Twitter activism, having been unable to procure either an audience with Karimov or attention to the plight of Uzbek journalists. They ended their Twitter crusade with a cryptic warning:

“If we are slandered so much for speaking the truth in our own homeland, it will strike terror into the hearts of those around us who want to speak out for justice” (1)

“And THEY know that very well. This is the way they want to conquer dissenters with force, to mercilessly cut off any heads that want to rise up” (2)

“But there is one thing that must not be forgotten: no matter how hard you try to push back/hold back against the flow of running water, the force of the blocked current will be so strong that (3)

“if the barrier cracks, the water will flow everywhere, there will be a flood, a disaster” (4)

“If you can use life-giving water wisely, it is gold, but if you don’t know how to use it—harm can come” (5)

They wrote in Uzbek. No one responded.

Visibility before interest

The attention economy is a quantitative economy. It is measured in hits, clicks, likes and follows. It is an affirmative economy, in which the absence of affirmation is viewed as failure. To be ignored is to be invisible, to be invisible is not to be. What is viral, here, does not infect but is infectious. What can be counted is mistaken for what counts.

The constraints Malohat and Saodat faced were in part constraints of language. But they were mostly constraints of power.

Malohat and Saodat were ignored not only because they spoke Uzbek, but because they are Uzbek. The desire to understand what is happening in Uzbekistan is related to one’s interest in Uzbekistan. One’s interest in Uzbekistan is determined by one’s ability to obtain information about Uzbekistan. The ability to obtain information about Uzbekistan is bound by the ability to understand the Uzbek language and hear from Uzbeks who are able to communicate freely—which, both on the internet and on the ground in Uzbekistan, they are not allowed to do.

It is not surprising that the struggle of two Uzbek journalists failed to broadly resonate. But it is misleading to think this means they did not matter—for what “matters” is not a matter to be objectively decided by those outside the story.

In May 2005, the government of Uzbekistan shot to death roughly 800 people gathered at a political protest in the city of Andijon. But most Uzbek citizens did not hear about the massacre until days after it had occurred. The government cordoned off the area, blocked investigators from the scene, and expelled foreign media and local reporters, but not before a few had managed to get the stories online.

Many Uzbeks told me the first time they heard about Andijon was through an article on the internet. Controversial political information travels out of Uzbekistan through word of mouth, is published online by Uzbeks abroad, and is circulated back through word of mouth again.

In a constricted media and political environment, it is not surprising that the struggle of two Uzbek journalists failed to broadly resonate. But it is misleading to think this means they did not matter—for what “matters” is not a matter to be objectively decided by those outside the story. The quantitative evaluation of digital activism obscures the respective limitations, and goals, of participants. “Public interest” is less a measure of what the public is interested in than what the public is able to see—but before that, it is a measure of who gets to be designated “the public.”

Authoritarian states are spaces where public sentiment is kept private while private conversations are monitored. In online spaces, everything is potentially public, and so lack of public attention is construed in evaluative terms: “success,” “failure.” It is a surface reading of the impenetrable—the silent reader, the talk behind the scenes. What seems to be overlooked is often being quietly looked over.

Activists in authoritarian states write the archives of their unheralded actions. Where outsiders hear the sound of silence, their countrymen hear the stifled cry.

“Through digital media untold”

In April 2014, Uzbek dissidents from around the world gathered at a Marriott Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. They were attending a qurultoy—an old Turkic word for “tribal council,” originally applied to the gatherings of Genghis Khan’s descendants—sponsored by the Birdamlik (Solidarity) movement. Birdamlik is a decade-old political organization which became headquartered in St. Louis after its leader fled Uzbekistan in 2005. From that point on, it has been primarily run through the Internet.

The Uzbek activists in attendance had met each other not in Uzbekistan, but online. They were each other’s Facebook friends and Twitter followers. They read each other’s websites and commented on each other’s blogs. They wrote online in Uzbek—to each other, for each other. They sometimes wrote for the world, but few in the world listened to them. But they listened to each other.

Now finally, in America’s heartland, they gathered face to face. They gave speeches in Uzbek, they gave toasts in Uzbek. They handed out political platforms, in Uzbek, in folders decorated with Uzbek political slogans. They live-streamed the meeting but hardly anyone watched: The participants were speaking Uzbek. The world could watch it, but it was not theirs to see.

In the middle of the first day, the organizers announced that they had a guest who would be phoning in through Skype. It was Malohat Eshonqulova.

Malohat had become involved with Birdamlik after her Twitter campaign attracted their attention. Since 2011, she had worked with the movement in Uzbekistan, campaigning for political reforms. In December 2013, she was among many Birdamlik activists detained after holding a rally commemorating Uzbekistan’s Constitution Day, in which they pushed, futilely, for the principles of Uzbekistan’s democratic constitution to be followed.

Soon after the rally, Malohat complained of illness. She suspected she had been poisoned by Uzbek government officials while under interrogation. Physically weak, she struggled to stay active in a movement she had helped invigorate. She invited 30 Uzbeks to her home to address the qurultoy in St. Louis. Uzbekistan’s state security officials discovered her plan and barred them from attending. Malohat was left to talk alone.

In St. Louis, the Uzbek audience applauded when Malohat’s face appeared on screen. But the Skype connection from Uzbekistan was poor. She tried to speak but no one could hear what she was saying. Unable to communicate, Malohat said she would record her speech and send it to them to watch later. But when Uzbeks in St. Louis received the file, it would not open.

Once again, Malohat’s story traveled through digital media untold. But those who wanted to listen heard it—in its attempts, in its absences. Digital activism is quantitatively measured but qualitatively felt, through the lack of impact as much as the impact itself. It reaffirms what citizens of authoritarian states already know: Someone is always listening.