Special: Current State of Social Networks in CA. By Mirzo-Bobir Achilov.

Mirzo-Bobir Achilov. MA in International Economics and Public Policy University of Trier.

Social networks are present in all areas of our life. In work, study or leisure time people use social networks to fasten their interaction with their customers, colleagues, friends, family members and with the rest of the world.  Some researchers link integration of social networks in daily life with globalization process and technological evolution (Chen and Zhang 2010, McGrew 2014)[i], while others see this integration as the natural behavior of people who need to communicate and explore the unknown (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, See also: Rosen et. al, 2010).[ii] In a technological world, people have more opportunities to satisfy their need for communication by participating in conversations through common social interaction platform (i.e. online social networks).

A social network happens to have at least two definitions given by the Oxford dictionary (2014). First, it is “a network of social interactions and personal relationships.” Second, “a dedicated website or other application which enables users to communicate with each other by posting information, comments, messages, images, etc.” is also a social network. In the article we will refer to the online social networks (i.e. website) to avoid mixing the terms.

Online social networks as we know them today have spread widely in the last two decades.[iii] The issues related to social networks and their influence have received considerable coverage in the last several years in connection with their use for mobilization of people and organization of social movements (Moldova in 2009, Iran 2009, Tunis 2010, Egypt 2011, and Ukraine in 2013). Unlike extensive analysis of online social networks spread and influence in the countries, which have experienced revolutionary movements, the development of the online interaction and mobilization tools in Central Asia (CA) has received little attention. The paper answers the question to what extent social networks can bring changes in Central Asian region.

Social Networks and Central Asian Countries

Social networks are not widely spread in the region to alter further changes. According to the Digital, Social and Mobile in 2015 report, internet penetration of CA region is 38%, whereas only 4% of the overall population of the region is active social network users.[iv] Table 1 gives more detailed outlook of the internet users by countries and the growth of rate as well as penetration of internet with respect to overall population. Kazakhstan has the highest internet penetration rate with 59%, followed by Uzbekistan with 40% whereas Turkmenistan has the smallest internet penetration 8% in the region. Meanwhile the annual growth rate of internet users in region countries appears to be the same. However, such report lacks information on methods of data collection and which social networks were considered during the elaboration of information. Considering the fact that all the countries in CA region have been expanding mobile-internet coverage during the last decade, a new boom in internet and social networks use is to be expected.

TABLE 1. INTERNET USERS BY COUNTRY
Rank Country Internet users 1 year growth % 1 year user growth Total country population Penetration (% of pop. with Internet)
38 Uzbekistan 11,914,665 12% 1,229,670 29,324,920 40.63%
43 Kazakhstan 9,850,123 11% 986,929 16,606,878 59.31%
112 Kyrgyzstan 1,359,416 12% 140,850 5,625,015 24.17%
113 Tajikistan 1,357,400 13% 153,157 8,408,947 16.14%
131 Turkmenistan 424,855 11% 43,584 5,307,171 8.01%

(Source: Internet Live Stats. Elaboration of data by International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations Population Division, Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), World Bank. Information as of 2014)

Social networks in Central Asian countries have their own specifics:

First, Russian social networks, namely Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte dominate the field[v]. The map below gives information on the most popular social networks by country according to traffic data. This characteristic can be explained by the fact that abovementioned social networks have entered CA region (in 2006) before Twitter and Facebook has started spreading[vi] all over the world. The interface language social networks were introduced to the users have also played its own role in their spread. Taking into consideration the fact that almost the whole post-soviet region still can speak or understand Russian language, navigate through the interface of these networks was much more easier rather than to do it in another language. Of course, all other social networks have also introduced possibility to change user interface language. However, it was only in 2008 and 2011 when Facebook[vii] and Twitter[viii] respectively, announced such opportunity and later in 2010 Facebook has started providing customer support in Russian language.[ix]

Second, based on initiatives made by the CA region and neighboring countries, we can state that social networks are under the monitoring of the CA region government agencies. [x] This specific can be not the case of only Central Asian governments. Because, Facebook itself monitors all chat activities of the users.[xi] However, such initiatives on monitoring user activities in social networks made this point as distinguishing characteristic of current state of the social networks in the Region (discussed later in the paper).

(Most popular social networking sites by country. Source: World Map of Social Networks, December 2014. http://vincos.it/world-map-of-social-networks/. See http://vincos.it/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/wmsn_animated_jul14_690.gif for animated version of Social networks world map)

Restricted or partly accessible and increased attention of the government structures to the social networks slows the spread of information and as a result restrains even positive changes that social networks can bring. As it was mentioned above, only a small part of internet users are active social network users in CA. However, during the last years, along with Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte the number of Facebook and Twitter users has increased in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.[xii] In Turkmenistan the access to the western social networks (namely, Facebook, YouTube, messengers like Whatsapp, Viber) is restricted[xiii], whereas Russian social networks (VK (Vkontakte), Odnoklassniki) are still freely accessible. YouTube, Facebook have been blocked several times by government order in Tajikistan[xiv]. There were also cases when Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have restricted access to the social network users.[xv]

High interest of the government structures to the social networks is explained by the destabilization factor of the networks which they played in mobilization of the population in Arab countries (Egypt, Tunisia and Libya) during the last years. According to RFE, during the speech at the Fourth Congress of the World’s Traditional Religions in Astana, Nazarbaev mentioned that “instead of distributing real knowledge, social networks often pour floods of lies, split societies, and create walls within countries.”[xvi]  These types of comments suggest that the governments of Central Asia are concerned about the potential spillover effect of the revolutions. In addition to that, CA countries have a long history of control over information flow within the region. Meanwhile, online social networks challenge that control and create a room for free expression of ideas including revolutionary and anti-governmental and mobilization of the people for the purpose of reaching social justice.

Western media criticizing CA governments of censorship and control of the information should understand that stability in region countries is fragile (threat of separatism, terrorism and extremism; ethnic issues; Fergana Valley; Afghanistan and other related issues). Hans Morgenthau in his book Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace sees national mood as one of the 8 main elements of state`s power, so decreasing of national mood by giving access to the incomplete, one-sided or other information will cause decrease of the state power. For example, role media played in ethnic clashes in south of Kyrgyzstan in 2010.

How CA governments explained such restrictions and information monitoring to the world community? At the regional level, there have been several joint initiatives made by CA and other neighboring countries on monitoring the activities in social networks. At Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO – organization founded to counter “terrorism”, “separatism” and “extremism”) summit on 14-15 June 2011, country members adopted draft of “Rules of conduct in the field of safeguarding international information security”. Later on 12 September of 2011 China, Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan released a Resolution for the UN General Assembly entitled “International code of conduct for information security”. By adopting the rules member states would like to cooperate in “curbing the dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secessionism or extremism or that undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment”.[xvii] Based on media reports, members of Collective Security Treaty Organization announced started monitoring social networks to prevent “extremist” actions in the form of mass riots.[xviii] As a result, legal basis for regulating information flow, as well as social networks in regional level was established. For instance, Uzbekistan set-up its own new social networks: youface.uz[xix], muloqot.uz (2011)[xx], Bamboo.uz and Id.uz[xxi].

Government institutions and officials have also started using social networks as a new platform for interaction. Representatives of the Senate of the Parliament of RK, General Prosecutor’s office of RK, National Security Committee of RK, Ministry of investment and development of RK, Ministry of healthcare and social development of RK and others[xxii] have their own pages in Twitter and Facebook. This interaction creates opportunity for direct interaction and reduces the horizontal ‘gap’ between the institution/official and citizens. Nevertheless, such engagement of officials to social network remains unique for CA and only seen in rare cases. In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan such engagement is still not necessary due to the small number of social network users.

Social networks are widely used as SMM (social media marketing) tool by business entities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Majority of well-known companies operating in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan today have their pages in Twitter and Facebook in order to improve customer services and increase interaction with the people, where all the discussion, complains or greetings about the delivered services can be followed. Such pages serve as another important tool for the social media marketing. In conducted research by Global customer acquisition it states that top Facebook page in Kazakhstan is paged named Chocolifeme which provides discount for online purchasing, and attracts 20.000 unique daily visits from Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan Beeline company`s page in Facebook is leading in daily visits. This company provides mobile services in the country.[xxiii] Such pages are updated on a daily basis to meet the requirements, feedbacks and claims of the followers; as a result connection of online networks and social issues bridges the modern technology with people and issues concerning them.

In other countries of the region, engagement of the companies in social networks is still low due to the small numbers of active social networks users. So the next years, increase in usage of the social networks is expected in countries with less social media and internet restriction, whereas users in other countries will still face institutional (restrictions) and/or technological (difficulties with internet coverage) constrains.

How social network users change the daily life of other people? Active users of social networks have started using online platforms to help members of their communities with day to day errands and activities. For example, such Facebook pages like, “Tashkent drivers” (“Водители Ташкента”) are used by group members to exchange their observations on current situation of the roads, traffics or access to the shortcuts of the city, even passengers who are leaving their stuff, documents or any other belongings in taxi cabs can address the page to help in finding them. Another page named “Public catering in Tashkent” (“Общепит в Ташкенте”[xxiv]) helps to find the best place to have a dinner or lunch, where users can find all complains and feedbacks regarding exact place. Rise of public awareness regarding the issues in restaurants, coffee-house and bars push the latters to improve their situation to attract new customers. Page “Do good (Good intentions) Uzbekistan” (“Делай добро Узбекистан”[xxv]) is aimed to help people who are ill with blood donations, material or financial assistance. Positive effects of such pages to the life of people are undeniable.

While mentioning top social networks (Odnoklassniki, Vkontakte, Facebook, and Twitter) in Central Asian region, one should note that there are other networks such as Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ and LinkedIn. However, user base of these networks is still too small in the region and the analysis of the reasons of this fact of preference should be made a topic for further research.

Conclusion

This research explored main characteristics, current state and development trends of social networks in Central Asian region.

Some of the main findings are as follows:

  • The social networks market is dominated by Russian social networks in the region;
  • CA governments closely monitor activities on social networks (institutional constrains); the governments also use social networks as a new tool for the spread of their ideology (“soft power”), as a new platform for interaction (communication between the state and citizens being vertical in its nature after the spread of online networking reduced the gap/instances between them), as well as a potential threat in dissemination of unfiltered information.
  • Due to a number of technological reasons and low internet penetration the spread of social networks is complicated and is concentrated around big cities and towns. However, the advancement of technology, easing access to the Internet and creating infrastructure in urban areas increases the number of internet users and expands the influence of online social networks there;
  • NGOs, international institutions, companies and business entities increasingly use social networks as a platform for interaction with recipients and clients. Online social network pages create favorable environment for competition which positively effects customers demand. Private firms also use these platforms to expand market penetration via social media marketing creating and responding to the supply and demand equilibrium.
  • CA governments are investing in telecommunication infrastructure[xxvi]; as a result the rise in internet coverage of the region is expected.

[i] Chen, G. M., & Zhang, K. (2010). New media and cultural identity in the global society. In R. Taiwo(Ed.), Handbook of Research on Discourse Behavior and Digital Communication: Language Structures and Social Interaction (pp. 801-815). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Inc. See also: Anthony Mc Grew. 2014. The Logics of Economic Globalization, in: In: John Ravenhill (ed.): Global political economy, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 240-242.

[ii] Rosen, D., Stefanone, M. A., & Lackaff, D. (2010). Online and offline social networks:Investigating culturally-specific behavior and satisfaction. In Proceedings of the 43rd Hawai`i International Conference on System Sciences. New Brunswick: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE).

[iii] Digital Trends, The history of social networking, 5 August 2014  http://www.digitaltrends.com/features/the-history-of-social-networking/

[iv] Digital, Social and Mobile in 2015 report , slides 15 and 25. Accessed 18 May 2015. http://wearesocial.sg/blog/2015/01/digital-social-mobile-2015/

[v] World Map of Social Networks, December 2014, http://vincos.it/world-map-of-social-networks/  (accessed 19 May 2014)

[vi] For Twitter see: http://www.internetlivestats.com/twitter-statistics/, For Facebook see: Mapping Facebook’s Growth Over Time, http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/mapping-facebooks-growth-over-time/213094 ,A year-by-year tour of how Facebook has been taking over the world  http://royal.pingdom.com/2009/10/29/a-year-by-year-tour-of-how-facebook-has-been-taking-over-the-world/; See also: Social media growth 2006-2011, http://dstevenwhite.com/2011/12/29/social-media-growth-2006-2011/

[vii] Facebook переведён на русский язык http://geektimes.ru/post/27503/

[viii] Перевод Твиттера на русский язык http://twitwi.ru/twitter/russian-translation/, Официальная поддержка и блог Twitter уже на русском языке http://twtt.ru/twitter-news/support-rus.html,

[ix] Андрей Крупин, Техподдержка Facebook заговорила по-русски, http://www.3dnews.ru/597630

[x] Letter dated 12 September 2011 from the Permanent Representatives of China, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, A/66/359, 14 September 2011 at https://ccdcoe.org/sites/default/files/documents/UN-110912-CodeOfConduct_0.pdf; FOCUS. Asia-Pacific Human Rights information Center, Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media, March 2012 Volume Vol. 67 at http://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2012/03/central-asia-censorship-and-control-of-the-internet-and-other-new-media1.html See also, The Moscow News, “CSTO wants to monitor the internet to prevent a repeat of Arab revolutions,” 13 September 2011, at http://themoscownews.com/society/20110913/189040987.html

[xi] Facebook Monitors Your Chats for Criminal Activity [REPORT] http://mashable.com/2012/07/12/facebook-scanning-chats/

[xii] MVFGlobal, Online Lead Generation in Central Asia, http://www.mvfglobal.com/central-asia; Asia Marketing Research, Internet Usage, Population Statistics and Facebook Information http://www.internetworldstats.com/asia.htm

[xiii] Reporters without borders, YouTube blocked, Google partly inaccessible, 13 June 2014. http://en.rsf.org/tajikistan-youtube-blocked-google-partly-13-06-2014,46438.html

[xiv] Amnesty International Report 2014/15. See also: International Partnership for Human Rights. Statement on Central Asia for OSCE conference on freedom of expression, 3 July 2014 http://www.iphronline.org/central-asia-freedom-of-expression-statement-20140703.html, See also: Reporters without borders, Facebook and four news websites blocked on government’s orders, 8 March 2012. http://en.rsf.org/tajikistan-facebook-and-four-news-websites-08-03-2012,42043.html,  David Trilling, Russian Social Network Falls Foul of Tajikistan’s Internet Censors, 21 July 2014 http://www.eurasianet.org/node/69121; Internet censorship, restrictions around the globe. 14 December 2012. http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2012/12/14/internet-censorship-restrictions-around-globe/, George Camm, Tajikistan Blocks Facebook Yet Again, Eurasianet.org, 17 January 2013 http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66414

[xv] Freedom on the Net, Country profiles: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan. Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2014/kazakhstan,https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2014/kyrgyzstan, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2014/uzbekistan. The report on Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is not available.

[xvi] RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, May 30, 2012 http://www.rferl.org/content/kazakhstan-nazarbaev-social-networks-lies/24597621.html

[xvii] Letter dated 12 September 2011 from the Permanent Representatives of China, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, A/66/359, 14 September 2011 at https://ccdcoe.org/sites/default/files/documents/UN-110912-CodeOfConduct_0.pdf

[xviii] FOCUS. Asia-Pacific Human Rights information Center, Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media, March 2012 Volume Vol. 67 at http://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2012/03/central-asia-censorship-and-control-of-the-internet-and-other-new-media1.html See also, The Moscow News, “CSTO wants to monitor the internet to prevent a repeat of Arab revolutions,” 13 September 2011, at http://themoscownews.com/society/20110913/189040987.html

[xix] Joanna Lillis, Welcome to YouFace.uz, Uzbekistan’s Copyright-Stomping Facebook Clone, 1 June 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/welcome-to-youfaceuz-uzbekistans-copyright-stomping-facebook-clone/257969/

[xx] Muloqot.uz social network, http://muloqot.uz/help/about

[xxi] Freedom on the Net, Country profile: Uzbekistan. Freedom House https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2014/uzbekistan

[xxii] Officials in social networks  http://egov.kz/wps/portal/Content?contentPath=/egovcontent/citizensgovernment/articlesforcg/passport/off_twi&lang=en  (accessed in 30 April 2015, list updated in September 2014)

[xxiii] MVFGlobal, Online Lead Generation in Central Asia, http://www.mvfglobal.com/central-asia

[xxiv] Общепит в Ташкенте: фото отчеты со сборов и акций, а также их обсуждения https://ru-ru.facebook.com/ObshepitTAS

[xxv] Делай Добро Узбекистан https://ru-ru.facebook.com/delay.dobro.uzb

[xxvi] UNCTAD Report, Investment Guide to the Silk Road 2014, pp.23-25 http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/diae2014d3_en.pdf; See also: Massive Infrastructure Projects Creating New International Links http://emagazine.european-times.com/EPT-Kyrgyzstan/communication-and-transport-massive-infrastructure-projects-creating-new-international-links

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