In the past, authoritarian governments have used state propaganda to gain power. In the Internet era, print media exploitation, as well as state-sponsored sporting and cultural events, are less effective at controlling public opinion.
Kazakhstan has used sports, like the Asian Games held in Astana and Almaty, 2011 to promote nationalist sentiment. A.Burgermeister/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND.
Alternative online sources have led to a growing cynicism among the public and a distrust of state-controlled media and central government. The days of pro-state media monopolizing information and influencing public moods are long gone.
In the past ten years, the percentage of people using the Internet for informational and educational purposes has increased. Kazakh internet users no longer rely on only national news sources for understanding the current state of domestic affairs. Instead, they read and listen to stories from foreign sources.
They often contradict the national media. Some international news outlets place casualties as high as 73. For instance, official sources claim 16 oil workers were killed during a 2011 strike in Zhanaozen. controversy also surrounded the Kazakh government’s secret land lease negotiations with China.
In the middle of 2000s, Kazakhstan went online.
The official websites of government organizations were given a facelift. Ministers and mayors started blogging after Prime Minister Massimov (his blog, launched by in 2005 has since disappeared). It was intended to change the public’s perception of government, which they perceived as being unaccountable, inefficient and overly bureaucratic.
In his 2004 speech to the nation, President Nazarbayev urged for a deeper implementation of technology that would result in a centralized portal of state services. In 2012, Kazakhstan shared second place with Singapore in a global ranking of citizens’ “eparticipation”, which indicates ease of accessing public services.
The Ukrainian Orange Revolution 2005 and the 2011-2012 Arab Spring demonstrations sent a warning to post-communist leaders to be cautious when using social media such as Facebook or Twitter. It became apparent that social media could be a powerful tool for mobilizing dissent and organizing movements to dismantle authoritarian regimes.
Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan in the region, was the first Central Asian leader to prohibit social media as early as 2010. The authorities in Kazakhstan were confident, however, that the Colour Revolution virus wouldn’t reach their borders.
People praying during an opposition rally, Almaty March 24, 2012. Violence erupted in Zhanaozen, a western oil town, during the rally. Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
They were wrong. During the nine month oil worker’s protests, participants used Twitter and Facebook to mobilise resources and attract public support. They also appealed to foreign governments and organizations and demonized Kazakh leadership.
In December 2011, special forces violently suppressed these protests. In December 2011, special forces violently suppressed these protests.
The Kazakh government has purged the internet from anti-regime sentiments and speech by tightening media legislation. According to the 2014 Communications Law, the prosecutor’s office can block any communication domain, without a court order, if it threatens national interest, promotes extremism and calls for illegal meetings.
Since then, authorities have blocked popular internet resources such as Twitter, Skype, Youtube and Instagram. They also block national cellular networks. In the nationwide anti-land protests of May 21, 2016, citizens reported difficulties accessing social media platforms, including Google. The government and major telecommunications providers such as Beeline Kcell, Kazakhtelecom, did not attribute internet outages with protests. They cited technical issues.
Almaty City Twitter account (screenshot). Twitter. CC-BY
The state monopolisation of internet coincided with a growing involvement of government in social media. Several politicians and state agencies went beyond simple blog maintenance by opening accounts on the leading social networks. In September 2015, the #Almaty City Government launched Instagram and Twitter accounts ostensibly to improve government feedback mechanisms with residents.
Any citizen of Kazakhstan may write to the president via his AkOrdaPress Facebook account. The public viewed examples of government involvement in social media positively.
The official Facebook page of the Kazakhstan Presidential Office. Akorda/Facebook
A quiet acceptance
Kazakhs are adept at self-censorship. The lack of significant opposition to the restrictions on media freedoms indicates that the public has bought into the state propaganda that these measures are needed to maintain peace and stability in Kazakhstan.
Students from Kazakhstan at Wikimania 2013, Hong Kong. The government sponsored their study trip in order to learn how to create a Kazakhstan Wikipedia. Matthew (WMF)/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND
Is social media a friend or foe of the Kazakh Government? It’s both. The internet, when used in a democratic country, is a grave threat to the survival and authority of the Kazakhstani regime.
Kazakhstan has learned from other ex-authoritarian post-Soviet states. The draconian legislation on media and the monitoring of online activity have allowed Kazakhstan to contain “the enemy you don’t know”. The Kazakh government wants to increase citizens’ satisfaction and confidence in government by using social media and introducing state services portal.
The regime has snuffed out all hope that social media could once again empower citizens to fight authoritarianism. The majority of Kazakhs do not know how to use VPNs or online anonymisers to gain access to restricted content. Few Kazakhs, if at all, are willing to put their own welfare at risk by engaging in anti-government activities on the internet.