Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

The Wacky World of Authoritarian Regimes on Social Media

BY Julia Wetherell | Monday, February 4 2013

Gulnara Karimova's Twitter page.

For many authoritarian states, social media can present the ultimate threat: anti-regime discourse and dissent from the party line. In some cases governments have taken extreme measures to clamp down on online freedoms, like Egypt’s countrywide Internet blackout in 2011, Iran’s ongoing censorship of Western social sites, and, in the most extreme case, North Korea’s neutered state-sanctioned Intranet, accessible to only a fraction of the population.

This hasn’t stopped many despots from taking to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Radio Free Europe has a roundup of some authoritarian leaders who have taken to social media over the past several years. Whether for straight propagandizing purposes, like the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini’s mysterious Facebook page that appeared this past fall, or occasionally sharing yoga updates, à la Uzbek First Daughter Gulnara Karimova, these pages offer an unexpected, paradoxical glimpse into the minds behind repressive regimes.

Sifting through these updates, it seems that, in spite of the state of free speech in their countries, many of these authoritarian leaders possess relatively uncensored social media personas — more so than American politicians with armies of staffers to work online documentation. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev Instagrammed throughout the holiday season, after denying the statehood of Armenia on Twitter in November; the Azeri government regularly jails online dissidents for speaking against the government. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has tweeted about eating burgers with Barack Obama and retweeted a post that called critics of Putin “c***sucking sheep.” The purportedly official North Korean Twitter account only follows three people, among them a 25-year old web entrepreneur from Texas who’s pals with Dennis Quaid.

With the growing authoritarian propensity for social media, will there be conversations on the horizon for these regimes about Internet freedom? Uzbekistan’s Karimova — alias GooGoosha — is in many ways the public face of the regime she may someday inherit, in no small part due to her online presence. In November she engaged in a rapid-fire Twitter debate with an official from the International Crisis Group who asked her to answer for the country’s human rights violations. If authoritarian figures are putting themselves out on social media, they’ll have to answer to the authority of the crowd.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

First POST: System-Gaming

Why techies interested in political reform are facing challenges; the latest data on Democratic voter contacts in 2014; Hungary's anti-Internet tax demonstrations are getting huge; and much, much more. GO

wednesday >

First POST: Gimme Shelter

The link between intimate partner violence and surveillance tech; the operational security set-up that connected Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden; how Senate Dems are counting on tech to hold their majority; and much, much more. GO

tuesday >

First POST: Tribes

Edward Snowden on the Internet's impact on political polarization; trying to discern Hillary Clinton's position on NSA reform; why Microsoft is bullish on civic tech; and much, much more GO

monday >

First POST: Inventions

How voter data-sharing among GOP heavyweights is still lagging; why Facebook's News Feed scares news publishers; Google's ties to the State Department; and much, much more. GO

friday >

First POST: Spoilers

How the GOP hasn't fixed its tech talent gap; the most tech-savvy elected official in America, and the most tech-savvy state-wide candidate; and much, much more. GO

More