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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.

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