Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Kazakhstan’s Social Media Election

The recent presidential election in Kazakhstan was its first election where social media played an important part. Out of the population of 18.2 million, more than two-thirds of Kazakhs have access to the Internet, especially on their mobile phones. Social media was therefore key in reaching out to voters, especially the youth.

International social media platforms are widely used in the country. According to usage figures, YouTube is viewed 12 million times a day, Instagram has 1.7 million users, while Facebook has 450,000 users. Younger voters under 25 appear to prefer YouTube with its video clips and entertainment factor, while voters above 30 seem to prefer Facebook.

The government has reportedly encouraged this openness on social media. Unlike some Central Asian countries where negative posts are censored, in Kazakhstan, there was a free airing of views on all sides of the political debate during the election. Several YouTube and Facebook groups sprung up in support of and against the different candidates, with users debating their policies and making their views felt online.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Inclusive Internet Index that measures the Internet’s accessibility and affordability, along with whether it “enables positive social and economic outcomes,” ranked Kazakhstan 46th out of 86 countries. According to the report, “Availability is a key advantage, ranked 7th in Asia, while Readiness is another strong point with high ratings in literacy as well as a comparatively strong policy suite.”

Among the seven candidates who stood in the June 9 election, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was far ahead with 376,000 followers on Instagram and 124,000 followers on Twitter. His supporters, who called themselves Toqayev Team, were also active on YouTube and Facebook. He eventually won the election on June 9, winning 70.96% of the votes cast.

The other candidates appeared to be far less popular on social media: opposition politician Amirzhan Kosanov (who received 16.23% of the vote) has 26,117 followers on Facebook, Toleutai Rakhimbekov (3.04% of the vote) has 4,996 friends, while communist candidate Zhambyl Akhmetbekov (1.82% of the vote) has a mere 1,751 followers.

But as in Western democracies, social media was also misused in the lead up to the election, to peddle false stories and rumor masquerading as fact. Leading this misinformation campaign was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive banker who allegedly embezzled up to $10 billion from Kazakhstan’s BTA bank before fleeing to the West. A marginal figure in Kazakhstan, Ablyasov nevertheless tried to meddle in the election from his comfortable villa in France, using his wealth and online presence to incite protest. His accounts on Facebook and Twitter railed against the electoral process and urged protests.

“Speaking through his favorite platform, live Facebook videos, he (Ablyasov) sets a date, time and location. And then, anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people turn up. Some are genuine Ablyazov supporters. Others are just disgruntled people,” Almaty-based journalist Joanna Lillis wrote on Eurasianet.

It was a measure of the failure of Ablyasov’s social media campaign that even after his urging, only 500 people turned up at the protests arranged by him at Nur-Sultan and Almaty for the benefit of the waiting international media. In a video clip posted to social media, Ablyasov claimed that “thousands of protesters” had gathered in Almaty’s Astana Square, but only a few hundred had actually turned up and they were soon bussed away by the authorities before being released.

A day after winning the election, President Tokayev called for tolerance on social media. “Social networks should not be used for destructive purposes, to sow discord among the people, and, even more so, provoke people into a collision with each other,” he told reporters on June 10.

With young voters increasingly active on social media, this was Kazakhstan’s most open and free poll since independence in 1991. While some organizations labeled the election process as undemocratic, the election was by and large carried out without interference from the government.

The growth in its online political debate bodes well for Kazakhstan as an evolving democracy. Strategically placed between Russia and China, the vibrancy of its social media is now setting new standards in Central Asia and the wider region.