Disrupting digital harms in Central Asia
Robert Muggah and Rafal Rohozinski
Central Asia is the staging ground for a new digital Great Game. The key players include Russia, China, Europe, and the US, along with a rash of Central Asian actors. What happens there has implications not just for the region, but the future of the Internet. One of the reasons why Central Asia’s assuming more strategic importance is because of the digital transformation occurring across the region. Their digitalization is part of a deeper historical commitment to technology-driven modernization stretching back to the twentieth century Soviet Union. Today, the region is registering a dramatic increase in internet roll-out, mobile broadband connections and social media users.
Central Asia’s digitalization is generating opportunities, but also risks. The onboarding of Central Asians is occurring amidst a complex backdrop of top-down secular authoritarianism, bottom-up agitation for more progressive democracticization and a contest between moderate and hardline Islam. Digital transformation, then, could accelerate digital authoritarianism. Indeed, there is a real push from China, Russia and the US to shape the wider technology environment, with profound implications for the future of civic freedoms and digital rights. And as more Central Asians go online, their exposure to digital harms, including violent extremism, is increasing.
New SecDev Group-led research is shining a light on the scope, scale and dynamics of online violent extremism across Central Asia. For one, while persistent, violent extremist actors have a modest online footprint: a small number of entities are disproportionately responsible for a high proportion of harmful content. Related, extremist groups are using third party networks to amplify their reach and moving between platforms to avoid take-downs. What’s more, their appeals are linked to regional grievances, from Afghanistan and Syria to Muslim grievances in France and the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
A managed risk approach is critical to prevent, disrupt and reduce online violent extremism in Central Asia. Too often, interventions are narrowly targeted, having comparatively limited impact and potentially making the problem worse. The spread of violent extremism is connected fundamentally to wider geopolitical, regional and domestic factors such as the continued repression of minorities in Xinjiang and the impending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. These tensions will continue to stoke grievances and serve as a focal for radicalization. Ultimately, intervention strategies must account for these political realities in their design.
While appealing, police-led interventions and platform-led strategies focused on taking down content will not successfully deter online violent extremism. To the contrary: they can potentially incentivize extremist groups to move to more obscure platforms and adapt their strategies, generating new challenges. Interventions designed to disrupt online extremist groups and remove radical content need to be mindful of the unintended consequences of aggressive take-downs. For example, overzealous efforts can undermine media independence, ramp-up indiscriminate surveillance and trigger anti-terrorist legislation and operations that curb rights.
Several Central Asian governments are actively exploring ways to adopt more stringent surveillance and censorship laws and to make use of artificial intelligence and other intrusive surveillance technologies ostensibly to “fight terrorism.” There is a danger that digital transformation and smart city initiatives could lead to indiscriminate surveillance, with dangerous implications for civic and human rights. What is needed now more than ever are approaches that do not focus reservedly on violent extremism, but rather emphasize the prevention and reduction of digital harms. European and US partners have a key role to play here, not least in strengthening inclusive digital transformation, promoting independent and high quality online media and bolstering digital literacy.
One way to disrupt the risks of digital harms is by applying lessons from public health. This begins by continuously diagnosing the online threats, mitigating risk factors, reinforcing protective factors, and testing out measures to evaluate their outcomes. The US, Europe, and multilateral organizations can work with Central Asian public authorities, social media platforms and representatives of civil society to double down on inclusive digital transformation that simultaneously manages digital harms and short circuits the transition towards digital authoritarianism. This will require applying a wide range of measures in partnership with gatekeepers—trusted brokers—to deliver safer and secure online environments.
For Additional Reading
Rafal Rohozinski and Robert Muggah, “Central Asia’s Growing Internet Carries New Risks of Violence.” United States Institute of Peace. 15 June 2021.
Kumar Bekbolotov, Robert Muggah, and Rafal Rohozinski, “Jihadist Networks Dig In on Social Media Across Central Asia.” Foreign Policy, 11 November 2020.