How does a would-be Tajik opposition leader go about establishing a social media footprint? Abdulmannon Sheraliev, a member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), has a few ironic ideas.
Sheraliev wrote his Facebook post, republished here in excerpts, back in April. But his guidance — covering everything from strategic selfies through fake followers and their trolling techniques — seems increasingly relevant for political outsiders seeking to cultivate a base of support, whether that is in Tajikistan, or some other country.
Before further addressing Sheraliev’s guide, it should be said that Tajikistan is almost completely lacking a traditional, in-country political opposition, thanks to the ever-growing intolerance of even mild forms of criticism on the part of the Tajik government.
Some of Sheraliev’s snobbishness towards the country’s prominent online opposition figures — who are based almost exclusively outside of Tajikistan — may indeed be due to his status as a member of the country’s last ‘real’ major opposition party.
A moderate opposition force in the parliament up until recently, IRPT’s members have been driven underground since Tajikistan’s authoritarian government suddenly banned the group in 2015 and jailed a dozen key leaders last year.
But just because Tajikistan’s Facebook-based online opposition does not live with the everyday repression that the IRPT endured towards the end of its legal existence in the Central Asian country, does not mean it enjoys a life free of danger.
Umarali Quvvatov, who led the social media-active Gruppa 24 opposition group from abroad, for instance, was gunned down in Istanbul by unknown assailants in 2015, possibly after having been poisoned. Other key members of the group, distributed across various countries, have complained of a cross-border harassment and surveillance campaign.
Tajikistan had already declared Gruppa 24 a terrorist group by the time of Quvvatov’s assassination, although the group’s main crime appears to have consisted of posting unflattering memes starring long-reigning President Emomali Rakhmon. The group has also called, unsuccessfully, for mass protests in the country of 8.5 million people.
But Sheraliev is certainly right to note that the popularity of posts by Gruppa 24 and similar opposition-minded entities are boosted by fake followers — real social media users are increasingly afraid to ‘like’ posts — giving them a somewhat pathetic appearance.
In his tongue-in-cheek post, Sheraliev also considers how these fake followers should adopt distinctive and consistent online behaviours in order to increase the profile of the would-be-opposition leader.
Connecting with the people
But what about the real you? Even if these aspiring politicos did live in the country, state media would never show their faces.
National TV coverage is for the regime, and that means online oppositionists have to be everywhere else — and looking very important — in order to appeal to the one fifth of the population with regular internet access.
- Whenever you had a cup of tea with someone, or met someone accidentally in street, or talked to, ask a passerby to take a picture of you both;
- When the picture is being taken, look serious and pretend having an important discussion;
- Better if your picture buddy is a foreigner and is above 40-years-old. You can introduce him as, for example, a Dutch minister;
Kings without a kingdom
In recent years, internet speeds have slowed in Tajikistan, and the strengthening political crackdown has turned users away from politicized posts. But even if such posts do attract a loyal following, what then?
As Sheraliev, whose own post attracted 140 likes explains, the life of the country’s online oppositionists are defined by a tragic futility:
If all this propaganda helps you find a group of real followers who accept you as a true object of promotion, you will acquire the status of a … Facebook leader. But it will only ever be on Facebook, and nothing more.