The internet remains an independent platform for empowering marginal voices of opposition and regime critics in modern autocracies. The ruling leadership in Kazakhstan is aware of the importance of capturing the hearts and minds of internet users, spreading disinformation and using artificial automated accounts to imitate enthusiastic support for the government and its achievements.
The prevalence of fake accounts in state PR is not a new phenomenon in Kazakh politics; it started in 2017. Nurbots represent fake social media accounts that generate comments favourable to the incumbent government. They emerged from the personalistic regime of Kazakhstan's first president Nursultan Nazarbayev, adopting three characters from the leader’s first name, similar in the implementation logic to ‘Kremlin-bots’. Kazakhstani journalist Irina Galkina argues that nurbots were invented as aggressive propaganda mechanism to produce and replicate the hegemonic narrative of the ruling power on the internet, while it failed to capture public attention in less popular print media.
Nurbots fulfilled the order of regime information channels administered by the Ministry of Information and the President’s Administration. They have been designed to imitate public support via numerous praising accounts and comments under official news. These comments tend to be along the lines of: “President cares and always thinks about people,” “with enough professional qualification, one can always find a decent salary and good life conditions in this country”, “our president provides the much-needed stability and peace.” The framing of messages depends on the audience and the topic of official news.
Bots help to infiltrate the digital space and form the dominant discourse, diminishing the visibility of critical perspectives and analytical publications. Aiming to imitate real profiles, fake accounts are created by stealing photos of random people, violating individual rights. Normally, the photos are of ethnic Yakutians and Kyrgyz, who look like Kazakhs. The negative impact of nurbots over the years (2017–2019) was the limitation of the freedom of expression and the substitution and distortion of genuine public opinion, which was artificially framed by fake accounts.
Despite promises of democratisation and political changes by Nazarbayev’s successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, fake accounts were actively used in his election campaign in November 2022. Temporarily blocking critical websites and slowing internet connection speeds were among the usual tactics of the regime to exercise control during the turbulent political transition. New legislation adopted in October 2018 allowed state authorities to suspend the operation of internet networks during social and political emergency situations on the “local level.” The restrictive internet environment enables the spread of disinformation and encourages the use of bots for reactions.
The prevalent comments and fake posts on Facebook were framed as the following:
“I/We made a choice for the new Kazakhstan. I/We participate in the upcoming presidential elections, our families provide four votes for Tokayev. My/our choice is right and conscious. I/We respect the existing political course and hope that others will do the same.”
They focused on the benefits of political continuity and the improvements in the socio-economic standards of life, two narratives actively promoted by the government.
One creative attempt to popularise the presidential elections in 2022 was the Instagram profile “Tokayev_crush.” This viral internet account was disseminated on public Telegram and Instagram channels in an attempt to modernise the image of the president Tokayev and appeal to younger voters.
Tokayev Crush posts represent a visual composition that depicts Tokayev as a young and cool patriot who looks like an anime character or a brave warrior from comics. Despite a lot of effort, this account received a lot of criticism and people discredited it as fake state PR. The attempt to fool and convince citizens failed, despite the candidate’s electoral win.
Ultimately, the process of recreating pro-government discussion in social media shows the inability of the ruling elites to meaningfully engage with its population, so they resort to trending fake stories. Constantly relying on fake accounts is a costly and ineffective propaganda tool. The proliferation of content from fake accounts during Tokayev’s presidential campaign in Kazakhstan diminished democratic discussions and regime criticism, distancing the ruled and the rulers by allowing the government to co-opt the internet space.
The marginalisation of dissidents online only ostracises them and sets a future challenge to politically legitimise efficient government in Kazakhstan. Fake accounts pollute and dominate the internet space without owning the hearts and minds of citizens.
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