In mid-December, riots broke out in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen. What began with an oil workers' strike turned violent when city officials held Independence Day celebrations on the square where fired workers had been protesting for seven months. The workers destroyed the stage and celebratory yurts then burned down the oil company’s office and a city government building. In total, sixteen people were killed and dozens were wounded, 46 buildings were burned down, and several banks were looted.
Following the violence, a media information war erupted between government and pro-government forces on the one side and the opposition on the other, bleeding over into social media as well. The war continued to play out across all media with each side rebutting the other as new reports were released and elections neared.
Exiled banker Mukhtar Ablyazov's opposition online daily Respublika was the first to report the violence and did so with sensationalist stories and alarming headlines. Opposition television station K+, which is produced in Russia and transmitted via satellite to Kazakhstan, provided numerous videos that appeared to show police firing on unarmed protesters and reported a greater number of victims than the official figure. Opposition reports generally took strong issue with the official version of events—that 16 people were killed and 46 buildings were burned down—and claimed the casualty figure was far higher.
Since the uprisings, opposition sources have written scores of articles with largely unsubstantiated claims of workers being forced to sign denouncements of the protesters; people being "disappeared"; severe, even fatal beatings of people arrested for participating in the unrest; shortages of food, medical supplies, and hospital beds; and overflowing morgues in the city. Journalists began calling for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to step down, objecting to holding elections in the country, and demanding a day of mourning. In short, they never eased the pressure on the government.
Social media also offered a dizzying amount of conflicting information and misinformation on the event, much of it from the opposition press and "anonymy"—anonymous users1. When authorities blocked access to Twitter across the entire country, as well as some YouTube videos, and shut down mobile phone networks in Zhanaozen, discussion moved to other platforms.
Users with anonymizers were still able to access Twitter, and the #zhanaozen and #жанаозен hashtags were filled with tweets about “war in Zhanaozen” and “mass murders." Opposition users, including some opposition politicians, called for people to go out in the streets and protest in support of the oil workers. Some tried to lobby the international community to intervene2. Others tried calling for calm and urged people to resist falling for provocations.
The largest Facebook group devoted to Zhanaozen was decidedly critical of the government's actions prior to the uprising, when the government ignored the protests and allowed the workers to be fired, as well as those in post-uprising Zhanaozen, which included instituting a harsh martial law. Facebook users traded stories of personal encounters with law enforcement and links to opposition articles and urged each other to continue the fight in other social networks and to boycott the vote. They ignored or diminished the importance of the government's efforts to address the grievances and restore the city.
The government and pro-government media responded defensively with a deluge of articles devoted to dispelling what they called "rumors" about the situation in Zhanaozen. Government and pro-government sources downplayed the severity of the violence and the repressive measures taken. Initially they denied that police had fired on unarmed protesters (until video evidence from witnesses emerged). They focused instead on the amount of destruction, which had occurred at the hands of the protesters, and posted their own videos. Less believably, the government blamed the failure of mobile phone connections in the city and the inaccessibility of multiple international and opposition websites and Twitter on the damage sustained during the riots.
The government offered its critics an opportunity to see things with their own eyes. The prime minister's press service invited some of the country's "top bloggers" to tour the city and report what they saw3. What they wrote largely backed the government’s assertions—that there were not hundreds of dead or detained and that the town had plenty of food and medical provisions. Yet they did not paint a completely rosy picture. There was also increased activity from government figures and bodies that were previously silent in social media, especially Twitter.
In addition to simply responding to rumors, government and pro-government sources went on an information offensive. Reports and interviews uniformly condemned the violence, emphasized the importance of the Kazakh values of peace, harmony, and stability, and called for the people to rally around President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The government and pro-government press unanimously laid responsibility for the bloodshed at the feet of "criminals" and “hooligans” who were used by "anti-government forces hiding abroad," specifically, Rakhat Aliyev and Mukhtar Ablayev4. Reports and interviews with a wide variety of commentators, ranging from industrial workers' unions and academics to cultural figures and youth groups, were intended to make it clear that the rioters had little support in Kazakhstan.
With elections looming, both the government and its opposition tried to use the Zhanaozen violence for political gain. Opposition politicians and sources wanted President Nazarbayev to stand trial and for voters to boycott the election, although none of the parties removed themselves from the ballot.
Government sources meanwhile tried to rally support around President Nazarbayev and his Nur Otan party by portraying him as the source of stability. The president himself passed the blame to the local government and the management of both the Samruk-Kazyna Fund, which owns KazMunayGaz, the oil company that fired the protesting workers, and KazMunayGaz itself. Nazarbayev said that they failed to carry out his orders to deal with the labor dispute in a timely manner.
1. For example, https://twitter.com/#!/Voice_of_KZ