I Saw It on the Internet!
A blog post in support of my recent publication.
Illustration by Tatyana Zelenskaya
Between February and May 2020, I visited my parents in Namangan, Uzbekistan. Their mahalla (neighbourhood), located in the northern part of the city, is home to people regularly seeking employment abroad, predominantly in Russia. It is a common practice in the mahalla for the neighbours to come out to the street in the evening and share some news of the day. As COVID-19 began to spread across the planet, the virus became a central theme in such conversations. Digitally savvy dwellers of the mahalla would share what they had read online, usually supporting their statements with the phrase 'I saw it on the Internet!' to emphasise the perceived reliability of the 'facts'.
This experience inspired me to research the online social milieux of Uzbek labour migrants to Russia and analyse COVID-19-related narratives. This inquiry resulted in the publication of the following paper in collaboration with the OSCE Academy in Bishkek:
'I Saw It on the Internet!' COVID-19 Narratives Across the OnlineSocial Milieux of Uzbek LabourMigrants to Russia
The full open-access paper is available here. In this post, I will highlight the objectives, the method, some of the major findings, and recommendations.
Why did I do this study?
Many fell victim to dangerously misleading narratives spread online amid the global COVID-19 pandemic - be it denial, conspiracies, or life-threatening remedies. Among these people are labour migrants from Uzbekistan to Russia. Amid their quest for returning home in the early days of the pandemic and subsequent attempts to return to Russia for work, many found themselves stuck at border-crossings having been exposed to misleading information that travel is possible.
Colonial biases in academia are hardly a surprise. The case of Central Asia more broadly and labour migrants more specifically in terms of social changes and harms brought about by smart devices and digital media is barely addressed in scholarship. In reaction to this gap, this article initiates a discussion on the role that thematic social media groups can play in (dis)informing labour migrants.
How did I do this study?
I relied on netnography - a set of practices and tools for qualitative research of online artefacts - developed by Robert Kozinets.
Specifically, I sought thematic social media groups for labour migrants from Uzbekistan to Russia on VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Facebook, and Telegram. I made covert observations, which allowed me to understand some of the practices and nuances of relations between group admins and active/passive users.
As ethics are central to netnography, I worked only with public groups that require no admin approval for joining. Moreover, I took measures to protect the privacy of the users by using the data in broad terms, limiting the potential back-tracking possibilities as much as possible.
With the use of keywords, I sought COVID-19-related discussions and posts. Having collected the artefacts I applied open, axial and selective coding per Strauss and Corbin and extracted five narrative clusters that will be elaborated on below. Moreover, I took note of such exclusively online artefacts as 'likes', shares, comments, etc.
What have I found?
The majority of thematic groups used by Uzbek labour migrants are present on Russia’s Odnoklassniki platform.
This platform also offers the widest scope of COVID-19-related discussions.
This study identifies five COVID-19-related narrative clusters shared in thematic social media groups for labour migrants from Uzbekistan to Russia: 'the remedy', 'practical information', 'the news', 'asking for help', and 'conspiracies and religion'.
COVID-19-related information appears to have been dangerously misleading in all five identified narrative clusters.
There is an intricate coexistence of religious and conspiracy-informed narratives.
An obvious suggestion for actors in the home or host state responsible for communicative strategies aimed at reaching labour migrants with reliable and up-to-date information is to instrumentalise the affordances of thematic social media groups.
However, there are reasons to be concerned about the intent of the state and the quality of even the official information targeting Uzbek labour migrants, either while they are in Uzbekistan or when they are en route to or in Russia. Therefore, non-state actors could step in as intermediaries.
Additionally, the combination of religious narratives with conspiracy theories revealed in the study indicates a potential role for informal actors, such as religious leaders and group admins in disseminating accurate information and influencing public opinion within their demographic group.
Tatyana Zelenskaya: Illustration to "(Con)trolling the web" Chapter of my PhD dissertation.