The Strange Saga of a Made-Up Activist and Her Life—and Death—as a Hoax

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Believe it or not, the Gulsumoy hoax is not Uzbekistan's strangest Facebook fabrication. That honor belongs to Shavkat Mirziyoev, the very real prime minister of Uzbekistan, whose Facebook appeared in July 2011, and was soon revealed to be that of an imposter. While Mirziyoev's page seemed a tad dubious to begin with -- he is a Leon Panetta fan, apparently--its Uzbek-language contents were so bureaucratic and bland that the point of the farce has never been clear. The page's workman-like rendering of Uzbek government triumphs did not function as satire or reveal any notable information. Even once exposed, the profile has been updated, steadily, for almost half a year, with the PM's dreary doppelganger acquiring over 1900 friends.

As Facebook comes to play a greater role in dissident politics, its contributions have been impressive but not always welcome. Supporters showcase its effectiveness during the Arab uprisings; detractors note that it has been equally useful for authoritarian states seeking to monitor opposition activity. Less discussed but increasingly important is the bizarre internal machinations that plague dissident communities, and are now following them online: purposeless fabrications, like Mirziyoev's, that don't weaken Uzbek political trust so much as indicate how far it has eroded.

Some dissident leaders befriended the Mirziyoev account they knew to be fake; why not, they thought, the government knows everything we're doing anyway.In discussions of authoritarian states, Facebook is often presented as battlezone between competing forces: the watchers and the watched, the state and its enemies. If only the battle lines were so stark. Instead it is a grey zone, where participants shrug, click, and carry on.

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In the spring of 2011, shortly after the opposition group Uzbekistan People's Movement opened its Facebook page,two other groups -- SMS Inqilob (SMS Revolution) and Yetar (Enough) -- appeared on Facebook. SMS Inqilob asked Uzbeks sympathetic to dissident causes to submit their telephone numbers and those of their relatives in Uzbekistan so that they could receive political text messages. Yetar asked Uzbeks to come to a mass rally in Tashkent on July 1, then later announced that they were canceling the rally due to reports that the national police were planning to harm the protesters. Both groups disappeared shortly after. Were they a government plot designed to exploit Facebook users to get information, scare dissident sympathizers, and discredit real groups like the People's Movement of Uzbekistan? Were they sincere attempts at activism aborted under fear of brutal government retaliation? No one knows.

The opacity of the Uzbek online dissident community is especially remarkable given that the online world is supposed to be the enemy of the opaque. This is the internet, where hordes of nit-pickers and fact-checkers converge on stories on every day, working in tandem to reveal hoaxes and discredit bad sources. The Uzbek outlets following the Gulsumoy story have attempted to do just that. On December 13, the website Ozodlik launched an investigation focusing on photographs of Gulsumoy that had been circulated around the internet and were revealed to be of another woman. In Germany, they met with that woman - Iroda Karabaeva--and talked with the woman who provided the photograph, Xurshida Juraboeva. Karabaeva identified herself in the photograph and claimed that she knew Juraboeva and could not understand why she was claiming Karabaeva to be Gulsumoy.

Juraboeva, an exile from Andijon who appears to be one of the people who called Urlaeva about the case earlier this month,insisted that the story was true. And then she produced a signed, sealed death certificate for Gulsumoy Abdujalilova.

Is it another forgery? Probably. Is Juraboeva part of a government plot to discredit activists? Maybe, or maybe not. Is she part of an opposition scheme to discredit the government? Some say so, though they have no evidence. Is there a point to this charade? Not a clear one, not at the moment. But there is a lesson to be learned from the strange saga of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, and that is when people give optimistic prognoses of internet-led revolutions in Uzbekistan, they should keep in mind that stories like this one are not an aberration. They are standard procedure, symbols of an erosion of political trust that long predates the internet but has blossomed there. And that mistrust, unlike Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, is very real.

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Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in Central Asia.

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