The Strange Saga of a Made-Up Activist and Her Life—and Death—as a Hoax
The life and tragic death of Uzbek woman Gulsumoy Abdujalilova turned out to be fake, but her meaning for dissident movements in closed societies like Uzbekistan's is all too real
On July 28, 2011, a 32-year-old Uzbek woman studying in Munich named Gulsumoy Abdujalilova joined Facebook, except she didn't. Then, earlier this month, after horrific abuses from the Uzbekistan government, she tragically and spectacularly took her own life, except she didn't, because she had never existed in the first place.
Beginning this summer, someone launched an elaborate hoax that fooled members of the Uzbek opposition, Uzbek human rights community, the Uzbek and English-language media-- and me. Over four months, Gulsumoy updated her page several times each week. She wrote about mundane events -- missing her mother, getting the flu, the arrival of Ramadan -- and, often, about politics. Gulsumoy posted links to stories about corruption in the Uzbek government and protest movements organized by Uzbeks abroad.
In August, she listed the People's Movement of Uzbekistan (O'zbekiston Xalq Harakati), an Uzbek opposition movement formed in May 2011, under "work". For Gulsumoy, as for most Uzbeks, who live under a harsh and repressive regime, the internet provided the only way to participate in dissident politics. She befriended other Uzbek dissident, posting on their walls, chatting with them on Skype, and writing to them over email. On November 15, she updated her status with an Uzbek proverb: "You learn who your real friends are when you are in trouble." This was her final post.
On December 5, a reporter from the Uzbek-language branch of the BBC tweeted that an Uzbek activist had killed herself, following a brutal interrogation by the Uzbek national security services. This seemed plausible -- as a new report from Human Rights Watch makes clear, torture and arbitrary detainment are common in Uzbekistan.
The next day, reporters from BBC, Radio Free Europe, and the well-regarded Uzbek-language websites Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net confirmed that the activist in question was Gulsumoy Abdujalilova. According to their sources, Gulsumoy had returned to Uzbekistan from Germany and was detained and interrogated by the national security services for four days. Upon her release, she committed suicide, leaving behind a note saying that the national security services tortured her and asked her to carry out acts of violence against Uzbek opposition leaders living abroad. The brutality of the case shocked Uzbek activists, particularly those who had met her online. Several claimed that they knew Gulsumoy through her Facebook page, which seemed to be her only public connection to the dissident community.
A few days later, Uzmetronom, a website known for printing scandalous stories about both the Uzbek government and the opposition, posted a story on December 8 claiming that Gulsumoy was a fraud. In Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, a prominent human rights advocate who had learned of the case after receiving a call from someone claiming to be Gulsumoy's sister, began her own investigation. Using information that members of the Uzbek opposition had received from whomever was pretending to be Gulsumoy, she discovered that Gulsumoy had never lived, much less died. A search in Munich by Uzbek exiles there yielded the same result -- or, that is, no result. Finding no trace of Gulsumoy's existence, Uzbek activists conceded that the whole thing was a hoax. The Facebook page, which disappeared on December 14 without explanation, was a fake. So was every detail of the Gulsumoy Abdujalilova story: the note, the pictures of her sent to Uzbek media sites, and the phone calls like the one Elena Urlaeva had received.
One question remained -- why?
People involved in Uzbek politics are accustomed to rumor and lies. It's common practice to assume that all information is unreliable and all sources biased, which ensures that all rumors are taken seriously. Rumor is not automatically believed, of course, so much as it is shared, parsed, and discussed -- sometimes far beyond what its dubious origins might merit. The result of ubiquitous paranoia is not disbelief. It is credulity.
The Gulsumoy Abdujalilova case is not the first scandal to play out on the Uzbek political internet. Over the past decade, opposition members have been accused of being Uzbek security officials, Uzbek security officials have claimed sympathy with the opposition, and members of the fractious dissident community have held endless debates about the loyalty and motives of activists within their tanks. In 2005, Uzbek dissidents took to the internet after a massacre of protesters sent hundreds into exile abroad, where many of them established themselves online for the first time.
Yet while the internet allowed dissidents to overcome the communication barriers inherent in geographic dispersion and political repression, it did little to alleviate long-standing internal feuds. The internet is a useful tool, but it raises questions of anonymity, authorship, and audience that are far more problematic for activists operating in a cynical political culture -- a hallmark of Uzbekistan's dictatorship-- than for activists in more open societies.
You might think that someone should have seen something like Gulsumoy Abdujalilova coming. But there aren't always clear ways to establish, prove, or disprove political trust online for citizens of an authoritarian state. When suspicions about Gulsumoy's existence were first raised, one friend of mine, a fellow communications scholar who studies the former USSR, looked at Gulsumoy's page and immediately pronounced it a fake. When I asked her why, she admitted she didn't really have a reason -- it just felt fake.
Looking at the page again, there are signs that might stand out for a Western audience: the lack of any real photos (Gulsumoy used a headshot of a Turkish model for her profile picture-- it was openly not her photo, like when someone uses a celebrity's picture as a joke), the dearth of comments from her 114 friends, the use of a pseudonym (she posted under "Gulsumoy Andijon," a reference to the site of the 2005 massacre), and the heavy emphasis on the political over the personal. But to see these as signs of a hoax assumes a normative standard of what a Facebook profile "should" look like. Many Uzbeks are selective or even deceptive about what they reveal about themselves on Facebook, for they are aware that the government is watching them and know giving too much up could be risky. They use Facebook to access information, not to share it. They use Facebook not to define themselves, but to find refuge, however tenuous, from the state's definition of who they are, what they can say, and who they could become.
When all information is assumed fraudulent and all sources suspect, when your worst suspicions about your government are routinely confirmed and denied, when online communication -- itself nebulous and malleable -- is your only means of interaction, what do you do? You follow your principles. "I have always believed people who need help, and while sometimes I don't have time and opportunity to respond to a call immediately, I always try to help people honestly and sincerely to the best of my ability, something that is very much needed in Uzbekistan," Urlaeva, the activist who futilely tried to track down the Gulsumoy case, told EurasiaNet. But in Uzbekistan, following your principles often gets you nowhere. And there's not much you can do about it.
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.
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.