By David L. Phillips
The ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has long had an information war component. Though neither country has an official “cyber army,” Azerbaijani hackers have systematically launched cyberattacks on the Armenian government and Armenian media websites, spreading disinformation to justify aggression and atrocities.
Azerbaijan’s social media campaign violates established guidelines. Twitter maintains: “You may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people. We also prohibit the glorification of violence.” Instagram also affirms that, “Graphic violence is not allowed and we may remove videos or images of intense, graphic violence to make sure that Instagram stays appropriate for everyone.”
According to Facebook’s Sophie Zhang
, the company waited a year to open investigations on the ruling political party of Azerbaijan that “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets...to harass the opposition” and defend the country’s governing New Azerbaijani Party by working with the Party’s Youth Union.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security
, points out: “This network appeared to engage individuals in Azerbaijan to manage pages with the sole purpose of leaving supportive and critical commentary on pages of international and local media, public figures including opposition, and the ruling party of Azerbaijan, to create a perception of widespread criticism of some views and widespread support of others.”
Not only does Azerbaijan spend a fortune on US-based public relations firms, it also sponsors an online disinformation campaign. Pro-Azerbaijan hashtags are heavily manipulated, with a small group of high-volume accounts responsible for most mentions. Rather than fully automated “bots,” they are curated by dedicated human users belonging to pro-regime youth groups.
Roughly 1 million pro-Azerbaijani comments on social media were registered between July 12–18, 2020. They were tagged with inflammatory titles such as #stopArmenianterrorism, #StopArmenianAggression, #ArmeniaKillsCivilians, #DontBelieveArmenia, #ArmeniaKillsChildren, #PrayforGanja, #StopArmenianLies, or #TerroristArmenia.
Online propagandists also harass defenders of Armenia and Artsakh. The American rapper Cardi B
and Elton John
were attacked for supporting the people of Artsakh. Cardi B admitted that “a lot of people from Azerbaijan” wrote to her and used the hashtag #CardiBSupportsTerrorism on social media.
Azerbaijan’s entrenched state propaganda apparatus has long used computational disinformation and patriotic trolling. Across all of the top pro-Azerbaijan hashtags, dozens of accounts tweeted well over a thousand times between July 14–July 18, with some accounts posting over a hundred times a day.
Azerbaijan’s political astroturfing operation is run by a small, coordinated group of accounts that post at a high volume to create the impression that the online movement has more organic support than it actually does.
A great proportion of hyperactive accounts were engaged during the period prior to Azerbaijan’s attack on September 27, suggesting they were orchestrated to support Azerbaijan’s premeditated aggression.
Most of these profiles were anonymous, featuring profile pictures of the Azerbaijani flag or other national symbols and no biographical information. Evidence also exists of systematic retweeting by, for example, the General Union to Youth for Support (GUYS), a youth organization created in 2019 to boost President Ilyam Aliyev’s youth development policy.
Propaganda is also conducted by Azerbaijani officials. Aliyev’s Foreign Policy Advisor, Hikmet Hajiyev, circulated fake images as “military analysis.” He circulated the image of a smirch missile that landed in an Azeri kitchen. The missile hit a table but didn’t destroy it or explode, leading to speculation that the image was photoshopped.
Azerbaijan’s information warfare is also directed against Azerbaijani citizens. The pro-regime youth movement, IRELI, is known to operate troll accounts
harassing journalists and regime critics. It also runs a “social media academy
” to train youth in propaganda. IRELI was originally funded and sponsored by the Azerbaijani government.
Freedom House documents Baku’s control over the information and communication technology industry. The government manipulates the online information landscape, blocking websites that host unfavorable news coverage. Digital rights are abused. Those who voice dissent online can expect prosecution if they reside in the country or various forms of intimidation if they live abroad. According to the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Internet users in Georgia and Russia enjoy 10 and sometimes 20 times the Internet speeds of their Azeri counterparts.
Columbia University’s President Lee C. Bollinger expressed concern that, “Social networking’s most dangerous human impact is that it can create more polarization, generating increasingly less room for debate and constructive discussions, which threatens our social fabric and democracy itself.”
To ensure fair and balanced information, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University recently launched a website titled “Artsakh Atrocities
” in conjunction with the Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman. The site includes credible reports by the Artsakh and Armenian human rights ombudsman, news articles and opinion pieces, statements by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other authoritative voices; videos, some of which include gruesome images, as well as documentation of Azerbaijani and terror groups targeting churches and cultural symbols.
The Artsakh Atrocities Page
is a counterweight to Azerbaijan’s propaganda infrastructure. It represents an effort to make sure that the voices of Armenian victims are heard.
We are routinely attacked by Azerbaijani propagandists. For example we hosted a forum with Armenia’s ambassador to the US, which received 150 disparaging comments in what was surely an orchestrated attack. I regularly receive messages from Azerbaijan’s apologists in Baku and around the world, challenging our credibility. They even object to use of the term “Artsakh.”
The Azeri government and its propagandists act like other perpetrators. First they deny. When confronted with evidence, they question its credibility. Then they claim that injuries were self-inflicted or that the victim group perpetrated the identical or worse actions against them, all in an attempt to first blur then rewrite history and avoid the consequences of their actions.
We believe that information archived on the Artsakh Atrocities Page not only memorializes the truth. It is also a resource for enhancing accountability when the perpetrators are tried for war crimes.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as chairman of the Turkey-Armenia Reconciliation Commission from 2001 to 2004.