“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”
This is how Mark Zuckerberg recently defined his vision of the future of Facebook, saying that the social media giant had been founded to give people a voice and bring them together.
Enter Azerbaijan, a country governed by a leadership known for corruption, slush funds and cracking down on critics. In the absence of independent spaces for public conversation, much of Azerbaijan’s civil society has turned to Facebook and other social media platforms as their medium for communication, organising and discussion.
In this South Caucasus state, political figures rely on Facebook to share updates from their political parties and organisations - and talk to their supporters. Activists organise events and rallies on Facebook and then use the platform to live broadcast their activities and share updates.
This makes activists’ online presence a target for hackers. Although sometimes the damage of a hacked Facebook profile or page is minimal, in other cases it is serious.
When Azerbaijani opposition activist Ali N Aliyev had his Facebook profile hacked, the hacker gained access to intimate photos of other political activists and started sharing them using Aliyev’s profile. Aliyev, a former parliamentary candidate with 130,000 followers on Facebook, still does not have access to his account.
Likewise, Azerbaijani independent news platforms depend on Facebook for sharing their stories. Some of these news websites have been blocked in Azerbaijan, and Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have thus become the sole remaining outlet for audience to receive news. Other media initiatives rely on Facebook and other social media platforms because they don’t have websites of their own - in order to avoid blocking.
A recent protest wave in Azerbaijan has put this digital reliance - both for individuals and organisations - into perspective. On 19 October, a coalition of opposition parties organised a demonstration in central Baku. Their demands included the release of political prisoners, free and fair elections, and solutions to growing unemployment and economic injustice. The next day, a group of women rights activists held a protest over violence against women, highlighting the recent murder of an Azerbaijani woman, Leyla Mammadova, who was stabbed to death in front of her children and passers-by.
Footage from Baku protests, October 2019. Source: RFE/RL
The use of excessive force and detentions by Baku police made these events into a serious public spectacle - all of which was available online. But the aftermath of these events confirmed once again Azerbaijan’s internet dependency as a weak spot.
For example, Gultekin Hajibeyli, a former MP-turned-opposition activist who attended the 19 October protest, relies heavily on Facebook for much of her work. By the end of October 2019, Hajibeyli’s page had 200,000 followers - this is where she keeps her supporters up to date about her work, speaking engagements and interviews. On 9 November, Hajibeyli’s Facebook page was hacked. She lost all of her archive, and some 130,000 followers were removed. The attacker used a Facebook profile of another activist and a member of the Popular Front party, Aliyev Hijran. Speaking to openDemocracy, Hijran said that he was unaware his profile had been hacked.
Similarly on 21 October, opposition movement D18 reported that its Facebook page had been hacked by unknown attackers. The administrators realised they were no longer in control of the page, but they were unable to prevent the loss of followers. In the 20 minutes the page was taken over, the group lost over 7,000 likes. The same day, one of the founders of the movement, Ruslan Izzetli, reported his personal Facebook page was being hacked. Izzetli was able to retrieve control of his page, but it’s worth noting that it was while his page was taken over that the D18 page was hacked. Izzetli and other members of D18 believe that they were attacked as a result of a recent Facebook post calling for Azerbaijan’s current Minister of Internal Affairs, Vilayet Eyvazov, to resign.
Other activists and rights defenders have reported numerous attempts and cases of hacked Facebook profiles. Online news sites Arqument.az and Anaxeber.info reported that their websites had been blocked by Facebook without prior notification, and they were thus unable to share links from these websites on the platform.
Last year, Facebook unveiled its rules that govern what can and cannot go on its platform. “If your photo, video or post is removed for violating Facebook's rules, you will be given the option to Request Review,” the rules state. “Appeals will be conducted by a ‘community operations’ team within 24 hours. If Facebook determines it made a mistake removing content, it will be restored.”
Several Facebook users in Azerbaijan interviewed for this story state that they did not receive any notification or an explanation from Facebook as to why their pages or content were blocked or removed. Hebib Muntezir, social media manager at Berlin-based independent news outlet Meydan TV, said he was not notified when Facebook started removing Meydan TV’s videos and photographs from protests in Baku on 19-20 October.
These content takedowns on Facebook are viewed with suspicion in Baku, given the websites and Facebook posts in question had been documenting the use of excessive force by Azerbaijani police and sharing it online
When I raised these points with Facebook, a company spokesperson stated: “These Facebook posts do not violate our Community Standards and they have not been removed or restricted in Azerbaijan. If people see a notification that the ‘content isn't available,’ it’s usually because the owner only shared it with a small group of people, changed who can see it, or deleted the content themselves.”
Similarly, neither Shemshed Aga, editor of online news site arqument.az, nor Azer Talibov from anaxeber.info were notified when their websites were placed on a block list by Facebook.
In response to concerns about blocked websites, Facebook said: “These web addresses were blocked by mistake after our systems mistakenly identified them as spam. We restored them as soon as we were able to investigate. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused.”
For a small country like Azerbaijan however, this inconvenience comes with consequences, especially when websites providing information on protest and repression are also blocked in the country. Indeed, these content takedowns on Facebook are viewed with suspicion in Baku, given the websites and Facebook posts in question had been documenting the use of excessive force by Azerbaijani police and sharing it online.
While the Azerbaijani authorities themselves were quick to dismiss accusations of police violence, these videos and images were later used to identify individual officers responsible for the violence. When Facebook started taking down some of the previously reported footage, users complained, seeing this as loss of evidence against police officers who had been identified by protest participants.
In the long run, these events raise further questions about the role of international social media companies in an authoritarian state like Azerbaijan - and specifically the nature of community operations teams. Are these teams aware of political contexts? Or the role Facebook plays in autocratic states?
At the end of the day, even if the guidelines are called “community standards”, Facebook is not a “community” and certainly, there is no need to pretend that Facebook has some kind of global standard of decency.