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In the crosshairs of Azerbaijan’s patriotic trolls

Azerbaijan has taken its crackdown against dissent to the internet. Opposition publications and journalists are routinely harassed – by both paid trolls and true believers. Azərbaycanca

Twitter patriots and keyboard warriors. “I am proud that I am Azerbaijani” reads this image on a user’s profile, featuring presidents Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. As a critic of Azerbaijan’s authorities and of president Ilham Aliyev, I’ve been called many things; a slut, a dog, a pig – you name it. These insults involved my ill mother and deceased father. She was a whore; he was a traitor who slept with an Armenian slut. I have been publicly shamed for writing columns for Agos, a Turkish-Armenian weekly, while living in Istanbul.

Among all the automated accounts who spread this abuse, I have managed to identify a group of regular users. They’re real people, who often retweet their gang leader (though the more creative ones go alone). These men and women, follow me everywhere I go online. They comment under my stories, blog posts, and of course, on Twitter. Some I have blocked, some I have muted, but mostly I have learned to ignore them.

One for the resume

Azerbaijan’s pro-government trolls have picked up their pace over the past few years. Freedom House’s recent report on internet freedom demoted Azerbaijan to 56th place, citing the disrupting nature of pro-government trolling attacks on freedom of expression, among many other concerns.

As a good friend once said of the patriotic trolls: “feed them – until they choke”

Earlier on, these trolls’ accounts were operated by IRELI - a pro-government youth organisation. In 2011 in an interview with News.az, secretary general of the organisation Rauf Mardiyev explained that IRELI’s IT centre simply worked on the “education of young people and the protection of Azerbaijan’s interests in the virtual world”. This “protection of interests” online would explain IRELI’s engagement in trolling internet users who did not necessarily think alike. To their credit, they did a far better job than the members of ruling party’s youth branch. “Their accounts seemed more authentic; the pictures were better and their work was more sophisticated,” says Dr. Katy Pearce from University of Washington, and the author of numerous studies on internet use in Azerbaijan.

Mardiyev’s interview also gives us an idea of the sheer number of people working with the organisation due to their IT literacy project. “Some 50,000 people to date have been involved in training in 52 cities and regions of the country […]orha Our objective is to produce young people who can take an active part in the information war”, commented Mardiyev.

Up-and-coming youth leaders such as Mardiyev want to stand out. Becoming members of organisations like IRELI is a great way to advance in a government career. The more tweets you post, the more you’re noticed. The more loyalty you show, the greater your chances of getting recognised or eventually a promotion. Dr. Pearce describes this phenomenon as “quantitative success”. It is the number of comments or tweets you leave online, not their quality, which matters.

Despite his growing success, Mardiyev became a victim of political circumstance. In 2014, a conflict between Turkey’s prime minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan and the Islamic cleric and leader of Hizmet Movement Fethullah Gülen had begun to spread to Azerbaijan. Mardiyev, a graduate of Hizmet-affiliated schools in Azerbaijan, was removed from his position in IRELI.

There’s an understanding, or a hope, that being around the Aliyev family online may help to join the ranks of the high society offline 

But he wasn’t the only one. IRELI lost its leader, Elnur Aslanov, who at the time served as the spokesperson for the presidential administration. As for Mardiyev, he’s left Azerbaijan – but only certain events make his nationalist blood boil. He continues to fight disinformation if it concerns the territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh but no longer posts pro-government comments or tweets. He recently thanked the Gods when the Formula 1 race in Azerbaijan’s capital, a prestigious event for the regime in Baku, came to an end.

IRELI’s dominance took a hit with the departure of Aslanov and Mardiyev. While there are still plenty of IRELI trolls, they’re now outshone by members of the youth branch of the ruling party and other youth organisations. However, unlike their predecessors they are easily detectable, and not as cunning. Their profiles are adorned with the flag of Azerbaijan, or a picture of lham Aliyev (and sometimes his father). Their tweets are repetitive, and seem automatically generated, full of fawning praise for the government and hatred for those who are not as pleased with the regime as they are. They’re a varied bunch: accountants, students, teachers, and of course members of pro-government youth movements.

The march of the sockpuppets

It’s hard to estimate exactly how many trolls the Azerbaijani government employs for its purposes. If in 2011 Mardiyev said that IRELI worked with up to 50,000 people, then the number of trolls could have doubled or tripled since then (along with their vulgarity towards their targets). While there appear to be no “troll factories” as has been reported in Russia, there are certainly networks with ring leaders who coordinate online harassment. 

At least, this was certainly the case when a man named Elmar Mammadov informed a group of young Azerbaijanis in a group chat to start attacking Azadliq Radio (RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service) and Meydan TV, the dissident Berlin-based media outlet focusing on Azerbaijan. Although most Azerbaijanis get their news from TV, online services like these play an important role for those seeking an alternative viewpoint.

The order came ahead of the 26 September referendum on constitutional amendments, against which a number of opposition groups planned rallies. As soon as Azadliq Radio and and Meydan TV began their livestream of the protests, Elmar wrote that “we are starting the attack. I wish everyone luck”. 

Whataboutism is the most popular tactic against foreign critics; “how dare you criticise Azerbaijan, get your own house in order!” 

In his next message, Elmar warned the group members to avoid “avoid writing YAP [short for the ruling Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyasi or Azerbaijan New Party], otherwise they will know it’s an organised act”. He then told his colleagues to harass Meydan TV, telling his “friends” to “post maximum comments”.

Most of these comments have been deleted from the both publications’ Facebook pages. “They post abusive and irrelevant comments, so we end up removing them,” commented Azadliq Radio employee who requested to stay anonymous. “They would say, so and so son from the opposition drives this really expensive car. So we remove this comment. And they come after us again and accuse us of violating freedom of expression,” the journalist added.

In an interview with openDemocracy, Hebib Muntezir and Orkhan Hebib, social media managers for Meydan TV, said that they often have to block up to 50 accounts per day due to trolling of their Facebook page.

“The moment they spot a story critical of Ilham Aliyev or something negative about the country, they start posting. Often it’s the same message. But there’s nothing of substance. And once you start blocking them, they return with a new account, but it’s almost always the same people,” Hebib and Orkhan told me. The biggest difference between Azerbaijani trolls and Russian pro-government trolls, believes Orkhan, is that Russian trolls come with substantial arguments, they prepare facts and figures. Hebib says that Azerbaijani trolls come poorly prepared; they simply “receive a screenshot of our Facebook page and start attacking us”.

The ruling party’s youth branch recently posted a caricature depicting its founder, the former political prisoner Emin Milli, responding to negative comments as EU and US representatives look on, advising him to shut down the comments section altogether.

Being a woman will get you abuse online. If you’re a vocal woman opposed to the authorities, the harassment is limitless

International events which scrutinise Azerbaijan’s abysmal human rights record also come under attack. Trolls hijack and distort the conversation, bringing the ongoing conflict with neighbouring Armenia to the forefront of discussion. First, criticism of Azerbaijan’s government is drowned out by reference to atrocities committed by the Armenian enemy. These trolls then pick on individual actors’ Twitter handles and spam them to discrediting their work. Whataboutism is the most popular tactic against foreign critics; “how dare you criticise Azerbaijan, get your own house in order!” 

Attendees of a recent conference in Warsaw experienced this first-hand. The OSCE’s Human Rights Dimension Meeting was held from 19 to 30 September, and Azerbaijan was one of several countries under discussion. Some 35 Azerbaijani trolls hijacked the official #HDIM2016 hashtag, sharing graphic war photographs of decapitated children and raped women to distract from the topic at hand. The trolls demanded western recognition of Armenia’s illegal occupation of Azerbaijani territory and the status of internally displaced people from Karabakh.

This “patriotic troll” spammed the Warsaw conference & Freedom House using the #HDIM hashtag, sending images of corpses from the Karabakh conflict.The Karabakh conflict is still an open wound, and recently saw renewed clashes. As such, Azerbaijani internet users generally need no encouragement to argue with or spam their Armenian counterparts. Yet this was a clear, organised attempt to derail a valid conversation about authoritarianism in Azerbaijan. Whether trolls or government officials, the tactic is the same; in her first response to the OSCE’s criticism, the Azerbaijani delegate Nahida Abdurahmanova didn’t even try to fabricate progress in press freedom or human rights. She simply mentioned Nagorno-Karabakh.

In this particular case, a user named Namiq Murad appeared to be the ringleader. A quick glance at Namiq’s Twitter profile shows that his account wasn’t solely created or used just to troll #HDIM2016. He tweets occasionally, but mostly retweets content from president Ilham Aliyev’s official account, sharing images of what he considers “historical moments”. Predictably, the Azerbaijani flag and the two Aliyevs (elder and younger) feature heavily on his profile.

Trolls and their goals 

What Namiq and the other 30 or so #HDIM2016 trolls lacked was creativity, credibility and good English. Instead of trying to mute criticism, these sockpuppet armies often just embarrass the countries they represent, not least when combined with the presence of sycophantic GONGOs.

But there are also genuine trolls who make it their personal goal to comment, bully and dehumanise their targets. They’ll belittle you, and even abuse your family members. Then there’s the sexual harassment. In a traditionally patriarchal society like Azerbaijan, female internet users are regularly targeted, and attackers rarely need an excuse to abuse. 

Being a woman is enough. If you’re a vocal woman opposed to the authorities, the harassment knows no limits. I’ve been attacked for my political views online, and watched as the comments gradually (or not so gradually) devolve into sexual abuse. Other men will join in – men who couldn’t care less about my politics nor anybody else’s. 

Again, this isn’t to say that there aren’t internet users in Azerbaijan who are simply very fond of the regime, the ruling family and the government in Baku. This Facebook user, for example, dedicates his online account to poems and singing the praise of the ruling Aliyev family. He’s particularly fond of the First Lady. “Mehriban Aliyeva is the personification of good and of hope!” reads one post. “You are an angel sent to us from above!” reads another. 

The official Instagram accounts of the Ilham Aliyev’s two daughters (Arzu and Leyla) are full of praise. Azerbaijan’s internet users differ from those in Russia – the personality cult of the first family is far stronger. There’s an understanding, or a hope, that even being around them online may help to join the ranks of the high society offline. 

A caricature sent to the author by “patriotic trolls”. Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan carries her away from Baku, where her father looks on from his grave, weeping. Copies of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos lie on the ground.The atmosphere online is becoming even more restrictive. This month, Azerbaijan’s parliament discussed harsher penalties for insulting the president online. This bill, proposed by the prosecutor general, calls for an amendment to Article 323.1 of the Criminal Code, on the “protection of the honour and dignity of the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan”.

The word “mass media” in the bill will be replaced by the phrase “in mass media or in the case of public statements made online”. The prosecutor general is also calling to criminalise insults made online by fake user accounts. If passed, article 148.1 of the Criminal Code will hold individuals with fake social media profiles accountable for spreading misinformation, hate speech and making accusations.

The regime’s trolls, I assume, are not losing any sleep over these new laws.

But there’s a bigger picture. Authoritarian Azerbaijan has a pervasive culture of offline and online surveillance, which is an integral part of government control over its citizens. In July 2015 a leak revealed that an Italian surveillance firm, the Milan-based Hacking Team was selling technology to a number of repressive governments, including Azerbaijan.

The marriage between paranoid dictators and the cyber-surveillance industry is a profitable one. With these kind of tools, who needs trolls?

These tools enable governments to break into individual computers and mobile phones. Reporters Without Borders lists the Hacking Team on its list of “Enemies of the Internet Index”. “The sale of surveillance tools to rights-abusing regimes directly impacts users at risk, including journalists, bloggers, sexual rights activists, members of the LGBTQ community and human rights defenders”, wrote AccessNow shortly after the leak.

The marriage between paranoid dictators and the cyber-surveillance industry is a profitable one. With these kind of tools, who needs trolls?

DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service) have also evolved. When such operations once used large numbers of compromised domestic computers, Gustaf Bjorksten notes that there are now entire DDoS-for-hire services which are run out of dedicated data-centres. This can hardly be the work of a few “concerned citizens”. MeydanTV director Emin Milli noted in a recent interview with Foreign Policy that the oppositional channel has suffered DDoS attacks on several occasions. Radio Azadliq and the media rights watchdog Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS)

DDoS attacks are also common between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where hackers from both sides attack government websites during public events. Government-sponsored trolls often praise and publicise these attacks.

In the meantime, critics and dissenters in Azerbaijan are trying to stand their ground online. As a good friend once said of the patriotic trolls: “feed them – until they choke”.

 


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