inauthentic pages target independent news platform – will Facebook take notice [part 3, the case of Azadliq Radio]

After The Guardian’s expose on Facebook overlooking trolling activity in Azerbaijan (and elsewhere) earlier this year, one would think that the platform would finally take notice and address how the platform is abused by trolls and the actors operating them. Instead, the loopholes remain and from the looks of it, the platform is doing little to address the use of Facebook Pages – at least in the case of Azerbaijan as pointed out here and here – to target independent media. The most recent example is this Facebook post, shared by Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty. The post, is a caricature by Gunduz Aghayev, addressing the rising cost of fuel in the country. Under the post, 549 comments to be exact claim all sorts of things – that the radio is biased, is lying, the economy is doing great, that the State Oil Company (SOCAR) knows exactly what it’s doing, etc. A closer look at the comments reveals that each belongs to a user operating a fake Facebook page. Earlier this month, AIW reported about Azerbaijan’s very own troll factory

Will Facebook take notice this time? 

Azerbaijan’s troll factory revealed

Ever since 2013 revelations about Russia’s troll factory, many in Azerbaijan wondered whether the country’s leadership too operated its very own troll factory. Unlike its Russian version, known as the Internet Research Agency, there was only anecdotal evidence of whether this was really the case in Azerbaijan. There were no former “factory” employees who came forward or undercover journalists who temporary worked there and exposed the work carried out later. Not until this month anyway. An investigation against the executive director of the State Media Support Fund Vugar Safarli now reveals that the suspicions were valid after all. And that upon specific instructions a group of “bloggers” were responsible for monitoring Facebook and leaving comments under posts that were critical of the government or relevant government institutions. 

The investigation is part of a criminal case launched against Vugar Safarli who until recently headed the State Fund for Media Development in Azerbaijan. Safarli was arrested in 2020 on charges of money laundering (allegedly 20million AZN) and abuse of authority.

On September 2, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe, Azadliq Radio published parts of the testimony by Safarli where the former government official implicates not only that the government did indeed deploy trolls but that several high ranking officials including then Presidential advisor Ali Hasanov and former head of the Presidential Administration Ramiz Mehdiyev were well aware of this. Moreover, the building from where trolls operated belonged to Hasanov himself. 

“Ali Hasanov told me that the new rented space, will have internet bloggers who will work from there. And indeed there were a few, who sat there, working unofficially,” Safarli reportedly said in his statement according to Azadliq Radio reporting. 

“We were especially paying a closer attention to Facebook. Each of us operated a large number of fake profiles, which we used to leave comments. These comments were planned ahead of time. We would receive them in the morning. And that’s why often these comments were similar to each other as they were posted from different profiles,” shared one of the former employees who spoke to Azadliq Radio on condition of anonymity.

But leaving comments en masse was not the only requirement. “The Presidential Administration would send us topics of the day that we had to research and prepare material on. Then those materials were posted on various pro-government media platforms and published on pro-government television,” explained anonymous blogger in an interview with Azerbaijan Service.

Over the years, authorities denied any involvement in mass trolling or deployment of troll armies including Ali Hasanov himself who was known among government critics as the “King of trolls.” He repeated this as he was exiting office in January 2020 in an interview with BBC Azerbaijan service: “There is no army of trolls in Azerbaijan. There is simply the public supporting the president.” 

That public supporting the president was also mentioned by current member of the parliament Zahid Oruc, who told Azadliq Radio in a phone interview that “the party does not see millions of citizens who defend the leader of the current government as trolls.” 

Oruc did not directly deny operation of troll armies in Azerbaijan. Instead he said, “the party considered it incorrect to present massive number of comments written on various platforms and coordinated from from one single location as a government policy.”

Previously the ruling part of New Azerbaijan denied operation of troll armies in Azerbaijan. Most recently the ruling party was exposed in a series of investigations released by The Guardian.   

A month prior to the release of The Guardian investigation Azerbaijan Internet Watch published this story exposing how some 500 inauthentic accounts on Facebook (almost all of them were set up as pages) targeted a Berlin-based online news platform Meydan TV and this story uncovering a similar pattern of targeting against another independent online news platform Mikroskop Media.

That the ruling government in Baku deployed trolls was not at all surprising. Surely, activists had their own suspicions for the years having relied on Internet and specifically the social media platform Facebook as the government silenced dissent offline. As the crackdown against Azerbaijan’s civil society intensified and culminated with the arrest of some of the high profile civil society activists in 2014 as well as targeting of independent news platforms, including Azadliq Radio, internet and specifically social media platforms became the remaining avenues for freedom of speech advocates who took to the platform to criticize the policies and decisions of the official Baku. Independent online news platforms, continue to rely on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to disseminate news as many of their websites are blocked for access in Azerbaijan.

Will Safarli’s exposure of the former government officials and their direct involvement in running a troll army change anything? Highly unlikely as the government of Azerbaijan survives on its greatest political tool – denialism.

Azerbaijan may end up blocking more online content

Four months ago, the Plenum of the Supreme Court in Azerbaijan annulled previous court decisions issued by the Courts of Appeal and Cassation regarding five news websites that were blocked in 2017. On June 5, the Plenum sent the cases back to the Baku Court of Appeal for reconsideration.

The five media platforms include Meydan TV, Azadliq Radio [Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe], Turan TV, Azerbaijansaadi, and Azadliq newspaper [not related to Azadliq Radio]. In March 2017, the Ministry of Communication [which later became the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies] restricted access to these online resources on the grounds these websites’ content was threatening national security and promoted “violence, hatred, or extremism” and “violated privacy or constituted slander.” The forensics carried out by an independent organization Virtual Road showed evidence of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology used to interfere with access even before there was a court ruling in place. By May 2017, the Ministry had a court ruling to block access. In December 2017, the Court of Appeal in Baku upheld the court ruling from May.

The blocking of these news resources came shortly after the National Parliament of Azerbaijan adopted changes to the law on Information, Informatisation, and access to Information. With the new changes, authorities were allowed to block access to any website on the grounds it contained prohibited information, was posing danger to the state or society, and in the case, the website owner failed to remove content within eight hours of receiving the notification.

In 2017, the Ministry asked for the following in its court appeal:

  1. court order to prevent access to five platforms’ websites;
  2.  block all other resources offering access to the content (this included YouTube, Facebook, and other online resources);

In its decision, the Sabail Court ruled in favor of the first request, leaving the second demand out. The Ministry was satisfied and blocking became effective immediately. 

Three years later, the Ministry of Communication, Transportation, and High Technologies went straight to the Plenum.  According to media law expert Khaled Aghaly, the reason is that the Ministry wants to expand blocking. Considering the experience with the previous court decisions and rulings in Azerbaijan, the chances of the court ruling coming out in favor of the blocked websites are dim. 

Although the Ministry has not explicitly mentioned any of the platforms or names of other resources that have shared content from these blocked news outlets, Aghaly explains that in the new complaint the Ministry claims that the blocked news resources continue to share their content online using other “resources” and that other media platforms also share the content from these blocked platforms. It is possible that the Ministry is looking for ways to not only prevent access to more online news sites but also, access to social media platforms of Azadliq Radio, Meydan TV, and others.

Can individual social media accounts and/or content be blocked? 

Technically it can. There are previous instances where Facebook did limit access to certain content. This was the case in Thailand in 2017 when Thai users of the social media platform no longer had access to a video that showed the country’s king at a mall in Germany, his tattoos exposed and accompanied by one of his mistresses. According to this Vice story, Facebook blocked the video based on Thailand’s government legislation that deems it insulting to the king and in violation of the country’s laws banning criticism of the monarchy. 

Another option to prevent access is on an ISP level. An example would be what happened in Kazakhstan in 2019 when the government there instructed local ISPs to force their users into installing a government-issued certificate on all their devices, and in every browser. With this certificate installed, the government had access to users’ HTTPS traffic that normally would keep it anonymous. In case, users refused to install the certificate, they were blocked from accessing the internet altogether. At the time, the Kazakh Ministry of Digital Development Innovation and Aerospace said the measure was “aimed at enhancing the protection of citizens, government bodies and private companies from hack attacks, internet fraudsters and other  types of cyber threats.”

Similarly, “mobile service providers instructed their customers to install encryption software on mobile phones that would allow security services to intercept data traffic and circumvent email and messaging applications’ encryption.”

It is worth noting that ISPs in Azerbaijan are bound to the government for the main internet backbone provider in Azerbaijan is government-owned Delta Telekom. In addition, the history of collaboration between mobile operators and the Ministry of the Interior is full of examples when private information of customers was handed over and as a result, led to further targeting. 

Impunity for all these user violations is rampant.

journalist facing jail time

Anar Mammadov is editor of criminal.az – website that was blocked by the authorities in Azerbaijan in 2018. Mammadov was sentenced to 5.5 years of imprisonment with a two-year probation period on charges of anti-state appeals, abuse of power and official forgery in March 2019. The official cause of the criminal prosecution was the publication of news about the assassination attempt on the former head of the city of Ganja Elmar Veliyev.

On January 6, Mammadov was pressed with a set of new allegations facing arrest. The accusation comes from a woman, named Malahat Gurbanova. Mammadov wrote about Gurbanova’s legal battle with former Minister of Social Services earlier on. Gurbanova now, alleges Mammadov’s language used to describe Gurbanova in his coverage was slanderous and insulting. Mammadov refutes these claims in his defense adding, if anything, it is he who feels insulted.

Criminal.az is an independent website covering predominantly crime-related stories. The website was blocked by the authorities in 2017, along with a number of other critical and independent news websites. It later began operating under the criminalaz.com domain, which was also blocked shortly after.

*Criminalaz.com, Fia.az, bastainfo.az and topxeber.az were blocked in Azerbaijan after the prosecutor’s office claimed these news websites misinformed their audiences and shared news of provocative nature that were untrue. [Turan News Agency]

**Since May 2017, over 20 websites have been blocked in Azerbaijan, among them: Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azerbaijan Service) and its international service, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Azadliq Newspaper (independent of the Azadliq radio), Meydan TV, Turan TV and Azerbaijan Saadi (Azerbaijan Hour), OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Unit), abzas.net, obyektiv.tv, and others on the ground these outlets promoted violence, hatred, extremism, violated privacy or constituted slander.

***Websites blocked since then are blocked for slander and spreading misinformation. At some point, an editor of the blocked az24saat.org was asked to remove four articles that mentioned Ali Hasanov, now a former aide to President Ilham Aliyev. Monitortv.info, which was among the blocked websites, also received a note requesting the removal of articles mentioning Ali Hasanov on the grounds these stories contained slander and lies. [Open Democracy]

At the time of the verdict against the journalist Mammadov, several international journalism organizations, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media criticized the court’s decision.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop charges against Mammadov and pointing to the unfounded prosecution.

“Informing the general public about important events is what journalists do, and the authorities should support this work, and not punish reporters,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ Program Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia.

In June 2019, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of Anar Mammadov.

Timeline

15 May 2019 – Mammadov summoned to the prosecutor’s office. This time the journalist was questioned over a story about the state oil company – SOCAR.

Meydan TV, an independent online news website covering Azerbaijan was also targeted. Although the website of Meydan.tv was blocked already in 2017, following the publication of stories about SOCAR, the website was heavily DDoSed.

9 July 2018 – Mammadov, questioned by the police. The journalist’s home was searched and his personal devices, including his laptop and phone, were seized by the police.

Mammadov was questioned after publishing reports on an attempt on the life of the mayor of Ganja, Elmar Valiyev, on 3 July.

24 July 2018 – Mammadov was summoned to the prosecutor’s office. The journalist was questioned about the publication of reports on the assassination attempt and was warned not to spread “investigative secrets”.