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.

inauthentic pages target independent news platform – will Facebook take notice [part 2, the case of Mikroskop Media]

This month, a series of articles published by The Guardian newspaper revealed how leaders across the world, used Facebook loopholes to harass their critics at home. And how despite having information about these violations, the platform lets these cases sit sometimes for months on end if not more, instead choosing to deal with more high profile cases. “The investigation shows how Facebook has allowed major abuses of its platform in poor, small and non-western countries in order to prioritize addressing abuses that attract media attention or affect the US and other wealthy countries. The company acted quickly to address political manipulation affecting countries such as the US, Taiwan, South Korea, and Poland, while moving slowly or not at all on cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia, Mexico and much of Latin America.”

The Guardian investigations show that Azerbaijan was on the list of neglected countries. If it wasn’t for Facebook’s former employee Sophie Zhang memo published in September of last year, those inauthentic pages that Facebook removed 14 months later (once the memo was out) likely would have stayed. 

But even though those pages have been reportedly removed, hundreds if not thousands more continue to target independent media in Azerbaijan. AIW covered the story of Meydan TV here and The Guardian uncovered a similar pattern of targeting in the case of Azad Soz. AIW now presents its findings on targeting Mikroskop Media, a Riga-based online news platform that covers Azerbaijan. 

Mikroskop Media shared with AIW the list of Facebook posts where the platform received a high volume of comments. The preliminary investigation indicates that the Facebook page of Mikroskop Media was also targeted by hundreds of inauthentic Facebook pages set up to look like personal accounts flooding the posts with comments supportive of the ruling government and its relevant decisions. 

On March 24, Mikroskop Media shared the following post on its Facebook page. The post looks at the total number of citizens who have received vaccination so far in Azerbaijan as well as the total number of vaccines on March 23. This post received over 1.6k comments. AIW looked at 550 comments and almost all of these comments were posted by owners of pages that posed as users on the platform. 

Another post investigated by AIW was one posted on March 11, indicating the total number of businesses who have applied to the authorities to launch their businesses in Karabakh. The post receives over 400 comments. Having analyzed 200 of them, AIW was again, discovered that all of them were pages. 

On April 5, Mikroskop Media shared a link to a story they published about this investigation that was first originally published by VICE on March 29, exposing how little known Berlin-based television channel was part of a “lobbying strategy to polish Azerbaijan’s image in Germany” thanks to large sums of money paid through bribery of certain politicians. The story shared by Mikroskop Media on its Facebook page received almost 400 comments. AIW analyzed these comments, and once again, with an exception of a few profiles (although these too were suspicious given the lack of any recent activity on their profiles) that almost all of the comments were posted by inauthentic Facebook pages. 

At other times, Mikroskop Media’s Facebook page was targeted by troll accounts. This was especially the case in this example – on November 12, 2020, Mikroskop Media shared an infographic, about the number of times, Azerbaijan’s national constitution was amended. Among the 385 comments that were analyzed, a relatively high number of these comments were posted by Facebook profiles. A closer look at these profiles showed while some of the owners were employees at the state universities and government institutions, some were not authentic accounts at all. The majority of the comments once again were in favor of these changes, expressed pride in the country and the president’s decisions as well as accused the media platform of bias and unfair reporting. 

AIW would be happy to assist Facebook’s threat intelligence team in investigating the “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that AIW has observed and has shared in its reporting so far, but the main question still lingers, will it take notice?