blogger facing pressure over a video shared on Facebook

Azerbaijani blogger Elmar Aziz was called into questioning on December 1 over what the blogger said was a video he shared about the traffic police. According to Turan News Agency, in the video shared by Aziz, traffic police are seen taking bribes from drivers. Aziz shared the video on Facebook.

In an interview with Meydan TV, Aziz said he posted the video of traffic police bribing drivers on Facebook and tagged the head Elshad Hadjiyev – the head of press relations at the Ministry of the Interior. 

The blogger was forced to remove the video after the questioning at the police station. Aziz told Meydan TV that police threatened to keep him less he removed the video. 

After Aziz told the local media about the pressure from the police, the blogger was called back into the questioning together with his parents. 

Speaking to Turan News Agency, the head of press relations at the Ministry of the Interior, Elshad Hadjiyev refuted the blogger’s claim that he was questioned together with his parents by the local police after informing the media that he was forced to remove the video from Facebook. 

former member of the parliament faces criminal charges

Gultekin Hajibeyli, the former member of the parliament told Meydan TV she is facing criminal charges over a comment she left on Facebook. According to Meydan TV reporting, Hajibeyli was held at the airport on her return from a work trip to Brussels and was informed she is facing slander charges. Hajibeyli said she was then taken to the Nasimi district police station after two-hour-long questioning at the airport. 

In an interview with Meydan TV, Hajibeyli said, the complaint was filed by a woman named Leyla Arif. “Imagine that I am facing criminal charges over a comment I posted under a post shared by a user named Leyla Arif on Facebook. That post was later deleted. So I am facing criminal charges over a post that no longer exists.”

Arif then posted an explanation on her Facebook saying she was called a “separatist” by Hajibeyli. 

Police detains political activist over Facebook posts

A member of a political movement D18 was detained by the police on November 11. Speaking to the local media the head of the movement Ahmad Mammadli said the activist, Orkhan Zeynalli was taken by the police over his Facebook posts that were critical of the police. 

According to Mammadli, the problem started a month ago when Zeynalli went to the police to file a complaint over a stolen bike [Zeynalli worked as a courier delivering food]. The police offered a different kind of assistance – a fee in an exchange for them to help him find his stolen bike. Zeynalli wrote about this exchange on his Facebook after which police called him in asking to remove the post. They were unaware of his political activism prior to seeing his post on Facebook. 

Assured, Zeynalli hid the post, but a month later, after receiving no news, Zeynalli shared another ironic post about the police force, explained Ahamd Mammadli in an interview with Meydan TV. 

Zeynalli was asked to visit the police station yet again, this time, Zeynalli refused, given there was no official letter from the police. 

That day, Zeynalli went out of his home to fix the electricity outage which according to Mammadli, was caused by the police. “Plain-clothed police officers detained Zeynalli on the spot. Zeynalli’s wife watched all of this happen,” noted Mammadli. Zeynalli was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on November 12, according to reporting by Turan News Agency. D18 had another member sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on November 12 as well – Afiaddin Mamedov – but on what grounds remains unclear.

This is not the first time, political and civil activists are detained by the police over their social media posts. Most recently police detained another political activist, a member of the opposition Popular Front party over social media posts. According to reporting by Meydan TV, Emin Akhundov was briefly detained by the police on October 31 over a post in which he criticized disproportionate police violence against political activists. Akhundov was released the following day. 

 

Facebook user questioned over a Facebook status post

Seymur Aghayev, a student, said police unlawfully took him to a police station where he was held for some two hours on September 27. The men who first asked Aghayev to confirm his identity were ununiformed explained Aghayev following his release. When Aghayev asked the reason for this inquiry his questions remained unanswered. The men put him in a car against his will and took him to the Baku Police Station. 

“I was standing outside a grocery store when two men approached me, asking if I was Seymur. I told them that was my name. They were plainclothed and only later at the police station did I learn that the two men were the officers at Criminal Search department at the Baku City Police Station. They left my questions unanswered as we drove [to the police station],” Aghayev wrote the following day on his Facebook profile.

At the station, Aghayev was told the reason he was brought in was a Facebook status Aghayev shared about police violence against citizens. 

In an interview with Toplum TV, Aghayev said, the status was referring to an old video of police using physical violence against a citizen. At the station, following the questioning (police officers also asked about his family members, their employment history, and any religious affiliation) Aghayev was forced to remove his Facebook status. 

In its response to media inquiries, the Ministry of the Interior said there was nothing unlawful in Aghayev’s visit to the police. “He was questioned upon an invite. This is not unlawful,” said the Ministry’s media spokesperson in an interview with Meydan TV. 

police detains peace activist. meanwhile activists face restrictions on Facebook [Updated October 24]

[Update] Speaking to a group of journalists on October 20, activist Ahmed Mammadli said his arrest was ordered by the state and that he was now being sent against his will to complete the compulsory military service less he drops his advocacy around peaceful coexistence between the two nations. The authorities said they would guarantee his safety and allow him to pursue his education abroad if he complied. But Mammadli is defiant and vowed to fight such measures from happening to any activist in the country. “I and our movement, won’t allow for this to happen again,” said Mammadli. “I refused their offer because my values are not for sale,” explained Mammadli to journalists at a press conference held in Baku shortly after his release from detention. 

On September 20, police in Baku arrested a political activist, and the chairman of the Democracy 1918 (D18) movement Ahmed Mammadli. Mamadli was detained by men in non-uniforms and later sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention on bogus charges. The local police claimed Mammadli was arrested on the grounds of resisting the police.

Mammadli was among a handful of civil society activists who made public calls for peace, regarding the recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

In his posts, Mammadli criticized the state for the recent clashes, saying the responsible officials, including the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, should be held accountable. “One day, Ilham Aliyev will answer before the international courts the crimes he committed not only against the Azerbaijani people but also against the Armenian people. The first task of a democratic Azerbaijan will be to punish those who make nations hostile to each other,” wrote Mammadli on September 15. In another post, Mammadli, called the president a “dictator” who had “blood on his hands”.

Mammadli announced he was going on a hunger strike following his arrest.

During the most recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the State Security Service blocked access to TikTok.  

Separately journalists from independent news platforms reported attempts to hack into their social media accounts during the most recent clashes due to their critical coverage. Verbal attacks on peace activists and journalists providing critical coverage of the escalations were also documented. Both journalists and activists said their social media accounts were getting temporarily suspended by Facebook as a result of mass (fake) reporting.

Giyas Ibrahim, was among those whose personal Facebook profile was suspended likely as a result of inauthentic accounts mass porting the profile to the platform and abusing the platform’s community standards. Although access to his profile resumed after the 6-day restrictions ended, the activist’s posts continue to be moved lower in the feed. In a notice Ibrahim received from Facebook, the platform claimed, Ibrahim posted something that violated Facebook’s policies.

In a separate case, activist and founder of Azad Soz platform, Tural Sadiqli said Facebook suspended access to his own profile over a post, the platform claimed was in violation of its community standards. The said post was about the story of a man who self-immolated outside a government building that normally provides citizens in need with housing. The rest of the post talked about the reactions of various government institutions including the one outside of which the man set himself on fire. This temporary suspension delayed Sadiqli’s work updating the Facebook page of Azad Soz, a popular anti-government online platform, that Sadiqli administers.

online news platform hacked, content and followers removed

On September 16, Toplum TV, an online news platform had its Facebook page hacked. The hacker accessed the account by hacking one employee’s personal Facebook profile. As a result, the news platform lost 26k of its followers and two weeks’ worth of shared content. 

In an interview with Meydan TV, the platform’s director, journalist Khadija Ismayil said this was not the first time Toplum TV was targeted with a digital attack.

AIW documented the previous attack in November 2021. At the time, the hacking occurred through an SMS interception. In another attack documented in September 2021, Toplum TV reported it lost 16k followers on its Facebook page. 

Ismayil in a Facebook post said, there were suspicions that a similar attempt was made this time around. The admin team is investigating the origins of the hack. 

Access to the page has been restored at the time of writing this post.

police demands arrest of a political activist [Updated September 5]

[Update] On September 5, a local court sentenced Rahimova to 460hours of community service. Rahimova’s lawyer said they will be appealing the decision. 

Gulnara Rahimova is a member of the opposition Popular Front party. On August 11, Rahimova shared a Facebook post in which she described how she was unlawfully detained while on her way to a protest on July 19. Together with Rahimova was another activist, Aziz Mamiyev who was beaten by the police during detention. The two were among several other activists detained by the police that day. “Today I have obtained the picture of one of the law enforcement officers involved in the beating [of Mamiyev]. I am sharing it so that everybody sees him,” wrote Rahimova. The officer in question has filed a complaint against Rahimova, on charges of slander and insult based on that Facebook post. 

Rahimova said in her defense that the post she shared on Facebook was not insulting or slanderous and that the charges and the accusation brought by the police officer are to silence her activism. According to Turan News Agency, Rahimova is an outspoken critic of the state and has faced persecution before.

A non-governmental organization “Line of Defense” said in an interview with Turan News Agency there was nothing slanderous in the Facebook post the political activist shared. “And she holds no responsibility over comments, that were made in response to her Facebook post,” told Turan News Agency, member of the organization, Zafara Akhmedova.

On August 24, during the preliminary hearing, a local court accepted the police officer’s complaint as a private criminal charge against Gulnara Rahimova. Moreover, her charges were aggravated. Thus, article 147 (slander) was reclassified to 147.2 (slander of a serious crime), which could land Rahimova up to a 3-year prison sentence.

 

member of political party re-arrested

Elnur Shahverdiyev is a member of a political party ReAL, and an avid critic of the state on social media platforms. According to information provided by his brother, Shahverdiyev was detained by the police on July 14 at his place of work. “Police showed up at the bakery where Shahverdiyev worked, and said, there was a complaint from a customer. They then forced him on the ground, handcuffed him, and detained him.” According to the brother, police said Shahverdiyev was sentenced to 30 days in administrative detention for disobeying police. 

But Shahverdiyev’s family as well as members of the ReAL party believe the grounds for the activist’s arrest were his posts on Facebook. As such, his posts shared between May 25 and July 14 were all removed from the platform after his detention. 

On August 15, Shahverdiyev was pressed with new charges, this time, drug possession, and sentenced to another 30 days in administrative detention, according to reporting by Turan News Agency.  

In an interview with Caucasian Knot, Natig Jafarli, a member of the political committee of the ReAl Party, questioned new accusations leveled against Shahverdiyev. “Elnur is known for his civil position; he sharply criticizes the country’s authorities and speaks about the human rights violations and officials’ arbitrariness,” Jafarli told Caucasian Knott.

questioning over social media posts critical of government measures raise concern [updated August 3]

The questioning of political activist Ruslan Izzatli, on July 28 over his social media post renewed concerns over government oversight of social media platforms and its non-transparent approach to cherry-picking issues that it deems unfit for public discussion.

Izzatli was not the first person to receive a call from the Prosecutor General’s Office last month inviting him for a meeting. In an interview with one media platform, Izzatli explained that the prosecutor’s office refused to explain the reason for the meeting over the phone and asked that the political activist comes in person. 

During the meeting that took place on July 28, Izzatli was asked questions about a Facebook post in which the political activist shared some of the grievances of war veterans and servicemen since the second Karabakh war. He criticized the state for lack of measures in addressing these issues. “If Aliyev’s team can visit returned territories today it is because of the servicemen and war veterans. But their problems remain unaddressed,” wrote Izzatli in the said post.   

Izzatli was also asked whether he had evidence for the claims made in the post and why the political activist wrote the post in the first place. The political activist also said he received a verbal warning.

Separately, on July 30, the General Prosecutor’s Office said it has warned seven other users over their public posts shared on social media. The Prosecutor’s Office in a statement said the users were warned after the Prosecutor’s Office identified a violation of the Law on Media. Specifically the statement said, 

During monitoring, it was identified that during the publication of news in media, provisions of Article 14.1.11 of the Law on Media were not observed [Facts and events must be presented impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed]. 

In order to prevent cases of violation of socio-political stability, human and citizen rights and freedoms, a number of relevant persons were invited to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the prosecutor took measures. 

As such, Sakhavat Mammadov, Rovshan Mammadov, Zulfugar Alasgarov, Elgun Rahimov, Fuzuli Kahramani, Zeynal Bakhshiyev and Ruslan Izzetli received a warning based on Article 22 of the Law on Prosecutor – to avoid cimilar negative incidents from taking place again.

The General Prosecutor’s Office repeats, in its appeal to media and social network users, that dissemination of unverified information that lacks clarificaition from the state institutions is unacceptable and holds one accountable according to existing legislation. 

According to Alasgar Mammadli, a media law expert, Article 14 of the Law on Media, applies to journalists, newsrooms, and online news sites. But the majority of the men summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office this time were not journalists Alasgarli told Turan News Agency in an interview. The cited Article 14, cannot be used against individuals for expressing their thoughts. This is clearly an attempt to restrict freedom of expression said Mammadli. Journalist Sakhavat Mammadov who was among the group who received a warning agrees. Speaking with Turan News Agency on August 3, Mammadli said, that the warnings and questioning are meant to pressure activists and journalists and are clearly political orders. “Instead of calming people down, these incidents only raise tension and cause opposite effects. It shows there is an attempt to withhold information from the people, which only breeds rumors and disinformation.” 

AIW has analyzed the Law on Media and its implications on media freedom in Azerbaijan here. Among key findings were poorly worded definitions and excessive requirements and restrictions for online media content [see below Article 14 as an example]; challenging parameters of registration of journalists, especially those working for online media outlets and freelance journalists; and lack of oversight and checks and balances to monitor decisions taken within the scope of the new law. 

Article 14 of the Media Law requires that information published and (or) disseminated in the media (including online media) must meet at least 14 requirements. The law also requires that content published by media outlets should meet the requirements of the Law on Protection of Children from Harmful Information and the Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information which provides an exhaustive list of requirements criticized for vagueness.

For instance, Article 14.1.6. of the law prohibiting media from using “immoral lexical (swearing) words and expressions, gestures” contradicts the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights standards as “prescribed by law” on the account that it lacks sufficient clarity and precision. The article also does not comply with a standard, “necessary in a democratic society,” “found in Articles 8-11 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides that the state may impose restrictions of these rights only if such restrictions are ‘necessary in a democratic society’ and proportional to the legitimate aims enumerated in each article.”  The text authorizes the authorities to consider any impugned statement or general criticism as an “immoral lexical (swearing) words of expressions”. With such a broad definition, this requirement has a chilling effect on journalists.

Article 14.1.11 of the law reads, “facts and events must be interpreted impartially and objectively, and one-sidedness must not be allowed.” A duty to impartial and accurate reporting and one-sidedness is likely to result in journalists refraining from exercising their right to freedom of expression without self-censorship. A failure of this requirement subjects the journalist to heavy sanctions. Furthermore, taking into account the existing political atmosphere in the country, such broadly defined restrictions can prevent journalists and other professionals working for online media from staying impartial without any interference.

Article 14.1.14  concerns published content according to which, “publication (dissemination) of information about the crime committed by a person in the absence of a court order that has entered into force should not be allowed.” Such a direct ban in general form could limit the freedom of expression, in particular, where certain cases are widely covered in the media on account of the seriousness of the facts and the individuals. The journalist also can be subject to disproportionate sanctions for publication or dissemination of information, which is already known to people, for instance in case of scandalous news about the corruption of officials. This clause heavily limits the primary duty of ensuring diversity and plurality of voices in the media.

Any imposed restrictions must meet the requirements as prescribed by law pursuant of legitimate aims (allowed by the international human rights law), necessary in a democratic society, such as proportionality, and non-discrimination.

In May, AIW looked into content regulation on the internet carried out by the Prosecutor’s office and how the measures in place, silence free speech often relying on the use of a restrictive law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. This legal overview was prepared following an uptick of cases in which social media users faced punitive measures for their online activism by the Prosecutor’s Office. At the time, the analysis concluded that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists, and media within the scope of laws on information and media and with the powers vested in the prosecutor’s office under the existing legislation on administrative offenses and the law of the prosecutor’s office. 

The day Ruslan Izzatli was questioned, Azerbaijan’s Press Council – nominally independent media regulation authority – held a press conference. Speaking at the briefing, the chairman of the Council Aflatun Amashov, expressed his concerns over circulating social media posts damaging the reputation of the Azerbaijani military. As such, the chairman said the council is ready to offer its recommendations on creating a legal framework to regulate social media platforms in Azerbaijan.

Speaking to Meydan TV, media law expert Khalid Aghaliyev said, the council’s proposal to regulate social media platforms is likely linked to the state’s intentions in having social media platforms open representatives in Azerbaijan and then use these representatives to further consolidate control mechanisms over social media platforms.   

Meta’s quarterly adversarial report confirms suspicions of government sponsored targeting

This month, Meta released its pilot quarterly Adversarial Threat Report. Among the countries mentioned in the report, is Azerbaijan where the platform said it has identified “a hybrid network operated by the Ministry of the Internal Affairs.” According to the document, this network relied on, what Meta refers to as, “Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior [CIB]” in combination with cyber espionage, “compromising accounts and websites to post” on behalf of the Ministry. The ministry’s press office was quick to dismiss the findings, saying the findings were fictitious. 

To pundits familiar with Azerbaijan as well as this platform, it was not all surprising to see the country’s name on the list. This is also not the first time, Azerbaijan’s name appears in Facebook reports on CIB either.

Ample evidence collected over the recent years indicated how a thriving community of government-sponsored [in]authentic accounts targeted independent and opposition media pages and accounts; political activists and rights defenders’ profiles; and have done so over extended periods of time, causing reputational damage to the owners of targeted accounts, spreading false information, distorting facts, and engaging openly in harassment. These and other forms of content/user manipulation on social networks have also become more explicit, and brazen.

So, while it is great that Meta has taken notice and taken measures, it is too little, too late. And here is why. 

Pre-surveillance era 

Azerbaijan users embraced Facebook when it finally expanded beyond its limited geographical scope in 2006. By 2011 the number of Facebook users in Azerbaijan was 7percent. Fast forward eleven years, and according to Azerbaijan Press Agency, this number is around 58.4percent. Since the early years of Facebook, the platform quickly became a popular tool in the hands of activists and more broadly speaking civil society. Used to organize public events and workshops, and share information, Facebook also turned into a platform for political organizing. This continues to be the case to this day. But the platform’s popularity also attracted the attention of the ruling government. Nervous, of spillover from the Arab uprisings, monitoring of the platform became a norm. Scores of activists would get whisked from the streets, for questioning over the following years for public posts calling for protests or criticizing the authorities and government institutions, and politicians. 

It was only a matter of time, before a counter-narrative, sponsored and organized by the state institutions would appear on the platform. First in the form of youth movements sympathetic to the regime, and their members who meticulously searched for any criticism of the ruling government only to argue the opposite. And then gradually transitioning into a more systematic trolling, targeting, and harassment. Facebook profiles, were replaced with Facebook pages which were created to look like profiles but in reality, were facades for hundreds of inauthentic accounts. Gradually distorting facts and targeting users by “brigading” was combined with aggressive “cyber espionage.” The latter is perhaps the most common emergency, AzNet Watch has documented in recent years. 

But back at the headquarters of Facebook, nobody knew how much of a role the platform played in Azerbaijan and in many other countries across the world where the platform was utilized as a tool for information sharing, organizing, as well a political stage of some sort that opposition activists used and continue to use for their political messaging. I once, attempted to explain that to Zuckerberg but he did not want to listen, after all, he was on his honeymoon, touring Europe and the last thing he wanted to hear was the political, and social significance of his company in countries like Azerbaijan. 

Terminology worth knowing

Before diving any deeper let me explain some of the key terms for the sake of clarity. 

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior

Coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation. There are two tiers of these activities that we work to stop: 1) coordinated inauthentic behavior in the context of domestic, non-government campaigns and 2) coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government actor.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) – domestic

When we find domestic, non-government campaigns that include groups of accounts and Pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts, we remove both inauthentic and authentic accounts, Pages, and Groups directly involved in this activity.

Foreign or Government Interference (FGI)

If we find any instances of CIB conducted on behalf of a government entity or by a foreign actor, we apply the broadest enforcement measures including the removal of every on-platform property connected to the operation itself and the people and organizations behind it.

Brigading: adversarial networks where people work together to mass comment, mass post, or engage in other types of repetitive mass behaviors to harass others or silence them.

Mass Reporting: adversarial networks where people work together to mass-report an account or content to get it incorrectly taken down from our platform.

Cyber espionage: when actors typically target people across the internet to collect intelligence, manipulate them into revealing information, and compromise their devices and accounts.

Now that the terminology is out of the way, what has been Azerbaijan’s performance in Facebook/Meta’s previous reports? Not good to say the least. 

Previously, Azerbaijan was mentioned in two CIB reports both published in October 2020. “We removed 589 Facebook accounts, 7,665 Pages, and 437 accounts on Instagram linked to the Youth Union of New Azerbaijani Party. This network originated in Azerbaijan and focused primarily on domestic audiences. We identified this network through an internal investigation into suspected fake engagement activity in the region,” read the report [New Azerbaijan Party is the ruling party of Azerbaijan that’s been in power since the early years of the country’s independence.]

“While the individuals behind this activity used fake accounts — some of which had been already detected and disabled by our automated systems, they primarily relied on authentic accounts to create Pages designed to look like user profiles — using false names and stock images — to comment and artificially boost the popularity of particular pro-government content. 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 wide-spread criticism of some views and wide-spread support of others. From what we’ve seen, it appears that most of the engagement these comments received were from within this network of Pages themselves. Our analysis shows that these comments were posted in what appears to be regular shifts during working hours in Azerbaijan on weekdays.”

Here the biggest credit goes to Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang who was the first person to flag these inauthentic accounts and pages to her management as early as 2018 [the year of the presidential election in Azerbaijan] who only took notice after she published an internal memo detailing, how the company was ignoring manipulation of its platform by political parties and heads of government not only in Azerbaijan but in a number of other countries. Zhang was fired after leaking the memo, allegedly over “poor performance.” By then, it was clear the company had to do something. They took notice and removed hundreds of accounts and thousands of pages, reported BuzzFeedNews. 

In April 2021, Facebook said it has removed another “124 Facebook accounts, 15 Pages, six Groups and 30 Instagram accounts from Azerbaijan that targeted primarily Azerbaijan and to a much lesser extent Armenia.” The “April 2021 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report” said, that the network of accounts was discovered “as a result of [Facebook’s] internal investigation.” The report identified “third-party Android applications — Postegro and Nunu,” misleading users “into giving away their Instagram credentials.” At the time [the report was published in May 2021] the company said, its CIB investigation discovered links between the accounts “to individuals associated with the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan.”

A month before this report was published, AzNet Watch investigated brigading against Meydan TV, an independent and now exiled online newsroom: 

What does art, shopping retail, web design, sports, cosmetics, and e-commerce website have in common? Absolutely nothing, except these, are all various categories available on Facebook when setting up pages. Since 2019, Facebook removed the limit on the number of pages a user can set up. Unfortunately, Facebook did not take into account, how this innocent feature update, if in the wrong hands, can do harm. In the case of Azerbaijan, this is exactly what happened, when Meydan TV, an independent Berlin-based news platform, shared a call for applications for a program, held in partnership with Brussels-based human rights organization, International Partnership for Human Rights in February 2021.

Also in April, The Guardian published this story explaining how Facebook allowed state-backed harassment campaigns, target-independent news outlets, and opposition politicians on its platform.  The story in The Guardian looked at another case of Azerbaijani online news platform – Azad Soz (Free Speech). Its Facebook account was flooded with over 1.5k comments over a post about two men sentenced to eight months. The Guardian investigation analyzed the top 300 comments and discovers that 294 out of 300 comments were inauthentic Facebook pages.  Just like in the case of Meydan TV. 

But it was not just Meydan TV and Azad Soz that were targeted. Mikroskop Media, an independent online news platform based in Riga, too experienced similar targeting. And so did Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan language service for Radio Liberty.

Now a year later, the new report said it, “disrupted a complex network in Azerbaijan that engaged in both cyber espionage and coordinated inauthentic behavior. It primarily targeted people from Azerbaijan, including democracy activists, opposition, journalists, and government critics abroad. This campaign was prolific but low in sophistication and was run by the Azeri Ministry of Internal Affairs. It combined a range of tactics — from phishing, social engineering, and hacking to coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The list of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used included: compromised and spoofed websites; malware and other malicious tools; credential phishing; and finally the CIB. 

Nothing illustrates the extent of control over the platform like real examples. Last month, AzNet Watch successfully helped restore access to a popular page on Facebook, called “Humans of Azerbaijan.” It was compromised in 2017 and remained inactive until fall last year when its new admins [suspected of being the state security services] started posting compromising content targeting various civil society activists. Eventually, the account was returned to its original owner, Mehman Huseynov. But its comeback was short. Earlier this month, the account was compromised yet again. The perpetrators argued with Facebook that Huseynov was in fact not who he said he was, and instead, sent Huseynov’s ID to the company to confirm their “real” identity. The perpetrator claimed that Huseynov hacked the page. Shortly after, all of the pages managed by Huseynov received multiple complaints making the same claims – that Huseynov was not the real Huseynov. Facebook responded by blocking all of Huseynov’s accounts. Including his own profile. The state security services have access to citizens’ private information – including copies of National IDs, phone numbers and other personal information. 

At the end of the day, what platforms like Meta must understand is that these are not some isolated cases but regular, targeted measures deployed by the government institutions and that to really tackle this kind of brazen behavior and prevent the damage inflicted on the platforms’ active users, the company must adopt measures that offer better protection to users, especially from certain civic groups who are often the main targets. Above all, understanding the political contexts and the role platforms like Facebook play in these contexts would be a step in the right direction. So will Meta take notice?