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 online news platform – will Facebook take notice?

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.

The project aimed to bring together journalists, writers, bloggers, and content creators from Azerbaijan willing to produce thematic media pieces on civic, social, cultural, and political issues from the country. It was an opportunity for young content creators to get some international exposure and work with professional mentors. 

Meydan TV shared the announcement via its Facebook page [the website is blocked in Azerbaijan since 2017]. Similarly, IPHR shared the announcement on its website. Very quickly the post received hundreds of comments. Most if not all were negative. The commenters accused Meydan TV and IPHR of involving Azerbaijani youth in pro-Armenian propaganda. These users, described IPHR, as an organization that is a long-known enemy to the Azerbaijani people and the state. Accusing of brainwashing of the youth, IPHR and Meydan TV were blamed for the radicalization of youth and for their openly Armenian agenda. 

IPHR has worked in Azerbaijan and country-related projects for almost a decade, supporting civil society on the ground. 

IPHR shared the incident with AIW, and provided a list of screenshots taken from the post on Facebook. AIW, analyzed the screenshots of all comments to see whether these were genuine users, trolls, or bot accounts. On Facebook, although a user can create and manage multiple pages, only one personal account is allowed according to Facebook’s Community Standards. Whereas Twitter allows you to toggle between up to five accounts [but there are no pages there]. Finally, to clarify the terminology about bots and trolls, according to IJNET:

A bot is an automated social media account run by an algorithm, rather than a real person. In other words, a bot is designed to make posts without human intervention.

A troll is a person who intentionally initiates online conflict or offends other users to distract and sow divisions by posting inflammatory or off-topic posts in an online community or a social network. Their goal is to provoke others into an emotional response and derail discussions.

Trolls may rely on bots to amplify their message.

A botnet is a network of bot accounts managed by the same individual or group. Those who manage botnets, which require original human input prior to deployment, are referred to as bot herders or shepherds.

In order to identify, whether any of the accounts actively engaging under Meydan TV’s post fit the descriptions above, AIW simply checked the names of users on Facebook. All of the names AIW analyzed were set up as pages on Facebook between July 2020 and February 2021. Only one name, among the list of analyzed users, was an actual profile, albeit likely a mistake or intentional, as it had only two posts made since July 2020, when the profile was set up.

Name Format Date created  Category
Emil Caniyev Page Feb.21 Sports and recreation
Fuad Alicanov Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Sevinc Hesenli Page Feb.21 Beauty, Cosmetic & Personal Care
Ceyhun Haqverdiyev Page Feb.21 Shopping and retail
First Lady gözəllik salonu Page Feb.21 Beauty salon
Röya Nuriyeva Page Feb.21 Personal blog
Faiq Ferzaliyev Page Feb.21 Shopping and retail
Hesenoffa Govher Page Feb.21 Sports and recreation
Asadova Guler Page Feb.21 Shopping and retail
Abdulkarim Kerimzade Page Feb.21 Advertising agency
Aksana Rasulova Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Medine Yaqubova  Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Aytan Yusuflu Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Gunel Safarova  Page Feb.21 Public figure
Elnur Salayev  Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Jala Samadova Page Feb.21 Shopping & Retail
Leyla Abasova Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Konul Safarli   Page Jan.21 Arts & Entertainment
Rasad Fegan Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Ceyran Khalilova Page Jan.21 Public & Government Service (at least this one picked the right affiliation)
Humbatova Aybeniz Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Akif Gurbanli Page Jan.21 Personal blog
Aydan M-ova Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Turan Ceferli Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Hesenova Guler Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Kerimli Turane Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Murad Gurbanov Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Aytac Pashayeva Page Jan.21 Arts & Entertainment
Mammadova Gulu Page Jan.21 Shopping & Retail
Nuri Amirli Page Jan.21 Sports and recreation
Iska Salimov Page Dec.20 Not a Business
Gunay Haqverdiyev Page Dec.20 Go-Kart Track
Safura Alizade Page Dec.20 Sports and recreation
Anar Mammadov Page Dec.20 Shopping & Retail
Namiq Asadov Page Nov.20 Men’s Clothing Store
Ildirim Agayev Page Nov.20 E-commerce Website
Neymat Azizov Page Nov.20 Gaming video creator
Kenan Babayev Page Nov.20 Interior Design Studio
Aslan Nuriyev Page Nov.20 real estate agent
Qafqaz Rahimli Page Oct.20 Personal Blog
Jama Bagirova Page Oct.20 Design and fashion
Ceyhun R-li Page Aug.20 e-commerce Website
Cabanov Cabbar  Page Aug.20 health and wellness website
Vasif Agabeyli Profile Jul.20 Vasif Agabeyli

In October of last year, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang wrote a memo about how the Facebook company was ignoring manipulation of its platforms by political parties and heads of government. Weeks after Zhang was fired and leaked this information, Facebook removed more than 1,000 accounts and close to 8,000 pages which were part of a massive network of fake activity connected to Azerbaijan’s ruling party reported BuzzFeedNews. At the time Facebook said the network was likely operated by the youth branch of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party. These accounts and pages were used “to post comments that attacked opposition figures and independent media” and boost the government’s image.

According to BuzzFeedNews, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, “said the close to 8,000 pages used in the operation were set up to look like personal profiles and were used to leave comments. “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 the opposition, and the ruling party of Azerbaijan, to create a perception of widespread criticism of some views and widespread support of others.”

What is striking however is despite the leak that was first flagged in 2018 by Sophie Zang, nothing was done about it. Only after she leaked the information that Facebook took measures by opening an internal investigation leaving Zang’s name out of it. But judging from attacks on Meydan TV’s post, the activity continues while damaging the reputation of others. 

the tale of blocked websites

In July of last year, in their response to the Government of Azerbaijan, four of the websites that were blocked for access in Azerbaijan in 2017, reiterated their claim that the ban violates their right to freedom of expression. According to EHRAC, this response came following the Government’s [of Azerbaijan] submissions to the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). 

EHRAC (European Human Rights Advocacy Center) represents four of the websites – Meydan TV, Azadliq Info, Azerbaycan Saadi, and Turan TV and has been working in tandem with local legal partners on the case. 

At the time of blocking these websites in 2017, the Government of Azerbaijan argued “a number of articles published by the four critical news websites included calls aimed at “forcible change of the constitutional order”, “organization of mass riots”, and other illegal activities.” 

In reality, all four websites are considered independent and/or platforms affiliated with opposition parties or their critical position against broader government practices and policies adopted by the ruling government of Azerbaijan. As a result, the decision to block them was based on the legal claims that lacked evidence. This was further reflected in the review process when the decision to block these platforms was implemented. According to EHRAC, “no effective and independent review took place in the first instance decision to block access to the websites in 2017, and in subsequent appeals. The courts simply accepted the authorities’ allegations at face value and made no attempt to adequately consider or explain why the content was unlawful.”

The intentions behind the blocking decision were further reflected in subsequent actions taken by the Government of Azerbaijan against the online platforms. Such that, at the time of the first decision to block these websites for access in 2017, the Azerbaijani Government claimed these websites continued disseminating their content through VPN services or social media platforms and therefore the action taken against them did not cause significant changes to the published content. However, in February 2020, the Ministry of Transportation, Communications and High Technologies “requested the domestic courts to impose a ban on the applicants’ ability to share their content through VPN services and social media platforms.” 

While access to the said websites remains blocked in Azerbaijan further developments signal a consistent pattern of censorship and impunity.

news platform targeted online

On June 18, a popular online news platform, Meydan TV was targeted online. Its social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram were subject to a digital attack.

According to Meydan TV, the platform lost two years of content on its Azerbaijani language Facebook page while on Instagram it lost at least two months of posts. 

Previously, the platform lost all of its content on its Russian language Facebook page including some, on its Azerbaijani language Facebook page. Meydan TV’s website was also subject to DDoS attacks in May shortly after the country’s top independent news agency Turan was targeted in a similar manner.

Targeting accounts and pages of independent news platforms, organizations, initiatives, activists, and journalists are common in Azerbaijan. AIW has documented some of these and they are available on this platform.  

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”.