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.

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? 

Facebook looks the other way when it comes to Azerbaijan and others – The Guardian investigations show

Almost a month after AIW published this story about how some 500 inauthentic Facebook pages targeted Berlin-based independent online news platform Meydan TV, little has changed. While all of the pages that targeted Meydan TV remain active, someone else has taken notice. 

On April 13, 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 mentions the case of Azad Soz (Free Speech) and how the post shared on March 4 about two men sentenced to eight months received over 1.5k comments. It analyzes the top 300 comments and discovers that 294 out of 300 comments were inauthentic Facebook pages.  

Just like in the case of Meydan TV. 

The Guardian cites Sophie Zang’s work during her time at Facebook, working for the team tasked with “combating fake engagement, which includes likes, shares, and comments from inauthentic accounts.” During her research, Zhang uncovered “thousands of Facebook pages- profiles for businesses, organizations, and public figures – that had been set up to look like user accounts and were being used to inundate the Pages of Azerbaijan’s few independent news outlets and opposition politicians on a strict schedule: the comments were almost exclusively made on weekdays between 9am and 6pm, with an hour break at lunch,” writes The Guardian journalists Julia Carrie Wong and Luke Harding. 

Wong and Harding also mention the platform’s response mechanism. “The company’s vast workforce includes subject matter experts who specialize in understanding the political context in nations around the world, as well as policy staff who liaise with government officials. But Azerbaijan fell into a gap: neither the eastern European nor the Middle Eastern policy teams claimed responsibility for it, and no operations staff – either full-time or contract – spoke Azerbaijani.”

But the story of Facebook and Azerbaijan is not the only one that The Guardian identified loopholes with. “The Guardian has seen extensive internal documentation showing how Facebook handled more than 30 cases across 25 countries of politically manipulative behavior that was proactively detected by company staff. 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.”

Honduras 

The administration in Honduras relied on astroturfing to attack government critics. Sophie Zang discovered how Juan Orlando Hernandez – the authoritarian leader – “received hundreds of thousands of fake likes from more than a thousand inauthentic Facebook pages” that were set up to look like Facebook user accounts. Very similar to what happened in Azerbaijan, in the case of Azad Soz and Myedan TV. And just like it was in the case of Azerbaijan, in the case of Honduras, the platform took nearly a year to respond.

Russia 

During 2016 US election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency set up Facebook pages to “manipulate individuals and influence political debates” pretending to be Americans.

Facebook’s intervention was much faster in the case of Russia targeting US elections, likely the result of “Facebook’s prioirty system for protecting political discourse and elections,” wrote Wong, in another story in The Guardian.   

As a result of this kind of cherry picking, Facebook’s response mechanism worked faster in the Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Ukraine and Poland but not in countries where similar inauthentic behavior was spotted such as Azerbaijan, Mexico, Honduras, Paraguay, Argentina and others. The difference in response rate was as quick as 1 day in the case of Poland and as long as 426 days in the case of Azerbaijan. 

Many others were left uninvestigated at all. Among them, Tunisia, Mongolia, Bolivia, and Albania. 

Back in Azerbaijan, at the time of writing this post, pages that targeted Meydan TV remain, and even if they are removed, nobody knows how long it will take Facebook to respond, next time, such behavior is spotted.