Fighting Over Nagorno-Karabakh Spells Spike For Twitter And Its Hashtag Narratives

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By Andy Heil-https://www.rferl.org

Smoke rises behind houses after shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh. The recent escalation in hostilities in the breakway region has also seen a surge in tweets about the conflict.
Nearly as quickly as the deadly fighting burst out around Azerbaijan’s breakaway region late last month, the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides’ Twitter defenders were out in force and tagging with a vengeance.

Take Anush Ghavalyan.

To the casual Twitter user, she’s simply “a woman from #Artsakh (#NagornoKarabakh).” It’s a coy tipoff for those in the know: “Artsakh” is Yerevan’s official term for Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenia’s breakaway authorities.

Ghavalyan’s first tweet at the latest onset of hostilities on September 27 was a clip of a puff of smoke above mountainous terrain that cited “a new aggression” by Azerbaijan against “the people” in a tense region at the center of a three-decade conflict. Stepanakert, the main city in Nagorno-Karabakh, was “under fire,” she said.

She tagged the foreign ministries of outside powers like France, Russia, as well as the U.S. State Department, and the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has led decades of fruitless talks to settle Nagorno-Karabakh’s fate.

Accounts with handles like “Armen” and “Shoushan” responded with Armenian flags and appeals like “where is the world coverage” while tagging major U.S. and international media to draw their attention.

Since then, Ghavalyan’s tweets are an emotionally charged, pro-Armenian account of events and tributes to the troops and civilians caught up in the fight.

Ghavalyan is no bot. She’s a real person but she also happens to be a former adviser to the head of the de facto leadership’s pro-Armenian parliament in Nagorno-Karabakh.

That information is publicly available on LinkedIn and elsewhere in English on the web, although those sources suggest she is still on the job.

In a tweet that has since been deleted, Thomas Theiner, a film executive and former Kyiv resident whose twitter posts on events in former Soviet republics has earned him more than 10,000 followers, called out Ghavalyan’s apparent omission from her social-media profile as “disingenuous.”

“If you are a government official, who presents that government’s views, you need to say so,” Theiner tweeted on October 11.

Ghavalyan replied the next day that she had “resigned from that position” in May and Armenian media had reported on it.

“I’m not pretending to be a woman, I am a woman,” she quipped.

The episode highlighted the frequently fuzzy — or hidden — line between individual actors and coordinated or even official online efforts on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict.

More Than Before

The earliest of the “frozen conflicts” midwifed by the collapse of the Soviet Union — Transdniester in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan — have all featured diasporas who weigh in heavily on events in their homelands.

But none of those has spawned comparable social-media campaigns — in number or intensity — to those of the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute.

There are only around 3 million Armenians inside the country. But the Armenian side appears to have a jump on its Azerbaijani foes in those geographically far-flung locales by virtue of a 7-million-strong diaspora that’s active on the web from places like California, Russia, France, and Argentina.

While Azerbaijan’s population is nearly triple Armenia’s with some 10 million people, its domestic Internet usage is a fraction of its neighbor’s.

The Azerbaijani diaspora also pales in comparison, estimated at just around 1 million and concentrated mostly in former Soviet republics.

There has been extensive and legitimate debate on Twitter and other social media on the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh by outsiders as well as by representatives of all sides in the conflict, from government ministries to impassioned nationals and security analysts from around the world.

It is not new to suggest that a significant chunk of the tug-of-war over online narrative in this long-running dispute is disingenuous or worse.

Both the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides are waging the same kind of finger-pointing and shaming as they have for years, including through the past decade of considerably less deadly skirmishes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But an almost instantaneous deluge of new Twitter accounts, tweets, and “countertweets” to promote them are at the heart of a recent report that tried to put its finger on the initial “dynamics of the shadow war taking place in social media over control of the international narrative about the conflict” that broke out two weeks ago.

Cyberbunkers And Debunkers

Elise Thomas and Albert Zhang’s “quick take” for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) examined English-language posts to Twitter over a four-day window (September 27-29) and found “large numbers of suspicious accounts supporting both sides…wading in on politicized hashtags linked to the conflict.”

Thomas told RFE/RL via e-mail that one of the takeaways for her was “how this kind of information battle is now an increasingly common and expected part of conflicts.”

Such “online battles” have been above and beyond “long-running information campaigns on both sides,” they said in their report.

“Some of that activity is undoubtedly authentic, but we’ve also observed evidence that suggests likely inauthentic activity, such as significant spikes in account creation and suspicious posting patterns,” Thomas and Zhang wrote.

Their analysis cited numbers showing that the use of identifiably pro-Armenian Twitter hashtags in those initial days of fighting was several times that of pro-Azerbaijani ones.

Thomas and Zhang noted the use of “suspicious,” newly created Twitter accounts to boost authentic, pro-Armenian content, in some cases with typos that could suggest automated or cut-and-paste redistribution.

That kind of sharing can simply distribute such content more widely or “game Twitter’s engagement algorithms” by making them appear to be trending, they said.

Thomas and Zhang cited, in particular, a “significant level of inauthentic activity promoting pro-Armenian content and seeking to shape the narrative,” especially for those in the United States.

They include “actors well outside the geographical scope of the conflict” and seemingly inauthentic Turkish, Pakistani, and Indian accounts “engaging in English-language skirmishes online.”

They said high-profile American celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Lady Gaga (“whose ‘911’ music video included Armenian cultural references”) were seemingly tagged in posts to encourage support.

Kardashian and other Armenian-American celebrities have condemned the latest violence, including System Of A Down front man Serj Tankian, singer and actor Cher, and Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian.

Notably, the ASPI researchers added, “there doesn’t seem to be a significant, overtly Russian contingent” in their sample.

They also stressed that some of the “shadow battle” over such a highly contentious and emotionally charged issue was “undoubtedly authentic.”

“Distinguishing real people from inauthentic or ‘bot’ accounts is challenging in the best of times, and emerging crises and conflicts can drive real users to behave in unusual ways, making it even more complicated than normal,” they said.

Acknowledging that they were “working swiftly” in their initial analysis to head off the loss of some posts to Twitter’s content moderators, Thomas and Zhang encouraged more work on “the information battle playing out in parallel to the conflict on the ground.”

While their intention to capture Twitter activities in those first days of fighting meant cutting off their research by about September 29, Thomas told RFE/RL: “Anecdotally, my sense is that it certainly appears that similar trends are continuing in the English-language Twitter activity, including coordinated authentic activity as well as suspicious or potentially inauthentic behavior.”

Azerbaijanis Late To The Digital Draw

Josh Russell, an American journalist and notable “troll hunter” through open sources, cited on October 3 “lots of ‘bot-like’ activity” around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“Normally I wouldn’t flag something like this, but these are all brand new accounts with fake profile pictures,” he tweeted.

He added: “There are always upticks in account creation during major events, but not 12,000 new accounts in a few days.”

Many disinformation researchers suggest that, while it has been late to the game, the pro-Azerbaijani side has been especially active this year.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which spots and tracks disinformation, reported earlier a rise in pro-Azerbaijani accounts linked to apparent “astroturfing” operations — when a small number of seemingly coordinated accounts churn out posts to create an appearance of broader support — around the time of a July flareup in the fighting on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border.

The Azerbaijani regime’s man in charge of state relations with the diaspora, Fuad Muradov, recently told Newsweek that Azerbaijanis abroad from “Europe to America, from the Near East to Russia, raised their voices against Armenian aggression.”

Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University, was quoted in the same article saying that “most” of the nearly 8,000 examples of the anti-Armenian hashtag #stoparmenianagreesion he spotted since 2007 had arisen during the most recent fighting — which is the worst since the war over the territory ended in 1994.

The situation “becomes even more complex,” ASPI’s Thomas and Zhang wrote, as less Azerbaijani activity might be expected amid Azerbaijani authorities’ reported blocking of access to social media.

There are two recent spikes in the creation of anti-Armenian Twitter accounts, they said, around renewed fighting in mid-July and again, on a greater scale, on September 27-28.

They added that a “substantial proportion of the pro-Azerbaijan Twitter activity in English appears to be coming from accounts linked to Turkey and Pakistan,” potentially reflecting geopolitical and military alliances.

NATO member Turkey has provided significant amounts of military equipment, including vital unmanned drones, to its traditional ally Azerbaijan, and has been accused of funneling fighters from Syria to fight alongside Azerbaijani troops.

Outside the realm of social media, both sides reported cyberattacks that crippled or otherwise affected important sites, including government ministries and news outlets.

On September 27, reports hinted at cyberattacks that took down many Azerbaijani government websites.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani sources boasted of sympathetic or allied hackers compromising dozens of Armenian websites, including prominent English-language ones.

Threats accompanied images of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in some cases, while in others Azerbaijani flags and other patriotic messages appeared on the Armenian pages.

Andy Heil

Andy Heil is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague.

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