global tech

Azerbaijan’s State-Sponsored Trolls Silence Dissent and Make It Look Like Democracy

Photo: picture alliance via Getty Image

Long before talk of Russian trolls and foreign manipulation dominated daily headlines, social media seemed to promise a utopia. The theory, so it went, was that mobile phones — with free social media and the internet — would provide disenfranchised communities all around the world with the platform to speak their minds, create online communities, and use the power of free speech to oppose oppressive governments the world over. Through the power of retweets and shares, tyrants would surrender and democracy would rise from the pyre social media helped burn. The tools for this freedom were called “liberation technologies.” The problem is: that never happened.

Take, for example, the long-term effect of the Arab Spring. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen were among the places where social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were credited with allowing protestors the means to organize against their respective regimes. In Egypt, thousands of revolutionaries made the leap from Twitter to Tahrir Square, eventually resulting in the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But nearly a decade later, autocrats have returned, and this time they’re using social media to disenfranchise dissenters. In Egypt, “fake news” laws are being used as a pretext to jail people who have more than 5,000 followers. All across the Arab world, dictators are using wide-reaching surveillance technologies to actively monitor citizens.

These tactics stretch past the Middle East, over a thousand miles northeast of Egypt, to Azerbaijan, where government officials and state-backed trolls weaponize social media against political dissidents. Freedom House, an NGO tasked with gauging state repression, recently gave Azerbaijan a freedom score of 12 (with 100 being “most free”). Attacks on speech are so severe that in 2010, a satirical Azerbaijani blogger disguised as a donkey was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for posting this video:

Katy Pearce understands how the Azerbaijani government abuses social media better than most. Currently an Associate Professor at the University of Washington, Pearce has spent over 20 years researching and understanding the intersection of technology and politics in post-Soviet Union democracies. Her research in Azerbaijan and Armenia sheds some critical insight on the harsh realities dissenters face across developing democracies. New York spoke with Pearce to discuss the tools and methods autocratic government use to target dissent online. Whether through the spread of defamatory memes, insidious cartoons, or fake articles, these government leaders are melding classic Soviet censorship tactics with 21st-century tools.

The following conversation was conducted over the phone and has been edited for clarity.

In your research, you mention how the government of Azerbaijan hires tech-savvy “political technologists” to create pro-government propaganda. Can you explain that?
In the former Soviet Union, it was very common for there to be these people [who were] kind of like PR advisers, kind of like strategists. Like Karl Rove types. One of the tools in their tool kits is the youth wings of the ruling party. Basically those organizations are for [the] upward mobility of young folks who want to get into politics. They want to get into the government because it is the best path to success. So those people are eager to please, they know a lot about technology. So their pipeline is through these political technologists.

What type of content are they creating?
Usually, the first thing that happens is there is a major slam article that comes out in [the] kind of tabloid press that is highly associated with the regime. So this slam article comes out that has kernels of truth. When there are kernels of truth, we mentally start thinking that maybe this other stuff is true. Because everything is so hazy it is like everything is plausible. [Then] they start a campaign of harassing them online. This could be spreading rumors about them, making cartoons about them, making memes about them. It could just be saying bad things about them. As you can imagine, your government making memes about you is pretty unpleasant, and then people wonder, “What should I do? Should I defend myself? Should I ignore it?” We have this saying, “Don’t feed the trolls,” but who do you feed when [the trolls are] your government? In my experience and in talking with other people, the social media companies are rarely helpful with this sort of thing. One of the tools that they [government trolls] like to use is to report somebody’s account so many times that the social media company freezes or shuts down their account. So then it is like, who does Facebook believe?

So if you are the target of this kind of government smear campaign, and are having memes made about you and are being defamed, and you don’t know if you can turn to Facebook — what do these people end up doing?
A lot of things hinge on your family. In Azerbaijan, and in a lot of authoritarian regimes, really how they hit you is through your family. If they say, “Hey, dissident, we are going to fire your father or brother” — because everything is really kind of tied to the government — obviously that is a big deterrent. In general, people who are willing to engage in dissent, online or off, tend to be “biologically available.” They have less people depending on them, they have less to lose. If you are feeding your family, you are probably not going to engage in dissent. People rely on you to eat. You have to assume, especially with more blackmail-oriented stuff, people will shut up.

I don’t know if this is measurable, but how much of this harassment is directly related to regime trolls and how much of it is planting a seed for other non-government users to jump in?
It is hard to say because it is usually a hop or two away. There is a link. It is possible that there are some young people who are sitting in their living room and harassing this person of their own free will. It is possible. Even if “Ivan” was the one who chose to do it, and nobody directed him to, he still knew the message was, “We are attacking this person right now.” So it is difficult and that is the beauty of it: They [the government] can sit a couple steps away.

Are there any emerging technologies, or activists using technologies in Azerbaijan, that give you hope?
Well, the people [who] are living in exile. They have done a good job of hosting themselves [on] sites that can’t be blocked as easily. So the links are directly to some Amazon web server. They also do a really good job of spreading information through WhatsApp. They are being really smart, finding ways to get information to people. It’s challenging though, because sometimes they will have stories that are not really what a typical journalistic outlet would post. Also, young people in the U.S. really are not using Facebook anymore. It will be interesting to see what kind of social media transformation will happen in other places. Young people moving to Instagram or Snapchat is going to happen as well, and we will be keeping an eye on what the government’s response to these other sites will be. Are they going to have to invest more in surveillance? We don’t know how that is going to play out.

How One Country Weaponizes Social Media Against Its Citizens