In this article below, an detailed article about the use of Twitter in Azerbaijan..to release a famous journalist from prison. As an aside, I have noticed that the Bahraini authorities and their supporters have been engaged in a systematic campaign to counter and demonize the opposition in their social media.
The novelty, noise, and problem with Twitter: An example from Azerbaijan
In a previous post I praised the use of Twitter in Armenia-Azerbaijan communication, and that still largely remains true today. Establishing a still unprecedented number of online cross-border connections across the ceasefire line via social networking site Facebook, a saturation point was nonetheless eventually reached. All was not lost, however, as the process naturally transferred itself to Twitter, but even so, some critics of Facebook and other social media tools have pointed to what Berkman’s Ethan Zuckerman calls ‘imaginary cosmopolitanism.’
And he’s probably right too.
Those connecting on Facebook tend to be incredibly similar in terms of a shared outlook, mutual connections, social background, and age. With low Facebook penetration in Armenia and Azerbaijan, therefore, their number as a percentage of an already limited base of users is somewhat small. That’s not to deride the potential of such tools, however. Indeed, they’ve been revolutionary in the context of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict when communication had been next to none, even by traditional means, beforehand.
So step in Twitter. Today I find myself communicating more on that than Facebook and again the communication is open, thus leading to stumbling upon other users to form online relationships with. In fact, most new Azerbaijani connections are coming from Twitter rather than Facebook. Some are connected to the same online networks that I am, but perhaps missed the chance to communicate because the format was not right or simply because they didn’t see, but others are not.
However, that is not to say there aren’t problems, as the recent pardon of journalist and prisoner of conscience Eynulla Fatullayev illustrated this week in Azerbaijan. Despite previous convictions being quashed by the European Court of Human Rights and calls for his release from major international human rights and media watchdogs, few expected that any campaigns for his freedom would work. Undaunted, however, Amnesty International UK this week launched a Twitter action ahead of their 50th Anniversary.
And this is where the problems of a more open form of online communication than Facebook materialized. Incredibly sensitive to the use of social media by progressive pro-democracy activists in Azerbaijan, members of the pro-government ?R?L? Public Union, a youth group often compared to the pro-Putin Nashi in Russia, were encouraged to get online and engage in a counter-campaign aimed at drowning out all talk of human rights protection, democratic development, and conflict resolution.
In my recent article for Transitions Online, republished on Global Voices Advocacy, I touched upon this increased use of social media to overwhelm alternative voices in Azerbaijan. In particular, their Secretary General, Rauf Mardiyev, used the existence of a few Armenian names on a Facebook page calling for pro-democracy protests in the oil-rich former Soviet republic to discredit activists. Playing upon ethnic intolerance in Azerbaijan, such an approach is common because of the still unresolved conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s recent win in Eurovision has since also seen them step up their online activity as the authorities in the country get increasingly sensitive over a less than glowing record on human rights and democracy. With as much criticism of the country on Twitter, their response was quite simple if relatively unsophisticated. Instead of engaging in discussion, new accounts set up by ?R?L? members then attempted to swamp feeds with pro-government propaganda and, quite simply, to harass people online.
During Amnesty’s Twitter campaign for Fatullayev, however, spamming Twitter did at least lead to some interesting if brief exchanges between ?R?L? and Jon Snow, veteran anchorman for Channel 4 News in the U.K., and one of the leading names behind the online action.
As the campaign progressed, however, ?R?L? became more daring. Photoshopping images of prominent Amnesty International supporters holding doctored signs with anti-human rights and pro-government slogans on, they at least showed some initiative even if such a move could be considered unethical and even illegal under international copyright laws.
Rather than, say, organize their own campaign of ?R?L? members holding their own signs to combat Amnesty’s, they instead took a more direct approach which increasingly resembled one of insulting, abusing and harassing other online users who held different opinions than their own.
Also demonstrating their lack of tolerance and a tendency towards extremist concepts of nationality, they also accused other Azerbaijani Twitter users of treason for communicating with, and re-tweeting, me despite the fact that I’m actually British. Yet, despite their declared position that Fatullayev should not be released in direct contradiction to the Council of Europe and European Court, just two days later the seemingly impossible happened.
In an amnesty signed to mark the anniversary of the founding of the first Azerbaijani republic, President Ilham Aliyev included the name of Fatullayev on the list of prisoners to be released. In a sense, the ?R?L? campaign to drown out calls for his release had failed. Noticeably silent during the onslaught of abusive tweets, Twitter then exploded with those from progressive youth activists in or from Azerbaijan celebrating the move and thanking Amnesty.
Naturally, ?R?L? went pretty much silent when it turned out they had wasted their time.
Interestingly, though, some also wondered if Eurovision hadn’t been part of the reason for his release too. In fact, it had probably been a combination of factors. Groups such as Amnesty International, Article 19 and PEN have long been campaigning for the release of Fatullayev and in recent months stepped up their activities in this area. At the same time, following its Eurovision win, international media outlets are starting to refer to human and political rights problems within Azerbaijan as well as its still unresolved conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. The online Amnesty International Twitter campaign likely benefited from these factors.
Directly or indirectly, however, it probably doesn’t matter. Even so, Ethan Zuckerman, in an interesting post yesterday, looked at the possible reasons for the campaign’s success as well as what the ?R?L? counter campaign meant for Twitter activism.
By one metric, the campaign wasn’t much of a success – despite the presence of such high profile British journalists, only 800 or so people sent messages or retweets to the Azeri president. [...]
But those messages clearly attracted attention within Azerbaijan. A few Azeri nationalists, including some affiliated with the ?R?L? Public Youth Union, responded angrily to the tweets. Some responded by photoshopping images of British journalist Ian Hislop holding a sign demanding Fatullayev’s release, edited to criticize Amnesty’s campaign. One modified sign read “Azerbaijan is not USSR! No double standards!” This tweet from @Vetenim illustrates some of the hostility towards Amnesty: “@amnesty This campaign was enough for Azeri Twitter users tosee the real face of @AmnestyUK behind the mask. #Amnesty #Eynulla #Azerbaijan”
Krikorian reports that the ?R?L? Public Youth Union, and particularly Secretary General Rauf Mardiyev have been posting heavily to Twitter tags used by progressive activists in Azerbaijan, potentially to silence or hide dissident voices in the country over the past few months. We’re seeing this phenomenon in different corners of the Twittersphere. Oiwan Lam reports that the #aiww (Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, now in custody) tag is heavily used by pro-government spammers, with two particularly prolific spammers responsible for 45% of all recent messages on the tag. Anas Qtiesh investigated a set of Twitter accounts that been flooding the #Syria tag with old sports scores, links to Syrian television programs, and random photos on Flickr tagged #Syria, making the tag dramatically less useful for activists.
Amnesty, understandably, is celebrating their campaign’s role in Fatullayev’s release, and the journalist has thanked Amnesty for their advocacy throughout his detention. As Azeri social media users digest the news of his release, there’s speculation that another factor may be at work as well: Azerbaijan’s recent victory in the Eurovision song contest. Azeri singers Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Camal won the prize, which is both coveted and ridiculed within Europe, but always widely watched. The victory drew attention to a corner of Eurasia many Europeans pay little attention to, and it’s possible that the Azeri government didn’t want to spoil their moment in the sun with Amnesty’s critical campaign.
So is Amnesty responsible for Fatullayev’s release? Is Twitter? Eurovision? And if social media can claim partial responsibility for the release of a prisoner of conscience, will we see this campaign technique used again? Will it be as successful the next time around?
Mary Joyce of the Meta Activism project has warned that a key factor in successful online activism appear to be novelty – it’s hard to articulate “best practices” because one of the best practices is to be the first to try a particular technique. If we take the lesson from Fatullayev’s release that Twitter campaigns, focused on individual public figures who use Twitter, leveraging offline media attention are a useful strategy, it seems likely that campaign organizations will adopt the technique and use it to the point where future implementations aren’t worth an article or a blog post.
As Ethan notes, the tactics by government supporters are not new and have been used before in Armenia and especially Azerbaijan during the recent post-MENA protests albeit not to such an extent. At the same time, especially since the Eurovision win, the Twitter tag for Azerbaijan is often full of pro-government tweets that resemble little more than low-level propaganda. And the fact that these tweets are mostly in English shows that they are intended for a foreign rather than domestic audience. What’s alarming, however, is how some of the ?R?L? Public Union tweeps lash out and sometimes victimize their fellow countrymen for holding different views than their own.
Interestingly, these attempts to silence and/or frighten others are mainly in Azerbaijani, again showing how online tactics are implemented differently for different purposes. As an aside, a fake account in the name of the Azerbaijani president was set up by one activist to bombard ?R?L? members in return with sarcastic tweets accusing them, in somewhat colorful language, of blind sycophancy to the regime.
In an exchange with a foreign democracy worker with experience in Azerbaijan, we agreed that the ?R?L? campaign is designed to flood Twitter with often duplicate tweets while also attempting to discredit or scare off anyone who dares to say differently. Ironically, this approach recently surfaced in terms of an Armenian nationalist who decided to target me with tweets accusing me of everything under the sun along with messages to others attempting to discredit my work. In a sense, a strange bed-fellow for the likes of ?R?L?, but herein lies my concern. As Twitter use by progressive elements in Armenian and Azerbaijan society increases, so too will that by extremists.
Given that such groups are intolerant and see anyone not confirming to the government-expected norm as traitors, it naturally raises security concerns. While there is the possibility to engage with such people, it also runs the risk that, unless blocked, they could also use the feeds of others to identify ‘unwanted’ presences online. For now, their attacks on such people are just words, but as we know in the region, the risks are incredibly high in the real world. Eynulla Fatullayev, for example, may now be free in Azerbaijan, but Facebook activists such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Jabbar Savalan are not.
Obviously, attempts by nationalists to disrupt Twitter streams demonstrate how those aligned with the regimes in the Caucasus are aware and frightened of this new space for free communication when there had been almost none before, but a fine line now probably needs to be drawn between open communication, and the sharing of information online, with personal security and privacy concerns. As with Facebook, Twitter remains a tool that can be used by anyone for many purposes. Unfortunately, one of those possible uses could be to identify and silence alternative voices. On a brighter note, however, at least Eynulla Fatullayev is now free.