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Two can play at that game: Social media opportunities in Azerbaijan for government and opposition

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Abstract and Figures

Much has been written on the ways in which the Internet benefits opposition movements, in particular in authoritarian regimes. And while some acknowledge that the Internet also provides opportunities for authoritarian governments as well, few have looked at the Internet and social media as a space for back-and-forth actions between the sides. In Azerbaijan, social media allows both the ruling regime and oppositionists to engage with each other and Azerbaijani citizens in new ways. Social media provides the regime with an alternative medium to harass the opposition and demonstrate its power to the citizenry. And while there is a social media presence, the traditional opposition parties do not leverage all affordances of it, however oppositionists not affiliated with traditional parties are leveraging social media to build audiences and engage in action. While the regime is currently "winning" the social media battle through the use of its resources, the new and creative ways that oppositionists are using social media for connective action could prove to be a successful means of dissent.
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Two Can Play
aT ThaT Game:
SoCial media
oPPorTuniTieS in
azerbaijan for
GovernmenT and
oPPoSiTion
Katy Pearce
University of Washington, seattle
Abstract: Much has been written on the ways in which the
Internet benefits opposition movements, in particular in
authoritarian regimes. And while some acknowledge that
the Internet also provides opportunities for authoritarian
governments as well, few have looked at the Internet
and social media as a space for back-and-forth actions
between the sides. In Azerbaijan, social media allows
both the ruling regime and oppositionists to engage with
each other and Azerbaijani citizens in new ways. Social
media provides the regime with an alternative medium
to harass the opposition and demonstrate its power to
the citizenry. And while there is a social media presence,
the traditional opposition parties do not leverage all
affordances of it, however oppositionists not affiliated
with traditional parties are leveraging social media to
build audiences and engage in action. While the regime
is currently “winning” the social media battle through
the use of its resources, the new and creative ways that
oppositionists are using social media for connective
action could prove to be a successful means of dissent.
Katy Pearce is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at
University of Washington, Seattle, Box 353740 Seattle, WA 98195, email:
kepearce@uw.edu.
40 Demokratizatsiya
The authoritarian state of Azerbaijan has a unique way of regulat-
ing the Internet and social media to maximize its opportunities for
simultaneously promoting itself while deterring dissent. Instead of using
high-level filtering, it instead uses psychological techniques to create an
environment of self-censorship (and increasingly is using policy mech-
anisms to enforce the psychological controls.) The government also
monitors and punishes social media-enabled dissent. Nonetheless, oppo-
sitionally-minded Azerbaijanis use social media as a promotional tool, an
information dissemination medium, and for some – though not the tradi-
tional opposition parties - an organizational tool.
This article will describe how the opposition uses social media
for organizing, using the Connective Action framework to understand
different opposition uses of social media for action, and explain how
the government controls the online space. Analysis of how the two sides
use the Internet enhances understanding of how social media can enrich
not only our understanding of the Azerbaijani political scene, but also
how social media and politics intersect in more authoritarian contexts, a
perspective that is sorely missing from current writing on social media and
politics. Social media has enabled both the government and the opposition
to engage with each other and Azerbaijani citizens. For the government,
social media provides an alternative medium to toy with the opposition
and demonstrate its power to the citizenry. The traditional opposition, on
the other hand, does not effectively use social media to engage it audience.
However, oppositionists not affiliated with traditional parties are leverag-
ing social media to build audiences and engage in action.
Background
Azerbaijan, one of the most authoritarian of the post-Soviet states accord-
ing to Freedom House, typifies the social control that post-Soviet rulers
have over their peoples.1 Due in large part to oil revenue, the regime can
easily preempt any opposition.2 However, because the regime allows
low-challenge opposition candidates to run for office, Azerbaijan is an
“electoral authoritarian” state where elections are held, but always reflect
what the regime wants.3 The key elements of Azerbaijani politics are: 1) the
1 Magdalena Frichova Grono. 2011. “Nations in Transit: Azerbaijan.” New York: Freedom
House.
2 Farid Guliyev. 2009. “Oil Wealth, Patrimonialism, and the Failure of Democracy in
Azerbaijan.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 2. http://www.res.ethz.ch/analysis/cad/details.
cfm?lng=en&id=95426 and Andrea Kendall-Taylor. 2012. “Purchasing Power: Oil, Elections
and Regime Durability in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.” Europe-Asia Studies 64 (4) (June 8):
737–760. doi:10.1080/09668136.2012.671567.
3 Max Bader. 2011. “Hegemonic Political Parties in post-Soviet Eurasia: Towards Par-
ty-based Authoritarianism?” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 44 (3) (September):
189–197. doi:10.1016/j.postcomstud.2011.07.002 and Erik S. Herron. 2011. “Measuring
Social Media in Azerbaijan
41
personalist-clientelist nature of Aliyev’s rule, where patronage-based elite
factions demonstrate loyalty and become dependent on resources allocated
by the ruling party; 2) deficient stateness and endemic corruption, which
dominate all aspect of political life; and 3) a marginalized political opposi-
tion, which exists but represents few organized interests.4 Additionally, the
citizens of Azerbaijan experience a general sense of apathy and fear5 and
a lack of trust in others.6 As such, Azerbaijani society is self-censoring.7
The Internet in Azerbaijan
In Azerbaijan, the government has nearly total control of the mainstream
media.8 Accordingly, in the last few years, many oppositionally-minded
Azerbaijanis have turned to the Internet to express their political views.
With the growth of social media, especially Facebook (between 13-18
percent of Azerbaijanis had a Facebook account as of late 20139), this
sort of political deliberation has increased. As the openness of the Internet
became an attractive space for activists, the Azerbaijani government
seemingly took notice and began formulating a policy to control it. Like
in the print media sphere, the Azerbaijani government understood that
allowing some independence can provide benefits. One argument along
these lines is that authoritarian states make policies and have bureau-
crats to implement them. Independent media is one of the only ways that
authoritarian leaders can verify that the bureaucrats are doing their jobs.
With the Internet and social media, a little bit of freedom can provide the
government with insight into what the opposition elite are thinking, as
well as an excellent and systematic monitoring tool. Some freedom on the
Dissent in Electoral Authoritarian Societies: Lessons from Azerbaijan’s 2008 Presidential
Election and 2009 Referendum.” Comparative Political Studies 44 (11) (June 3): 1557–1583.
doi:10.1177/0010414011410171.
4 Farid Guliyev. 2012. “Political Elites in Azerbaijan.” In Andreas Heinrich and Heiko
Pleines, eds. Challenges of the Caspian Resource Boom: Domestic Elites and Policy-Mak-
ing, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 117–130 and Farid Guliyev. 2013. “Oil and Regime
Stability in Azerbaijan.” Demokratizatsiya 21 (1) (February 16): 113–147.
5 Shahin Abbasov. 2010. “Civil Society in Azerbaijan: Under Fire but Still Resisting.”
Caucasus Analytical Digest 12. http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/111716/
ipublicationdocument_singledocument/5801e755-43be-4f82-b7a9-8acd36fd0c3b/en/Cauca-
susAnalyticalDigest12.pdf.
6 Aytan Gahramanova. 2009. “Internal and External Factors in the Democratization of Azer-
baijan.” Democratization 16 (4) (August 4): 777–803. doi:10.1080/13510340903083919.
7 Gahramanova, 2009. “Internal and External Factors in the Democratization of Azerbaijan.”
8 Arifa Kazimova. 2011. “Media in Azerbaijan: The Ruling Family Dominates TV, the
Opposition Has Some Papers.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 25. http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch/ser-
viceengine/Files/ISN/127759/ipublicationdocument_singledocument/bcce560a-61c7-4b4e-
91d3-0cc7ef45a167/en/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest25.pdf.
9http://www.katypearce.net/facebookistan-am-facebookistan-az-facebookistan-ge-in-2012/
and http://www.katypearce.net/facebook-in-armenia-azerbaijan-and-georgia-2013-with-a-
gender-focus/
42 Demokratizatsiya
Internet can also allow the Azerbaijani government to appear democratic.10
However, the Azerbaijani government does have to control the Internet
and social media in order to ensure that dissent does not go beyond what it
considers a safe level. In the second half of this paper, I will apply Deibert
and Rohozinski’s11 framework from their study of the Russian-language
Internet to Azerbaijan by dividing the techniques used by governments for
Internet censorship and control into three “generations.” The Azerbaijani
government engages in each of these generations. But first, a description
of how the opposition does and does not use the Internet for organizing
will be presented.
Opposition Background
The opposition in Azerbaijan is both marginalized and divided.12 However,
despite its fragmentation, the opposition is networked. Connections, often
of a personal nature, exist between individuals and groups within the larger
movement, despite subdivisions organizationally. These ties create a web
that is more difficult to destroy.
Moreover, these information relationships are essential to under-
stand politics in Azerbaijan. To “make sense of political processes and
outcomes in such contexts, paying attention to the formal institutions that
are typically the focus of political scientists is inadequate; in addition—or
instead—one must study informal institutions and interactions.”13
Being networked creates efficiency advantages over more hierarchi-
cal forms of organization.14 Networks are light on their feet. Information
transfers reliably and efficiently through them.15 Moreover, networked
forms of organization have greater trust amongst individuals,16 reci-
procity17, and more opportunities for learning from one another.18 Social
10 Katy E. Pearce and Sarah Kendzior. 2012. “Networked Authoritarianism and So-
cial Media in Azerbaijan.” Journal of Communication 62 (2) (March 14): 283–298.
doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01633.x.
11 Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski. 2010. “Control and Subversion in Russian Cy-
berspace.” In Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace,
Cambridge: MIT Press, 15–34.
12 Guliyev. 2012. “Political Elites in Azerbaijan.”
13 Scott Radnitz. 2012. “Oil in the Family: Managing Presidential Succession in Azerbaijan.”
Democratization 19 (1) (February 28): 60–77. doi:10.1080/13510347.2012.641300.
14 Jeffrey L. Bradach and Robert G. Eccles. 1989. “Price, Authority, and Trust: From Ideal
Types to Plural Forms.” Annual Review of Sociology 15: 97–118.
15 Walter W. Powell. 1990. “Neither Market nor Hierarchy.” Research on Organizational
Behavior 12: 295–336.
16 Mark S. Granovetter. 1995. Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
17 Powell. 1990. “Neither Market nor Hierarchy.”
18 Ronald Dore. 1983. “Goodwill and the Spirit of Market Capitalism.” The British Journal
of Sociology 34 (4): 459–482.
Social Media in Azerbaijan
43
networks such as these are essential for mobilization in non-democracies.19
The web of personal ties between oppositionally-minded people has
traditionally been maintained offline. However, new technologies provide
opportunities for these ties to be maintained and reaffirmed virtually.
Impact of the Internet on organizing
The Internet and social media have had an impact on interpersonal
relationships. Information and communication technologies can foster
connectedness and socialbility.20 The Internet has also affected organiza-
tional relationships. And specifically, new opportunities and challenges for
social movements have emerged. The Internet reduces barriers for creating,
organizing, and participating without co-presence and at a reduced cost21,
and in Azerbaijan, where freedom of assembly is restricted, being able to
organize without co-presence is a tremendous asset to organizations. The
reduction in cost is also useful for Azerbaijani oppositionists because one
of the government’s strongest tools against them is economic.
However, these same affordances provided by the Internet also
threaten traditional social movement organizations because the barriers
for competitors are also reduced.22 Established opposition parties no
longer hold the monopoly on countering the government. An individual or
a loosely organized group can create and organize social activism much
more easily than in the pre-Internet era.
Social media and social networking sites are especially important for
social movements – regardless if they are an established opposition group,
individuals, or loosely organized groups. Broadly defined, a social network
site (SNS) is a “networked communication platform in which participants
1) have uniquely identifiable profiles that consist of user-supplied content,
content provided by other users, and system-level data; 2) can publicly
articulate connections that can be viewed and traversed by others; and
3) can consume, produce, and interact with streams of user-generated
content.”23
19 Maryjane Osa and Kurt Schock. 2007. “A Long, Hard Slog: Political Opportunities, Social
Networks and the Mobilization of Dissent in Non-Democracies.” Research in Social Move-
ments, Conflicts and Change 27 (March 7): 123–153. doi:10.1016/S0163-786X(06)27005-8.
20 Rich Ling. 2004. The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society. The Mor-
gan Kaufmann Series in Interactive Technologies. Vol. 1. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann
and Ronald E. Rice and Ingunn Hagen. 2010. “Young Adults’ Perpetual Contact, Social
Connection, and Social Control through the Internet and Mobile Phones.” In C. Salmon, ed.
Communication Yearbook 34, 2–39. London: Routledge.
21 Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport. 2011. Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the
Internet Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
22 Earl, and Kimport. 2011. Digitally Enabled Social Change.
23 Nicole B. Ellison, , and danah m. boyd. 2013. “Sociality through Social Network Sites.”
In The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, edited by W. H. Dutton, 151–172. Oxford, UK:
44 Demokratizatsiya
Social networking sites are ideal for generating and affirming inter-
personal interaction, broadening social ties, and providing information
about how to become involved (Valenzuela et. al. 2009). They also allow
individuals and organizations to better manage their social networks and
connect with new individuals. Further, Facebook is like an information
hub,24 and users can receive mobilizing information and encounter greater
opportunities to engage by following particular personalities and joining
groups.25 Users can also express their political opinions on social media.26
In fact, Valenzuela found that social media use for political opinion expres-
sion and activism were significant predictors of protest behavior.27
Opposition Social Media Organizational Structure
These particular affordances of the Internet and social media are important
because they can enable a new type of social movement collective action
form: connective action, especially in an era when younger people are
shifting away from identifying with organizations to engaging civically
through “simple, everyday discourses anchored in lifestyles and shared
with social networks.”28 (Similar is the idea of “networked individual-
ism” as described by Rainie and Wellman in which technology enables a
new osmotic self that absorbs elements from multiple networks, which is
personalized, while still networked.)29 This individualization means that
individuals are less guided by norms and collective identities. Imagine
campaigns, for example, such as a young woman holding a hand-written
sign that states “I have type I diabetes. How can I afford college when
I may not be able to afford my insulin? I am the 99%” being shared by
sympathetic others. Or in the case of Azerbaijan, personal opinions and
statements about the political situation, rather than party alliances, being
popular on Facebook or photographs of the families of political detainees
Oxford University Press.
24 Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Nakwon Jung, and Sebastián Valenzuela. 2012. “Social Media
Use for News and Individuals’ Social Capital, Civic Engagement and Political Partic-
ipation.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 17 (3) (April 10): 319–336.
doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2012.01574.x.
25 Sebastián Valenzuela. 2013. “Unpacking the Use of Social Media for Protest Behavior: The
Roles of Information, Opinion Expression, and Activism.” American Behavioral Scientist 57
(7) (March 6): 920–942. doi:10.1177/0002764213479375.
26 Sebastián Valenzuela. 2013. “Unpacking the Use of Social Media for Protest Behavior: The
Roles of Information, Opinion Expression, and Activism.” American Behavioral Scientist 57
(7) (March 6): 920–942. doi:10.1177/0002764213479375.
27 Valenzuela. 2013. “Unpacking the Use of Social Media for Protest Behavior.”
28 W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action: Dig-
ital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
29 Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie. 2012. Networked: The New Social Operating System.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Social Media in Azerbaijan
45
being shared on social media – this is not organizationally-sponsored, but
driven by individuals empathetic to other individuals’ plights. This demand
for personalized relations with causes or organizations makes social
media more central as an organizing tool. “When people who seek more
personalized paths to concerted action are familiar with practices of social
networking in everyday life, and when they have access to technologies
from mobile phones to computers, they are already familiar with a different
logic of organization: the logic of connective action... the recognition of
digital media as organization agents... taking public action or contributing
to a common good becomes an act of personal expression.”30
Traditional organizational structures (what Bennett and Segerberg
call organizationally brokered networks31) are noteworthy for strong
organizational coordination of action (especially with regard to resource
allocation and distribution) and formalized relationships with followers
(members). The organizations are greatly concerned with getting indi-
viduals to join when the cost of participating outweighs the benefits.
Rhetoric engages collective action frames rather than personalized ones.
Social media is used to reduce communication and coordination costs, but
it does not fundamentally change the logic of participation or action. This
does not mean that these traditional organizations do not use social media,
rather it is used as a tool rather than an organizational agent. In Azerbaijan,
the traditional opposition parties are examples of this. And while the best
known individuals have many followers, friends, or likes, there is very
little personalized interaction with audience members. It should be noted
that in Azerbaijani parties, as in many post-Soviet political parties, a great
deal of party activity is focused on individuals. Because of this, Bennett
and Segerberg’s description of organizational brokered networks, derived
from Western organizations, may not seem appropriate. Nonetheless, those
individuals receiving the focus are essentially symbols of the organization.
However, with the introduction of digital media, the logic of this
sort of organization can change. Through the organizational processes
of social media, the symbolic construction of a united “we” and orga-
nization to support that “we” is unnecessary.32 Motivation to join and
participate may be different in digitally-enabled networks and cooperation
is voluntary.33 Based in the production and sharing of content – the way
that individuals associate and organize with one another is quite different
30 W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.”
Information, Communication & Society 15 (5) (June): 739–768. doi:10.1080/136911
8X.2012.670661.
31 Bennett and Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.”
32 Bennett and Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.”
33 Yochai Benkler. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Mar-
kets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.
46 Demokratizatsiya
than in non-digitally-enabled networks. This co-production and co-distri-
bution is personalized expression that allows for symbolic inclusiveness
and technological openness.34 This sort of engagement can occur either in
organizationally-enabled networks or in crowd-enabled networks.
The first type of connective action is with organizationally enabled
networks, with loose organizational coordination of action around a
general set of issues and organizationally generated inclusive personal
action frames with some moderation of personal expression.35 Social media
is part of organizing, but there is still an organization in the background.
In Azerbaijan, examples include groups like N!DA that have formal struc-
tures, but strongly engage with social media for more than organizational
purposes as well as the REAL (Republican Alternative) organization,
which is mostly an offline organization, but its leadership uses social media
beyond information dissemination and recruitment. The social media
presence of this sort of organization is much more organizationally-based
than individually-based, as network-building mechanisms that allow indi-
viduals to contribute, bringing more agency to individuals than as it is with
traditional organizations.
Full connective action, which Bennett and Segerberg call crowd-or-
ganized/technology-enabled36, comes from self organizing networks,
which are individuals with little or no organizational coordination of
action and collective action is entirely about personal action frames.37
Social media is an integrative organizational mechanism and possibly
the most visible activity of the network. These individuals are very much
engaged in personal expression and have a strong and personal voice in
their social media content. Individuals activate their own followers and
social networks. These individuals have the largest social media audience
and influence of anyone in Azerbaijan.
There is certainly a class of “Internet Celebrities” in Azerbaijan,
individuals with large social media followings that have the ability to set
the tone and spread information. There are pro-government celebrities,
but the opposition has many as well at all three levels: organizationally
brokered networks, organizationally enabled networks, and crowd-enabled
networks. Again, the focus on individuals within post-Soviet politics
should be recalled while considering this sort of activity.
Some of these individuals have notable foreign audience as well
and can be considered “networked microcelebrities.” A networked
34 Bennett and Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.”
35 Bennett and Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.”
36 W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action: Dig-
ital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
37 Bennett and Segerberg. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.”
Social Media in Azerbaijan
47
microcelebrity activist “is a politically motivated actor who successfully
uses affordances of social media to engage in a presentation of his or
her political and personal self to garner attention to a cause.”38 Further,
“networked microcelebrity activism refers to politically motivated nonin-
stitutional actors who use affordances of social media to engage in the
presentation of their political and personal selves to garner public atten-
tion to their cause, usually through a combination of testimony, advocacy,
and citizen journalism”.39 Zeynep Tufekci argues that these people serve
a particular role in a movement - often writing in a bridging language
(English) - to gain the attention of a global audience, but this may also have
a negative consequence within the movement because of the opportunities
provided by global microcelebrity. Dahlgren’s idea of “online public intel-
lectuals” is also pertinent to understanding these individuals. According
to Dahlgren, these public intellectuals play a significant role, especially
within alternative politics, and digital media allows for amplification of
their messages.40 These public intellectual microcelebrities allow for effec-
tive activation of social networks for connective action.
Examples of Connective Action
Protest Events
Connective action networks can be particularly effect in protest events.41
(Although as Henry Hale notes, social media may not have a primary role
in unrest.42 Nonetheless, I argue that in the 2013 cases described here,
social media was central to organizing.) Since early 2013, there have been
a number of protest actions organized primarily via Facebook without any
sponsorship from any of the traditional opposition parties, rather individ-
uals spread through their personal social networks. Moreover, there was
a personalized action frame: conscripts’ deaths because of hazing and the
government’s attempts to cover up these deaths. Pictures of soldiers were
spread on social networks and personalized catch phrases were commonly
shared on image memes or as Facebook status. While attendance at these
protests was sometimes large and sometimes not, the number of individu-
als saying that they were going to attend an event via Facebook was quite
high, especially for such a public statement. Over time, the protests’ focus
38 Zeynep Tufekci. 2013. “‘Not This One’: Social Movements, the Attention Economy,
and Microcelebrity Networked Activism.” American Behavioral Scientist (March 26):
0002764213479369–. doi:10.1177/0002764213479369.
39 Tufekci. 2013. “‘Not This One’.”
40 Peter Dahlgren. 2013. The Political Web. Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan.
41 Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action.
42 Henry Hale. 2013. “Did the Internet Break the Political Machine? Moldova’s 2009 “Twitter
Revolution that Wasn’t” Demokratizatsiya 21 (4) (September 1): 481–506.
48 Demokratizatsiya
moved away from conscript deaths and into more generalized protest, and
perhaps not coincidentally, support decreased.
Fundraising
After individuals received fines for participating in the winter 2013 protest
actions, some individuals, not affiliated with traditional opposition parties,
created a campaign to raise small amounts of money to pay off the fines.
In less than a week, they raised 10,500 AZN (US$13,000). These efforts
were notable for connective action for two reasons: first, the fundraising
was for individuals rather than for a cause. Secondly, the focus on pocket
change (the campaign was called 5 cents), made it accessible for individ-
uals wanting to engage.
After the success of the donate change campaign, the government
put greater restrictions on fundraising for NGOs and charities. Individuals,
again, not affiliated with traditional opposition parties, started a new fund-
raising effort through selling personal photographs, the monetary exchange
representing a donation. While this is an illustration of personal action
frames by these individuals, it should be noted that this sort of microceleb-
rity behavior fits in well in post-Soviet political culture where individuals
are symbolic of organizations as well as within personal action frames in
connective action.
Effect of Connective Action Networks
The result of connective action is that seemingly disjointed networks can
achieve coherent organizational forms in that they develop capacities for
resource allocation and distribution; they response to external short-term
events; and they also can create long-term adaptive resources. Because of
this, they are, essentially, an organization, despite not being a cohesive
unit.43 As an illustration, protests organized via connective action networks
tend to scale up more quickly, have large participation, are quite flexible,
and are more inclusive than traditional protests.44
These informal connective collaborations through social media are
challenging the meaning of civil society.45 Milan and Hintz even argue that
decentralized activists organized online (connective) will “play a crucial
role in building the digital backbone of contemporary social movements,
experimenting with technological infrastructure, and enabling innovative
forms of organization and citizen action typical of the digital age.”46
43 Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action.
44 Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action.
45 Stefania Milan and Arne Hintz. 2013. “Networked Collective Action and the Institution-
alized Policy Debate: Bringing Cyberactivism to the Policy Arena?” Policy & Internet 5 (1)
(March 15): 7–26. doi:10.1002/poi3.20.
46 Milan and Hintz. 2013. “Networked Collective Action and the Institutionalized Policy
Social Media in Azerbaijan
49
Although, it should be noted that the sustainability of connective action
networks remains to be seen.
Additionally, there seems to be a conflict between the traditional
organizational networks and the newer connective action networks. Today
in Azerbaijan, due in part to the Internet, traditional opposition parties
no longer have a monopoly over the opposition. Instead, the connective
action individuals and their networks that oppose the government make
it possible to disseminate information and build an audience without
the infrastructure of a formal organization. However, as Zeynep Tufekci
suggests, more ad-hoc connective action networks may be hindered and
specifically have difficult sustaining themselves because they are not
building network internalities and organizational capacity due to their digi-
tally-enabled coordinating.47 While it remains to be seen if these networks
will be sustainable, there is some evidence that they are already having
some impact in Azerbaijani politics.
At this point, the established opposition parties may want to consider
some of the successful collective action that non-traditional opposition-
ally-minded Azerbaijanis are engaging in. While it is possible that these
successes are partially attributable to the lack of affiliation with formal
parties, they do demonstrate that social media can have concrete and some-
times meaningful outcomes. The non-traditional oppositionists may have
aspirations for larger political actions and should consider these successes
as well to determine best practices and leverage their triumphs to continue
engaging the social media users that already have done so. Both traditional
and non-traditional opposition should consider the potential power of the
“real” and virtual social networks that they have and the opportunity to
grow their audiences and followers could be better utilized with strategic
thinking about how to best organize and promote activities and events.
Government Internet and Social Media Policies
The Azerbaijani government controls the Internet and social media at
multiple levels. Using Deibert and Rohozinski’s48 three “generations”
framework, I will describe these levels and provide examples of each.
First Generation
First-generation controls “focus on denying access to specific Internet
resources by directly blocking access to servers, domains, keywords, and
Debate.”
47 http://dmlcentral.net/blog/zeynep-tufekci/capabilities-movements-and-affordances-digi-
tal-media-paradoxes-empowerment
48 Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski. 2010. “Control and Subversion in Russian Cy-
berspace.” In Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 15–34.
50 Demokratizatsiya
IP addresses. This type of filtering is typically achieved by the use of
specialized software or by implementing instructions manually into routers
at key Internet choke points. In some countries, compliance with first-gen-
eration filtering is checked manually by security forces, who physically
police cybercafés and ISPs.”49
Filtering and Blocking
In Azerbaijan, filtering with software or hardware is fairly uncommon.
However, the technology does exist, as there are some recent occur-
rences of filtering. However, there are some exceptions, specifically
Azerbaijani secondary schools’ Internet access is filtered for pornography
and other harmful content.50 Particular sites such as the web forum of the
Free Azerbaijani Movement (http://www.azdiaspora.org), created by an
Azerbaijani military officer, is not accessible through ISPs connected via
Delta Telecom, while those connected via Azertelecom allow access to the
site, according to Expression Online. In times of crisis some media sources
have been blocked.51
However, the first known instance of the blocking of a site that
hosts content beyond that of a justifiably-threatening nature has occurred.
In January 2012, 1.7GB of internal documents from the Special State
Protection Service of Azerbaijan were leaked by the Anonymous organiza-
tion.52 Documents that were deemed interesting by Anonymous were also
uploaded to the image sharing site Imgur.com.53 Imgur.com is a popular
site for anonymous hosting of images, especially for the website Reddit.
Soon after the release, Azerbaijani Internet users were unable to access
any images hosting on Imgur.com.54 As of August 2013, Imgur was still
inaccessible in Azerbaijan. Overall, the technology for filtering exists, the
Azerbaijani government has used it in the past, recently has used it on a
site that is not exclusively a security risk, and public rhetoric has suggested
that the government has considered filtering Facebook.
Facebook is a particular threat to the Azerbaijani government.
After an increase in Facebook activism in early 2013, some pro-govern-
ment Azerbaijani politicians made statements about limiting or blocking
Facebook. “These networks create a threat to Azerbaijan’s statehood”
Fazail Agamali, leader of the pro-government party Motherland said to
49 Deibert and Rohozinski. 2010. “Control and Subversion in Russian Cyberspace.”
50 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
Baku. http://expressiononline.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Report_EO_1.pdf.
51 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
52 http://par-anoia.net/releases2013.html#dmx
53 http://imgur.com/a/cylKb#0
54 http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2013/02/07/imgur-com-blocked-in-azerbaijan/
Social Media in Azerbaijan
51
Turan on March 11, 201355 and other news outlets.56 The government
quickly responded to this statement that it was not planning on blocking
Facebook,57 but that was not the last mention of Facebook as a threat.
Azerbaijan’s Interior Minister Ramil Usubov also criticized Facebook on
March 13, 2013.58 And the Azerbaijani National Security Minister Eldar
Mahmudov linked Facebook in Azerbaijan to international terrorist rings at
the International Conference on Strengthening Cooperation in Preventing
Terrorism on March 18, 2013.59 On April 2, 2013, MP Hadi Radjabli,
Chairman of the Permanent Committee for Social Policy of the Azerbaijani
Parliament, attacked Facebook as a bad influence and suggested that social
media should have more pro-government content.60 While these assaults
on Facebook are not filtering, per se, the public discussion of Facebook
as a threat to security implies that the government has considered filtering
Facebook.
Policing cybercafés
While there is no widespread policing of cybercafés, there is some
evidence that they are targeted,61 and some claims about the danger of
cybercafés for children. The Azerbaijani State Committee for Family,
Women and Children’s Affairs “has conducted monitoring in Internet cafes
to examine the situation in this area. The results showed that children were
going to “Internet clubs” during lessons and visit websites with negative
impact.”62 This experimentation with monitoring cybercafés is an example
of experimentation with monitoring as well as framing the monitoring as
for the protection of children.
Second Generation
Second-generation Internet controls “create a legal and normative environ-
ment and technical capabilities that enable state actors to deny access to
information resources as and when needed, while reducing the possibility
of blowback or discovery.” These controls are both overt and covert.
Overtly, there is a legal infrastructure to control access to content. For
example, concerns about cybersecurity and extending slander and defama-
tion laws to the online space are evoked to create policies about Internet
55 http://www.contact.az/docs/2013/Politics/031100031350en.htm#.UYfz38p49ks
56 http://gunxeber.com/?p=60815
57 http://news.lent.az/news/119078
58 http://en.apa.az/news/189340
59 http://en.apa.az/news_azerbaijan___s_minister_of_national_securi_189718.html
60 http://www.haqqin.az/news/4775
61 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
62 http://www.azernews.az/azerbaijan/46785.html
52 Demokratizatsiya
control. Covertly, procedures and technologies are deployed to control
access at times of crisis.63
Overt
Telecommunications law in Azerbaijan was created in 2005, but does not
cover access to content. However, in June 2012, the Azerbaijan criminal
code was amended to reflect the Council of Europe’s Convention on
Cybercrime that it signed in 2008. The amendments are fairly standard
regarding data integrity and preventing the use of computers for criminal
purposes.64
Until April 2013, online and offline content was regulated by the
same set of laws, as the Internet is considered part of the mass media65.
Of particular interest are Azerbaijan’s criminal and civil defamation laws,
which are quite broad.66 On April 30, 2013, however, the Azerbaijani
parliament introduced amendments to the criminal code that would specify
the Internet (including both media websites and personal social network-
ing sites) in defamation and libel laws67 and on May 14 the law passed.68
Azerbaijan’s minister for Communication and Information Technology
supported the amendments in statements on May 6, 201369 and President
Aliyev signed the online defamation law on June 6, 2013.70 The first crim-
inal online defamation case occurred in the fall of 2013, when a former
employee of a regional Azerbaijani bank was accused of defaming his
former employer by creating a Facebook page about that bank being unfair
and corrupt. (Notably only 26 Facebook users “liked” the page, implying
that it did not have a wide reach.) He was sentenced to one year public
work and 20 percent of his monthly salary will be withheld for a year.71
Moreover, publicizing opinions that instigate extremism or have
“harmful content” is illegal, as per Articles 214-216 of the Criminal
Code.72 In May 2011, officials claimed that spreading misinformation is a
63 Deibert and Rohozinski. 2010. “Control and Subversion in Russian Cyberspace.”
64 http://president.az/articles/5426
65 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
66 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
67 http://www.azcontact.info/docs/2013/Politics/043000034485en.htm#.UYA8eMqGkXF;
http://www.news.az/articles/society/79350; http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66910; http://
netprophet.tol.org/2013/05/03/azerbaijan-legislating-civil-web-discourse/
68 http://www.contact.az/docs/2013/Politics/051400036136en.htm#.UZJoVspXrDt; http://
en.apa.az/news_azerbaijan_sets_punishments_for_internet_192821.html
69 http://en.trend.az/capital/business/2147219.html
70http://www.rferl.org/content/azerbaijan-internet-defamation-law-criminal-ali-
yev/25008799.html
71 http://www.mediarights.az/index.php?lngs=eng&id=79 and http://www.rferl.org/content/
azerbaijan-ebrd-libel-law/25082305.html
72 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
Social Media in Azerbaijan
53
cybercrime and noted Skype and Wikipedia as threats to national security.73
Covert
Internet Service Providers in Azerbaijan legally can cut Internet service
under broad circumstances and during war, emergency situations, or
natural disasters, an Internet kill switch can be activated.74 Also, distrib-
uted denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which can overwhelm an Internet
website host, effectively taking down the site, can be ordered by anyone.75
There are some claims that attacks are ordered by the Azerbaijani govern-
ment.76 And in particular, a DDoS attack on an opposition newspaper is
claimed to have originated at the Azerbaijani Ministry of Communications
and Information Technologies.77
Third Generation
Third generation controls are more sophisticated and multidimensional.
Third generational controls compete with potential threats through effect-
ing cognitive change rather than deny access.78 Deibert and Rohozinski
focus on three types of third-generation controls: surveillance, state-spon-
sored information campaigns, and direct action. This paper will elaborate
on the state-sponsored information campaigns with a focus on trolling.
Trolling has four sub-categories: memes, Twitter shenanigans, blocking,
and Kompromat. This is also where the individuals and organizations
within the Azerbaijani government hierarchy begin to emerge.
Surveillance
While there is evidence that the Azerbaijani government does engage in
online surveillance, there is a widespread belief that the government does
monitor citizens offline and online, and this impacts people’s behavior
online. A report by Swedish investigative news show Uppdrag Granskning
found that the Swedish telecommunications company Teliasonera (amongst
others) has sold surveillance equipment to the Azerbaijani government.79
“Black boxes” or “black rooms” are installed in the server rooms of mobile
telecommunications companies and Internet service providers.80 There is
also substantial anecdotal evidence of surveillance. Azerbaijani activists
73 http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63554
74 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
75 Deibert and Rohozinski. 2010. “Control and Subversion in Russian Cyberspace.”
76 http://www.irfs.org/news-feed/azerbaijani-government-sparks-an-open-season-on-critical-
websites-amid-pre-election-crackdown/
77 http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2012/11/azerbaijan-internet-freedom/
78 Deibert and Rohozinski. 2010. “Control and Subversion in Russian Cyberspace.”
79 https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/05/swedish-telcom-giant-teliasonera-caught-help-
ing-authoritarian-regimes-spy-its
80 Expression Online. 2012. “Searching for Freedom: Online Expression in Azerbaijan.”
54 Demokratizatsiya
report having printed Facebook private messaging transcripts handed to
them while in police custody. Others have seen logins from multiple IP
addresses in Facebook and Gmail.
In March 2013, a number of opposition youth activists from the
group N!DA (Exclamation in Azerbaijani) were arrested and were directly
accused of using Facebook for illegal activity – which they deny. On
March 8, 2013 the Ministry of National Security and the Chief Prosecutors
office issued a statement that the three activists, Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin
Novruzlu, and Mahammad Azizov, were detained because they were on
Facebook calling for violent forms of protest and were actively discussing
the preparation and use of smoke grenades and Molotov cocktails in a street
rally. Reportedly, the authorities found 23 Molotov cocktails; approxi-
mately $100,000 in cash; 507.67 grams of hashish; and 190.02 grams of
marijuana in the homes of the activists, although they and their parents
are adamant that the drugs and cocktails were planted and have excuses
for the amount of cash in the homes.81 Notably, some of these young men
were also administrators of an anti-government parody Facebook page.82
It is difficult to determine if the surveillance activities described
above are automated, such as the black boxes, or human. However, there is
speculation that police departments pay young people to monitor Facebook
and report opposition activities.83
State-Sponsored Information Campaigns
Over the past few years, the Azerbaijani government has waged an
aggressive media campaign against social media. Television programs
show ‘‘family tragedies’’ and ‘‘criminal incidents’’ after young people
join Facebook and Twitter.84 In March 2011, the country’s chief psychi-
atrist proclaimed that social media users suffer mental disorders and
cannot maintain relationships.85 In April 2012, the Interior Ministry linked
Facebook use with trafficking of woman and sexual abuse of children.86 An
April 2013 story mentioned drug and alcohol addictions, jealousy, suicide,
and the destruction of friendships and families related to social media use.87
81 http://www.vancouversun.com/news/student+activists+arrested+Azerbaijan+ahead+pro-
test/8074031/story.html#ixzz2N6DOnfvo
82 http://elitar.az/nida-cilar-heyd%C9%99r-%C9%99liyev-adina-s%C9%99hif%C9%99-
yaratdiqlari-ucun-h%C9%99bs-olunub/
83 http://bizimyolinfo.com/?sehife=1&xeber=9314#.UWm4Jjoo7Zp.facebook
84 Katy E. Pearce and Sarah Kendzior. 2012. “Networked Authoritarianism and So-
cial Media in Azerbaijan.” Journal of Communication 62 (2) (March 14): 283–298.
doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01633.x.
85 http://en.trend.az/news/society/1841409.html
86 http://en.trend.az/news/society/2014898.html
87 http://xezerxeber.com/XeberOxu.aspx?id=55717#.Un1KMxDORt5
Social Media in Azerbaijan
55
In May 2013, the Minister of Communication and Information Technology
stated that Facebook causes divorce.88
This sort of framing of social media as dangerous may not deter all
Azerbaijanis from using these services, but it certainly helps the govern-
ment do two things: first, keep a portion of the population away from social
media89 and, second, sets the stage for these sites being dangerous in case
it chooses to block them in the future.
Trolling
While there is little academic research on the phenomenon of trolling,
it can be understood as the “posting of incendiary comments with the
intent of provoking others into conflict”90 and a troller is a computer-me-
diated communication user who has the intention of causing disruption
and/or triggering or exacerbating conflict for the purpose of their own
amusement.91 Similarly, Rafferty defines trolling as “the attempt to hurt,
humiliate, annoy, or provoke in order to elicit an emotional response for
one’s own enjoyment.”92 And Bergstrom defines trolling as the trans-
gression of community norms that results in anger, harm, or discomfort.
Trolling differs from teasing in its intensity and level of mercilessness.93
Phillips gives a particularly cruel example of trolling where individuals
make jokes on Facebook memorial pages of the recently deceased.94 As
McCosker argues, trolling is a complex set of practices, and thus, in the
author’s estimation, is difficult to define in an all-encompassing way.95
As such, this article will describe some types of trolling in Azerbaijan to
better understand the set of practices. Although all of these definitions
acknowledge that trolling is by nature antagonistic, it is important to note
that, as Milner argues, trolling is a communicative tool that can be used
88 http://en.trend.az/capital/business/2147219.html
89 Pearce and Kendzior. 2012. “Networked Authoritarianism and Social Media in Azerbai-
jan.”
90 Claire Hardaker, 2010. “Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-mediated Communication:
From User Discussions to Academic Definitions.” Journal of Politeness Research. Language,
Behaviour, Culture 6 (2) (January). doi:10.1515/jplr.2010.011.
91 Hardaker. 2010. “Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-mediated Communication.”
92 Rebecca S. Rafferty 2011. “Motivations Behind Cyber Bullying and Online Aggression:
Cyber Sanctions, Dominance, and Trolling Online”. Ohio University. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/
ap:10:0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:ohiou1306953934.
93 Kelly Bergstrom. 2011. “‘Don’t Feed the Troll’: Shutting down Debate About Community
Expectations on Reddit.com.” First Monday 16 (8). doi:10.5210%2Ffm.v16i8.3498.
94 Whitney Phillips. 2011. “LOLing at Tragedy: Facebook Trolls, Memorial Pages and Resis-
tance to Grief Online.” First Monday 16 (12).
95 McCosker, Anthony. 2013. “Trolling as Provocation: YouTube’s Agonistic Publics.” Con-
vergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (September
12): 1354856513501413–. doi:10.1177/1354856513501413.
56 Demokratizatsiya
to diverse ends and serve multiple purposes.96 Thus, there can be other
goals of trolling, as we see in Azerbaijan, such as control or deterrence
of expression or dissent. A revised and expanded definition then could be
that trolling is the creation of (with intent to share) and sharing of digital
content by individuals or groups with the intent to antagonize, provoke,
harm, humiliate, or control other individuals or groups.
Four types of this provocative and conflict-generating trolling in
Azerbaijan are memes, blocking, shenanigans on Twitter, and Kompromat.
Memes, shenanigans, and blocks seem to be mostly conducted by the
pro-government youth organizations, while Kompromat is not attributed
to the pro-government youth organizations, the resources put into it are
evidence for in-direct government involvement.
Memes
Pro-government forces in Azerbaijan to humiliate oppositionists commonly
use Memes. A more detailed discussion of memes is included in the article
by Pearce and Hajizada in this issue, and thus will not be discussed here.
Blocking
Another technique that the government and its allies use is filing complaints
with Internet services about users that it wishes to silence. This can be done
with a specific post or a user’s profile overall.
The example in Figure 1 is a boasting post where a pro-government
youth group chairman shows how he reported the well-known opposition
journalist Khadija Ismayilova’s Facebook post for “harassment.”
Figure 1. A blocking action by a pro-government activist secured the
removal of a post by an opposition journalist.
96 Ryan M. Milner. “Hacking the Social: Internet Memes, Identity Antagonism, and the Logic
of Lulz.” Fibreculture.
Social Media in Azerbaijan
57
Although the systems for reporting harassment are designed to
protect users, in Azerbaijan it is not uncommon for social media users
affiliated with the opposition to find themselves blocked from the service
with little recourse. For example, Facebook users may find themselves
accused of posting something that violates Facebook’s policies and being
blocked from using similar features for 24 hours or more.
Facebook has means for becoming “unblocked” but the steps
involved are difficult, especially for those not fluent enough in English to
read through the legalese-laden terms of service and community standards.
Reasons for blocking may be viewed as “technicalities” like copyright
infringement by those whom are blocked, but for Facebook, these are
serious issues and are possibly best dealt with through a strict policy.
Thus, when a blocked individual attempts to argue for being unblocked
because of political motivations on the part of those who filed the original
complaint, it is difficult for Facebook to deal with these individual cases
and have to make exceptions to its own policies.
Twitter Shenanigans
While Twitter is not nearly as popular in Azerbaijan as Facebook is (as is
the case globally), some elite users do engage with it. While Twitter posts
often mirror Facebook posts (for both individuals and organizations), one
difference is that analytics are readily available. The ability to measure
social media reach is attractive to some Azerbaijani social media users.
Hashtags are keywords to organize information to describe a tweet
and aid in searching.97 When a hashtag “trends” – it is noted by Twitter as
being popular at a particular time. Users want a hashtag to trend to gain
visibility and attention. While occasionally hashtags trend organically, it
is much more common that hashtags are artificially pushed to the trending
list.98
The pro-government youth group is particularly boastful about the
number of tweets that its sponsored hashtags receive by “winning” with
the largest percentage of Twitter posts. The interest in having metrics for
and “winning” hashtags has caused this group to engage in Twitter shenan-
igans in four ways: hashtag creation, hashtag hijacking, zombie tweets, and
mimicking profiles.
Hashtag creation
The pro-government youth group members create hashtags to troll and
attack particular individuals. Opposition journalist Khadija Ismayliova
97 Tamara A. Small. 2011. “What the Hashtag?” Information, Communication & Society 14
(6) (September 19): 872–895. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2011.554572.
98 Raquel Recuero and Ricardo Araujo. 2012. “On the Rise of Artificial Trending Topics in
Twitter.” In Proceedings of the 23rd ACM Conference on Hypertext and Social Media - HT
’12, 305. New York, New York, USA: ACM Press. doi:10.1145/2309996.2310046.
58 Demokratizatsiya
was the victim of “Shame on Khadija” #khadijautan.99 The pro-govern-
ment youth group chairman proudly displayed the large reach that the
anti-Ismayilova hashtag and that a hashtag campaign against an opposition
youth group, N!DA, had, according to their analytics (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Analytics for a Hashtag creation campaign.
Hashtags attacking the detained N!DA members and asking Ruslan
Asad about his military service (described in the article by Pearce and
Hajizada, this issue) were created and similarly celebrated.
Hashtag hijacking
When a hashtag is proposed for an event or topic, the intention is for a
community of users to share information with each other. When a hashtag
is hijacked, a group of individuals “take over” a hashtag by posting
messages unrelated to the “spirit” of the hashtag as an information
resource and conversation. For example, #armvote13 was about reports
of election violations and election results, and people were using it to
write things against Armenia and Armenians. The pro-government youth
group engaged in hashtag hijacking for all of the 2013 protests,100 and
election in Azerbaijan,101 as well as two hashtags of interest to Armenians,
#armvote13102, and #armeniangenocide,103 to varying degrees of success.
99 http://www.katypearce.net/khadijautan-update/
100 http://www.katypearce.net/protestbaku-now-that-the-weekend-is-over-what-happened/
101 http://www.katypearce.net/shenanagins-again-and-again/
102 http://www.katypearce.net/armvote13-hashtag-got-taken-over-looks-suspicious/
103 http://www.katypearce.net/why-is-it-impossible-to-hijack-armeniangenocide-on-twitter-
Social Media in Azerbaijan
59
By taking over hashtags, the pro-government youth groups can destroy the
affordances that Twitter provides. For example, during a protest Twitter can
serve promotional purposes, give locationally situated information (such as
police presence), and allow for live reporting.104 Hijacking damages these
affordances and takes the alleged power of social media back. Thus, this
is another example of controlling information flow as a tool.
Zombie tweets
To get high numbers of users on a hashtag or hijack an existing hashtag,
the pro-government youth group has had to coordinate its members to use
the hashtag and tweet on it. First, it appears that the pro-government youth
group members are either directed to tweet statements or, more likely, that
someone at the pro-government youth group has control (password access)
of members’ Twitter accounts. In the images reproduced in Figure 3, you
can see that the same text was posted on Twitter by multiple accounts, only
a few minutes apart or even at the exact same time. This is indicative of
a Twitter client or service that allows for massive posting from multiple
accounts nearly simultaneously. (Tweets in gray are exact duplicates). This
differs from “retweeting”, where a message is intentionally duplicated, but
with attribution to the original.
The second technique that the pro-government youth group uses is
to create or purchase fake Twitter accounts (not an uncommon practice
globally105) to both tweet messages on a particular hashtag and to “follow”
the pro-government youth group users in order to make it appear that they
have a larger audience than they actually have.
hye-jack/
104 Jennifer Earl, Heather McKee Hurwitz, Analicia Mejia Mesinas, Margaret Tolan, and Ash-
ley Arlotti. 2013. Information, Communication & Society 16 (4) (May 21): 459–478. doi:10.
1080/1369118X.2013.777756 and J. Penney, and C. Dadas. 2013. “(Re)Tweeting in the Ser-
vice of Protest: Digital Composition and Circulation in the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”
New Media & Society (March 15): 1461444813479593–. doi:10.1177/1461444813479593.
105 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/fashion/twitter-followers-for-sale.html?_r=0
60 Demokratizatsiya
Figure 3 Evidence of zombie tweets.
Figure 4 tracks the pro-government youth group’s chairman’s
personal Twitter account. On the day before April 24, Armenian Genocide
Memorial Day, his Twitter followers tripled.
Social Media in Azerbaijan
61
Figure 4. Evidence of an artificial increase in the number of followers
An analysis of his followers (see Figure 5) showed that the majority
are obviously fake accounts. Normally Twitter users have written at least
one tweet and follow some people. Furthermore, no native English speaker
would write his or her location as CANADA, Regina or USA, Connecticut.
(The second column is number of followers, the third is number of tweets.)
Created accounts are also common. In an analysis of the October
2013 Azerbaijani presidential election hashtag, created accounts were
found. In February 2013, hundreds of accounts were created within
minutes of each other. These accounts were tweeting the same messages at
the exact same time. Moreover, a reverse image search of the profile photo-
graphs of these created users determined that the images were found to be
freely available on the Internet and used on dozens of different websites,
associated with multiple countries and names.106
Mimicking profiles
Perhaps the most creative Twitter shenanigans that the Azerbaijani govern-
ment and its allies has engaged in is creating Twitter profiles that mimic the
profiles of some of the most popular opposition Twitter users.
106 http://www.katypearce.net/shenanagins-again-and-again/
62 Demokratizatsiya
Figure 5. Evidence of fake Twitter accounts
During the March 10 protest, opposition activists Emin Milli, with
the Twitter username of @eminmilli and Adnan Hajizada, with the Twitter
username of @fuserlimon, were tweeting posts with the hashtag #protest-
baku, retweeting Twitter posts from their friends, and writing @replies to
other users. After a few hours and some tweets from both of these men
that seemed odd, other Twitter users realized that the accounts were not
Milli and Hajizada, but rather mimicking accounts with @eminmiili and
@fuserlemon. (Both with significantly fewer followers than the men’s
real Twitter accounts have.) However, with the exact photographs in their
Twitter profiles and only one letter different, it was easy to fool others
(See Figure 6).
Social Media in Azerbaijan
63
Figure 6. A fake Twitter Account
64 Demokratizatsiya
Kompromat
Kompromat, meaning “compromising material” or “blackmail files,”
“refers to discrediting information that can be collected, stored, traded,
or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, profes-
sional, judicial, media, or business.”107 Kompromat can be character
assassination, blackmail, and manipulation of public opinion. Today
it usually implies unsubstantiated or unproven damaging information.
Szilagyi further defines kompromat as information with intent to denounce,
expose, unmask, slander, destroy, or neutralize. Kompromat functions as
a commodity for mass consumption, as a weapon to destroy opponents,
and for bargaining and blackmail. Ledeneva finds that about 90% of
kompromat is perceived as fabricated, yet it remains a popular political
technique.108
Ledeneva’s typology of kompromat includes political, economic,
criminal, and private.
Political kompromat consists of political activities such as abuse
of power, relationships with oligarchs, or political disloyalty. Economic
kompromat includes misappropriation of budget funds, embezzlement,
and bribery. Criminal kompromat includes ties to organized crime,
contract violence and killings, and spying. Private kompromat includes
illegal income, sexual behavior and orientation, unpopular ideologies, and
family member misbehavior. Private kompromat, according to Ledeneva,
is the most effective because of the strong social prejudice against these
activities.109
Kompromat is nothing new in Azerbaijan, but the Internet provides
an effective and fast channel for kompromat dissemination. While kompro-
mat has been disseminated in various ways, in late April 2013, the website
http://www.ictimaipalatka.com/ and in early May 2013, http://www.
gelherekati.com opened with the exclusive task of kompromat dissemi-
nation. Registered under a seemingly fake name for Ictimai Palataka and
with a privacy service for Gel Here Kati, these sites are updated multiple
times a day with videos, photographs, and cartoons, many of a sexual
nature, featuring opposition members. The production quality is very high.
The “sex tape” videos appear to be either coincidental lookalikes or hired
lookalikes. The photographs appear to be photoshopped, but look fairly
professional.
107 Alena Ledeneva. 2006. How Russia Really Works. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
108 Ledeneva. 2006. How Russia Really Works..
109 Ledeneva 2006. How Russia Really Works.
Social Media in Azerbaijan
65
Impact of Government Control of the Internet
The Azerbaijani government effectively controls the Internet by focusing
on second and third generation means of control. By using psychological
techniques as well as selectively punishing online dissent, it creates an
environment of self-censorship. By not engaging in a great deal of first
generation controls, the government can claim that it is not blocking access
to content. Yet, second and third generation controls are likely more effec-
tive because of the psychological effect and creation of a self-censoring
user base. Trolling is a particularly effective means of controlling and
deterring dissent in Azerbaijan, in part because there is little that a target
can do about it. The government’s co-opting of some of the social media
strategies of the opposition may continue beyond memes and trolling.
While GONGOs have less need for fundraising than opposition groups do,
activities like the pro-government youth group’s social media academy110
demonstrate that there is increased interest in using social media. And
certainly, as Internet penetration grows in Azerbaijan, opportunities for
citizens to demonstrate their loyalty online will continue.
Currently the psychological techniques and selective punishment are
working in the Azerbaijani government’s favor. However, if Internet use
continues to grow, it may need to increase either the quantity or type of
those punished or deepen the punishments. While the “Donkey Blogger”
case possibly had a slight negative impact on the global public opinion of
Azerbaijan, it did little to deter the government from further punishment of
online dissent. With the adoption of the new online defamation law, there
may be no need for a “cover story” of hooliganism or drug use because
the online action itself can be punished. It remains to be seen if this new
law will increase sentences for online actions, but certainly it provide an
easier path for taking such action.
Conclusion
Azerbaijan is a unique case for understanding the political use of the
Internet because, while it is the primary space that the opposition has to
disseminate information (to varying degrees of success), the government
responds with a multilevel system of control, with a particular focus on
effective psychological means of control. This article is not meant to be a
case study of the failure of the Internet as a tool for democratization, but
rather points out that, as Oates argues, “[U]nderstanding how particular
nations harness the power of the Internet illuminates how national power
can limit the international potential of a communications technology.”111
110 http://news.az/articles/society/76906 and
http://ireli.az/en/announcements/20130530043807690.html
111 Sarah Oates. 2013. Revolution Stalled: The Political Limits of the Internet in the Post-So-
viet Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 26-27
66 Demokratizatsiya
It is important to note that the third generation tools of control used
by the government are often focused on those engaged in connective
action. It is possible that these new action networks are more difficult, even
frustrating, for the Azerbaijani government to deal with. The government
knows how to understand the traditional opposition parties and has an
infrastructure for managing the opposition. With connective action-en-
abled networks, there is much greater uncertainty about motivations,
behaviors, activities, and future prospects. It is perhaps because of this
that the government has become increasingly heavy handed in its control
of the digital space – including offline punishments for online activities.
The existing and likely growing potential for conflict between the
traditional opposition organizations and the connective action organiza-
tions could provide an opportunity for the government to exploit these
divisions and further fracture the opposition and weaken all the groups.
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