As South Caucasus rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan battle over a breakaway region at the heart of a long-running ethnic and territorial dispute, supporters of the two countries are fighting on another front that may have even more impact on the final outcome: the battle for online supremacy.
The two camps and their respective diaspora communities are rallying international support and apparently even resorting to the deployment of bots in their attempts to dominate the narrative of the conflict that has stoked fervors among the feuding nations and their peoples.
“I think I wouldn’t be overestimating by saying every Armenian in the world is disturbed by this, is moved by this and is in action having to do with this,” award-winning Armenian-American singer-songwriter Serj Tankian told Newsweek.
Tankian, who was born among the sizable Armenian diaspora community in Lebanon before moving to Los Angeles at a young age, has long been outspoken in his political views. But when it comes to his homeland being under attack, he’s mobilized his fame to raise funds, spread awareness and counter what he sees as misinformation being disseminated about the roots of the century-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the current crisis.
And he’s not worried about alienating fans of his music.
“I was an activist before becoming an artist, and I’ve never had to negotiate the truth, through my music or through my mouth in talking about it,” Tankian told Newsweek. “If I have to do that now, then I should get into another business.”
At the center of the latest eruption of violence, which Tankian calls an “all-out war,” is the tiny self-declared separatist state of Artsakh, located in a region called Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is largely inhabited by Christian ethnic Armenians but international law recognizes the territory as part of Azerbaijan, a larger, majority Shiite Muslim nation that surrounds it. With close support from Turkey, the modern successor to the Ottomans accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians around the time of World War I, Azerbaijan seeks to assert control over the former autonomous Soviet province.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought on numerous occasions since the breakup of the Russian Empire, with their deadliest match to date being the war that began amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. While audiences at home and abroad largely relied on first-hand accounts and newsreels to follow the events of previous conflicts here, the clashes ongoing since late last month have been broadcast by dueling online forces.
It’s in this politically charged environment that Tankian and other high-profile Armenian-Americans such as superstar Kim Kardashian West along with family members, filmmaker Eric Esrailian, Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian, pop icon Cher (real name Cherilyn Sarkisian) are speaking out. To them, there’s no question as to who the aggressor is in the conflict.
“We’re trying to make sure we put enough pressure on our political institutions around the world where Armenians live in the diaspora, to get rid of this false parity that the disinformation campaign started with on the Turkish side,” Tankian told Newsweek. “It’s a lot of work.”
He said the goals of the opposing sides are radically unequal.
“For Armenians, this war is not about land,” Tankian told Newsweek. “It’s about an existential threat to our existence.”
Robert Avetisyan, who acts as the permanent representative to the United States from the self-declared Artsakh Republic, offered a similar depiction of the situation in his recent interview with Newsweek, conducted as rockets fell near his position at the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert.
He expressed his gratitude for the overwhelming support from Armenians around the world who have sent tens of millions of dollars to organizations such as the Hayastan All Armenian Fund.
“The motivation of a nation of survivors will eventually beat everything,” Avetisyan told Newsweek. “We feel that support by our communities, by our compatriots around the globe, we feel that and we appreciate it and, of course, it is a strength.”
Armenia is a country of about three million people and a diaspora community of some seven million more living in just about every corner of the Earth, owing largely to the systematic Ottoman campaign that scattered survivors about a hundred years ago.
As a whole, the global Azerbaijani population outnumbers Armenians by at least three to one. And Azerbaijan likewise enjoys robust support from its communities living abroad.
The man in charge of coordinating these Azerbaijani efforts is Fuad Muradov, chairman of the State Committee on Work with Diaspora. He told Newsweek that international Azerbaijanis too are mustering support around their position.
“Worrying about their motherland and relatives, Azerbaijani diaspora members from Europe to America, from the Near East to Russia, raised their voices against the Armenian aggression, which has lasted nearly 30 years,” Muradov said.
“Furthermore,” he argued, “they also protested against some politicians and media who unjustifiably supported Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan and distorted the information in favor of illegitimate activities of Armenia.”
Just as protests have emerged in dozens of countries in support of Armenia, Azerbaijanis too have taken to the streets, some waving Turkish and even Israeli flags along with their national one in a display of the international nature of the conflict.
When it comes to virtual representations, however, Muradov cautioned against the dissemination of “fake information.” He issued an appeal, saying countries and their media “must avoid being used by Armenian lobbyists and must align with justice which is in the interest of all nations.”
But the surge in social media activity on both sides of the conflict has raised alarms for some experts, who warn of artificial efforts to shape public perception of what’s happening on the ground.
“Both anti-Armenian and anti-Azerbaijani hashtags seem to indicate a high likelihood of bot-like activity or troll farms,” Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University told Newsweek. “This is due to the fact that there are an incredibly high number of new accounts created in September and October 2020, after the conflict escalated.”
His analysis, shared with Newsweek, showed 7,941 instances of the hashtag #stoparmenianaggression since 2007, most of which had been created either in the wake of the latest flare-up or an earlier exchange of hostilities in July of this year.
Another hashtag, #dontbelievearmenia was tweeted some 400,000 times.
And even more unique accounts have cropped up backing the opposing hashtag #stopazerbaijaniaggression. Since 2007, some 14,660 unique Twitter accounts have used the phrase, also largely only since the latest fighting broke out.
The analysis was based on sample figures, he explained, meaning the actual number of accounts involvde was likely much higher.
“Of course it makes sense that those Armenians opposing Azerbaijan may turn to Twitter at the outbreak of a conflict to express support, especially with a countrywide mobilization, although such spikes are often indicative of inauthentic activity,” Jones told Newsweek. “We have seen similar spikes in other conflicts that were clearly inauthentic accounts.”
Speaking to the phenomenon of such rival social media campaigns, Azerbaijani ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov also acknowledged the organic support both Armenians and Azerbaijanis had for their respective countries, while casting some doubt on the veracity of their messaging.
He warned against the establishment of “a parallel universe of fake news” and likened this rapid replication of ideological content to the propaganda he recalled from the times of Soviet rule over the two countries.
“Emotional support, sharing the ideas, sharing the videos, all this that, of course, is inevitable, that’s a good thing,” Suleymanov told Newsweek. “People are involved. Azerbaijan and our friends are supportive, and they’re very passionate. Of course, Armenians have a passion, that’s understandable.”
“But for mainstream media, everything should be taken with a grain of salt,” he warned. “They should look at the reality.”
Yet here too separate realities were constructed by the opposite sides. Suleymanov was adamant that Armenia was responsible for not only sparking the latest aggressions but also for targeting civilians.
“The reality is that Azerbaijan is fighting on its own territory, that Azerbaijani civilians have died daily because Armenia is targeting civilians, including children,” he said. “It’s well documented in evidence.”
His counterpart from Armenia disagreed. Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan told Newsweek that it was Azerbaijan and Turkey using lobbies to present “false narratives” about the war and what’s at stake.
“On social media, whatever we present or the Armenian-American diaspora presents, it just derives from the real concerns about the situation and they try to bring their perspective,” he said. “For us, this is not a nationalist matter, this is a human rights matter.”
Some social media sites have taken matters into their own hands. Facebook announced on Thursday it took down 589 Facebook accounts, 7,906 Pages and 447 Instagram accounts as part of a “coordinated inauthentic behavior” operation based in Azerbaijan.
“Their comments frequently touched on local and regional news and events, politics, government policies, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s actions during past escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh, praise of President Ilham Aliev and the New Azerbaijani Party, criticism of the opposition party and leaders accusing them of treason, and denials of human rights abuse allegations in Azerbaijan,” Facebook security chief Nathaniel Gleicher said in a report.
The company linked the operation to the Youth Union of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party.
Online narratives have been further distorted by anomalies in access to social media. Internet censorship monitor NetBlocks shared information with Newsweek indicating recent service disruptions around the Nagorno-Karabakh region that coincided with heavy shelling in the area, as well as a mass outage affecting the whole of Azerbaijan, a development that the site described as “targeted internet censorship.”
Today’s digital battlefield knows no borders, but Tankian says there’s no “no f–king comparison” when it comes to the information landscapes of the two countries. Still, sitting thousands of miles away in his residence in New Zealand, Tankian appealed for those with access to read up on the underlying causes of the conflict and the current events so that they can understand the best ways to end it.
“Don’t take my word for it,” Tankian told Newsweek. “You’re in a free country, we’re in a free country, do your own research, look into it, agree, disagree, whatever.”
And despite acknowledging that there are many views of the conflict, he hopes one common goal emerges.
“The important thing is to intervene and stop this immediately,” Tankian said. “We want this to end, we want this to end in peace immediately, as soon as possible.”
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