The rapid escalation in the long-running conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which began in late September 2020, has been shadowed by a battle across social media for control of the international narrative about the conflict.
In this latest report from ASPI's International Cyber Policy Centre (ICPC), researchers have found large numbers of Twitter accounts supporting both sides wading in on politicised hashtags linked to the conflict. The findings indicate large-scale coordinated activity. While much of this behaviour is likely to be authentic, our analysis has also found a significant amount of suspicious and potentially inauthentic behaviour. This activity is occurring in the context of long-running information campaigns on both sides.
Beyond the two combatant states, actors well outside the geographical scope of the conflict also appear to be getting involved. In an echo of Turkey and Pakistan's support for Azerbaijan in the conflict on the ground, Turkish and Pakistani accounts, some of which also appear likely to be inauthentic, have also been engaging in English-language skirmishes online. On the other side, Indian accounts have been pushing back with hashtags such as #IndiaStandWithArmenia.
Other activity includes engaging with the Twitter accounts of US celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and her partner Kanye West, in an attempt to enlist their support for Armenia, and targeting of international media outlets such as the BBC.
To be clear: some proportion of this shadow battle is undoubtedly authentic. Many people around the world have strong opinions on this conflict and are engaging in the debate online. Distinguishing real people from inauthentic or 'bot' accounts is challenging in the best of times, and emerging crises and conflicts can drive real users to behave in unusual ways, making it even more complicated than normal.
However, it does appear likely that there is a level of inauthentic activity on both sides of the conflict. ICPC researchers are not attempting a comprehensive analysis (which will require more time and resources) and not seeking to fact-check content. They are working swiftly, in particular, seeking to capture data before the evidence is lost to researchers as a result of Twitter's content moderation. The report focuses primarily on English-language activity, but it is important to note that similar activity is likely to be taking place in a variety of other languages.
The goal of this research piece is therefore to observe and document some of the early dynamics of the information battle playing out in parallel to the conflict on the ground and create a basis for further, more comprehensive research. This report is in no way intended to undermine the legitimacy of authentic social media conversations and debate taking place on all sides of the conflict.
Click here for the full report (30 PDF pages), on the ASPI website.