In the 12 April instalment of its Facebook loophole series, journalist Julia Carrie Wong describes how a simple user loophole is manipulated in smaller, poorer countries to fake online engagement.
Azerbaijan is one of 25 countries found guilty of major abuses on the social media platform.
The Guardian exposé follows hot on the heels of a leaked internal memo by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, in which she outlined concrete examples of how Facebook “repeatedly allowed world leaders and politicians to use its platform to deceive the public”.
Zhang was fired in September 2020. On her final day, she published the memo internally, which was first reported by Buzzfeed.
One of the examples described in Zhang’s memo deals with Azerbaijan, where, she says, the ruling party Yeni Azərbaycan “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets (…) to harass the opposition en masse” in 2019.
The main loophole exploited by the Azerbaijani party is the fact that while Facebook restricts the number of profiles a single user can administer, it imposes no comparable restriction on pages.
#blogger Mehman Huseynov and public #activist Ulvi Hasanli were detained today by the #police in the Absheron region, Huseynov wrote about this on his page in #Facebook#Azerbaijan #Baku #news https://t.co/z9qd6SzxGr
— AzeriWatchdog (@WatchdogAze) March 14, 2021
That means that a single person can administrate thousands of pages, and those are able to perform the same kinds of engagements — such as liking, sharing, and commenting — as personal profiles.
“(…) The individuals behind this activity (…) primarily relied on authentic accounts to create Pages designed to look like user profiles — using false names and stock images — to comment and artificially boost the popularity of particular pro-government content,” the memo stated.
Despite warnings, Zhang says Facebook only started looking into the Azerbaijan case a year later, in October of 2020, when it announced the removal of 589 profiles, 7,665 pages, and 437 accounts on Instagram that were linked to the ruling party or its youth branch.
According to Facebook, these accounts violated its policy on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” which, in plain English, are meant to “manipulate public debate” across its apps.
However, according to recent reports by Azerbaijan Internet Watch, which monitors online censorship in Azerbaijan, the problem continues to this day.
— McEwan 3.5% FBPE DoGooder (@McEwanMorton) April 13, 2021
In February 2021, Meydan TV, an independent Berlin-based news website, posted a call for applications for a program aimed at Azerbaijani content creators to produce thematic media pieces on cultural and political issues about the country.
The infographic received over 1,600 comments, many of them negative. Once again, a closer look revealed that most of them came from “inauthentic” pages.
Facebook’s most recent report on coordinated inauthentic behaviour was issued in March 2021. Azerbaijan was not mentioned on the list of countries where inauthentic networks had been taken down.
The government of Azerbaijan has long been exploiting social media platforms, especially Facebook, to target critics both at home and abroad.
Feminist activist Narmin Shahmarzade’s #facebook page hijacked after her detention by #Azerbaijan police on #WomensDay someone changed her name to an insulting slur, wrote disgusting things in her bio, shared personal info. I disagree with some of her views but this is a crime. pic.twitter.com/0mIHQhwlsG
— düzdanışaq 🇺🇸🇦🇿 (@duzdanisaq) March 10, 2021
Ahead of a 2106 referendum that opposition groups were boycotting, a live broadcast by Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s service in Azerbaijan) and Meydan TV was heavily spammed in what later was found to have been a coordinated attack connected to the ruling party.
Azerbaijan’s track record on human rights and freedom of expression is poor, according to annual rankings and indexes published by international human rights and media freedom watchdogs.
Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index ranked the country 167th out of 180.
@FrankPallone & @RepAdamSchiff you just co-sponsored #HR537 to sanction #Azerbaijan officials for #HumanRights violations. When can we expect a vote on this important legislation? The regime constantly violates #PressFreedom and the number of deaths from torture spiked this year! pic.twitter.com/bW9BMkB50S
— Danny Burns (@sanduskyburns) February 21, 2018
Freedom House classifies Azerbaijan as a “consolidated authoritarian regime”.
Much of Azerbaijan’s independent media and civil society has been silent since 2014, in response to growing state repression.
Social media platforms are among the few remaining avenues for activists to organise and for the public to stay informed about news in the country.
While Facebook may be resolving cases of abuse in countries like the United States, it continues to disrupt democracy in poorer countries like Azerbaijan.
Editor’s note: The author of this story is the founder of Azerbaijan Internet Watch. She was interviewed by The Guardian for its Facebook loopholes series.