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While Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, their citizens battled on social media

Social media rhetoric from politicians, citizens and others helped influence political moves.

- December 3, 2020

Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to cease fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory in the South Caucasus. Over a six-week period, the worst fighting in decades left thousands dead.

A Moscow-facilitated cease-fire last month has brought Russian peacekeeping forces — and increased Russian influence. Azerbaijan took back territory Armenia had held since the 1990s, leaving Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan politically vulnerable after discontent with how he handled the war and the cease-fire.

Social media played a significant role in the way that Armenians and Azerbaijanis experienced this year’s brief war. Globally, people could follow military movements, drone footage, respond to statements by authorities and discuss the events. All of this activity provided leaders with instant public opinion that informed decisions.

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Whose social media approach worked?

Armenia’s leaders have long been active and accessible online, especially in the 2018 democratic revolution that brought Prime Minister Pashinyan to power. But Pashinyan’s casual approach to social media may have led to muddled posts about the conflict. And there was a lack of coordination between Armenian authorities’ messaging that provided opportunities for misinformation to spread.

Conversely, the Azerbaijani leadership simply blocked or slowed access to social media platforms others during the entire six-week period, stating this was “in order to prevent large-scale Armenian provocations.” Savvy users quickly discovered VPNs to bypass the restrictions.

Azerbaijani officials in the past treated social media as a formal PR channel, copy/pasting speeches into dozens of tweets, posting routine political publicity content to Instagram and TikTok. During this six weeks of war, however, officials used sophisticated graphics as well as informal authentic videos, demonstrating a better understanding of audience and platform norms.

The Azerbaijan government made a noticeable push to use Twitter — the only unblocked platform. President Ilham Aliyev used Twitter to announce regained territories and then reposted the tweet to Instagram, Facebook and city billboards. It’s not clear why the focus was on Twitter, a platform that is not popular in Azerbaijan. One explanation is that Twitter meets the regime’s surveillance and information control needs — and may afford opportunities to coordinate propaganda and harassment campaigns, create multiple and fake accounts, and automate content monitoring. One analyst suggested that Aliyev is modeling President Trump’s Twitter success.

The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is about local territories and wider rivalries

Both sides experienced context collapse, whereby social media content goes beyond its intended audience. Specifically, domestic messaging was visible to international and enemy audiences. Both governments and their peoples responded to “rhetoric intended for domestic consumption,” finding “comfort in the populist and extremist public utterances of the other’s leader to justify their lack of readiness to make concessions,” historian Jirair Libaridian notes. Indeed, Pashinyan’s inexperience exacerbated the conflict. One example, according to some analysts, was when he was seen dancing at an event in a city with cultural meaning to Azerbaijanis.

How much misinformation was there?

Misinformation in post-Soviet regimes is customary. But the brief resumption of war provided further opportunities for misinformation to spread, as well as deliberately false disinformation. With emotions running high, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were more likely to believe information that confirmed their beliefs.

Newer, more private channels on Telegram and WhatsApp emerged. On these platforms, there is likely less content moderation and fewer corrections. With the lack of independent media in Azerbaijan, the effect of misinformation and disinformation is greater.

There were “bots” — automated online accounts — spreading both misinformation and government disinformation, but there were also real people who were copy/pasting talking points or writing their sincere opinions.

Many outside the region chimed in on the situation

People are acutely aware that what they post on social media — particularly when it comes to political expression — often finds broad and sometimes unintended audiences. Armenian and Azerbaijani nationalism is what social scientists call “affective,” in that emotions in both countries are embedded within national and patriotic practices.

Social media content in recent weeks followed suit, with few people in either country deviating from expressing strong nationalism and patriotism when posting on social media. Individuals and businesses on both sides posted emotionally laden pro-war messages and shared footage from the front, suggesting perceived widespread support for the war within each country.

The quantity of patriotic posts is likely to have helped silence other viewpoints — the few who did disclose antiwar beliefs were promptly and severely attacked by their own people. These attacks extended to foreigners — journalists, conflict resolution professionals, conflict bloggers, diplomats and celebrities — who voiced an opinion against the war or, in some cases, remained neutral.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis in country and those who have settled elsewhere have long battled on social media, and this escalated during the war. Posting patriotic content, lambasting dissenters and online spats with “the enemy” allowed people to do something about the war.

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This type of amplification, as communication scholar Zizi Papacharissi explains, happens when people feel connected and mobilized on social media. For Armenians and Azerbaijanis, whether still in the region or part of the wider diaspora, social media provided a way to participate, and feel engaged.

What did the public think about the war?

For both Aliyev and Pashinyan, social media served as a way to gauge public opinion, float trial balloons and demonstrate quantitatively how beloved they want people to believe they are.

It’s likely Aliyev felt bolstered by widespread support on social media, including from opposition parties. There has been a notable change in Aliyev’s response to social media complaints, which he used to ignore. He publicly responded to Azerbaijanis’ online concerns to both the war and other recent socioeconomic woes.

In Armenia, on the other hand, the public was supportive of the war but did not shy away from commenting upon tactical decisions. Pashinyan’s social media posts were largely defensive, addressing the thousands of armchair generals and diplomats. Other Armenian leaders are now using social media to build a case for Pashiniyan’s resignation.

Of course, social media influencers and the broader public don’t sit in the war cabinets. But in the 21st century, concern for how social media might respond to wartime tactics has become part of these leaders’ normal operations.

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Katy Pearce (@katypearce) is an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on technology and inequality in Armenia and Azerbaijan.