Disinformation as a weapon of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict
The escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in July 2020 was not limited to the military operations, as the disinformation campaigns were also run simultaneously by both sides. During the active phase of the conflict, Armenian media experts continuously warned social media users about the threat of hacker attacks and the spread of disinformation by various sources.
On July 12, 2020, armed clashes broke out on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. As a result of active hostilities which lasted for five days, 5 five casualties have been reported on the Armenian side and 12 on the side of Azerbaijan. Relations between the countries remain tense due to the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
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The use of bots
During the escalation at the border, bots had emerged as the novel tool of disinformation, and, shortly after, the Tavush bot page appeared on the web.
Information security specialist Samvel Martirosyan claims that the page tried to spread disinformation on behalf of the administration of the border region of Tavush, where the armed clashes were taking place. The experts simply contacted the governor’s team to find out if the Tavush bot had anything to do with the local government:
“Never before have I come across such bots being used by Azerbaijan [bots are usually used to spread fake news]. When the governor’s team denied their connection to the page, the bot reported on the attempted spy operation and the spreading of propaganda. It was obvious that external forces were involved in the creation and management of this bot”.
Use of personal data
Media expert Samvel Martirosyan also cites leaking of personal data that began back in June, more specifically the personal data of people who got infected with the coronavirus, those who have come into contact with them, as well as the personal data of customers of a local credit institution.
“In fact, the data of about 10,000 people were released to a public domain. Telephone numbers were also leaked and it is assumed they were later used to carry out telephone terror on WhatsApp and Viber”, says Martirosyan.
One of the newest forms of disinformation campaigns is the distribution of SMS messages with false information to mobile subscribers.
Azerbaijani hackers sent a message on behalf of the Armenian Defense Ministry stating that, allegedly, “the situation at the border is tense, and the army is suffering major losses”.
Those who were more attentive noticed that the message was written in Latin letters and with a number of errors, which has raised suspicions since the Armenian Defense Ministry always uses the Armenian script when sending messages.
The prime minister’s office denied the information spread in the text messages and the Department of Defense sent out an SMS urging people to only trust the official sources.
Misinterpretation of videos
Another attempt at spreading disinformation was the false interpretations of real videos.
Azerbaijan tried to portray the arrest of the founder of the VETO movement Narek Malyan, a radical activist who harshly criticized the activities of the Open Society Foundation and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention as the arrest of an Armenian officer who had allegedly fled the front.
At the time of the arrest depicted on camera, Narek Malyan’s outfit looked similar to the uniforms of the Armenian servicemen.
How was the information evaluated?
David Torosyan, coordinator of the Banak.info website (banak means “army” in Armenian) says sometimes it was enough to use Google or Yandex search engines:
“For example, on one occasion, a photo of the bombing in Syria was used to represent the “losses” on the Armenian side.
In order to make sure that the photo had nothing to do with the events at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, we used Yandex image search.
Another time, the Azeri website Haqqin.az published a video that allegedly showed a car carrying Armenian soldiers being blown up.
With the help of the same search engines – Google and Yandex – we managed to find out that this video had been circulating on the Internet since 2019 and that it was filmed in Afghanistan”.
However, there were also times when it was not at all easy for people to check the information, says the coordinator of the Banak.info website David Torosyan:
“Having hacked the databases of local mobile operators, on behalf of mil.am, that is, and the official website of the Armenian Defense Ministry, at four or five in the morning, when people were mostly asleep, they sent out messages translated with the help of online translators – with obvious errors. The messages stated that military operations were underway, and volunteers were needed to defend the homeland. Those who could not fight were encouraged to go and donate blood. Messages like this at this time of day cause even more panic and at that time it was difficult to check whether it was true or not”.
Media experts promptly responded to almost all cases of disinformation.
One of those who immediately informed the public about the spread of disinformation was the information security specialist Samvel Martirosyan, who has a large number of Facebook followers.
He was the first to publish a screenshot from the page of an Armenian social media user who was subjected to a hacker attack. Fake information about the losses of the Armenian side and reports of the Armenian government concealing accurate figures had already been posted on the user’s page.
Editor-in-chief of the Armenian edition of Mediamax David Alaverdyan says:
“Now we have a rough idea of what type of information warfare awaits us in the event of a large-scale war and what tools will be used in this case”.
Traditional weapon of disinformation
During the events in Tavush events, the traditional weapon of disinformation was also used, specifically the DDOS attacks on the websites of media, non-governmental organizations, official pages of government departments such as gov.am, primeminister.am, mfa.am, ena.am, Hetq.am, Tert. am and others.
Information security experts believe that all of the attacks were carefully planned beforehand.
The organized and coordinated actions of Azerbaijan had a certain focus, says Artur Papyan, co-founder of the Cyberhub organization, which is engaged in consulting on the matters of information security:
“Their goal was to prevent the Armenian side from bringing information to the international media by disrupting the work of Armenian officials and news sites, as well as to introduce Baku’s point of view into the international news segment through hashtags on Twitter, and publications in Russian outlets that voiced the position of Azerbaijan”.
According to experts, during the course of the information war, which took place in parallel with the military actions at the border, shortcomings in the field of information security of Armenia became obvious.
One of the main challenges was to ensure coordinated and stable cybersecurity. The need for better protection of both individual and personal data and data owned or controlled by various government agencies has become apparent.
“Armenia doesn’t just have to improve its defense from time to time. It is necessary to conduct constant work to maintain the security of both the websites of government departments and private websites”, said David Alaverdyan, an expert on information security.
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