“One day Facebook suggested I befriend someone with the same first and last name as me. It seemed odd to me because it was the first time that I met a person with the same name and surname,” recalls Leyla Humbatova (not her real name).
“I checked the account and was surprised to see that we shared the same workplace. I understood right away that someone created this account using my name. I reviewed my friendship list and found that a colleague created this fake account.”
Leyla’s encounter with identity theft was relatively brief and harmless—she confronted her colleague, and the fake account was deleted. But her story is far from unique.
In April, The Guardian published a report on how the Azerbaijani ruling party uses bots, fake accounts and trolls to badger critics and spread fake news on Facebook.
The report noted how the ruling party, New Azerbaijan Party, was able to circumvent a ban by Facebook over its use of bots. In October 2020 Facebook removed over 8,000 accounts and pages from Facebook and Instagram connected to the party.
But by April, most of the bot activity had resumed, allowing “an authoritarian regime to drown out debate on one of the only venues for free expression available in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that ranks 168th out of 180 countries on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index,” according to The Guardian.
While the New Azerbaijan Party has denied the charges, other independent studies have uncovered similar tales of bots, fake accounts and identity theft.
“The comments sections of YouTube videos posted to OsmanqiziTV, MeydanTV, and other critical channels are full of comments from people with fake names and accounts,” stated a July 2019 report from the Index on Censorship, republished by Freedom House.
“These comments often contain threats, insults, inane arguments or praise for the ruling regime.”
The Guardian found that bots were responsible for 97.7 percent of the comments on a post on the Facebook page of independent media outlet Azad Soz. Bots and trolls also deluge government critics with comments that “stymies online debate” and could scare others from speaking out, according to The Guardian.
On a basic level, the bots make it harder for people to get real information, according to Habib Muntazir, the co-founder of the government-critical Meydan TV, a popular target for bots and trolls.
"Bots and trolls have the effect of spreading lies and misinformation and getting people used to such news, thereby spreading this misinformation," he says.
Habib stressed that the bots serve to play down the political stories people should know about, and make people question why they should care about politics at all.
Leyla recalls that her brush with identity theft coincided with the 2015 parliamentary election.
“My colleague created a fake profile in my name during the elections to write comments in support of the New Azerbaijan Party (NAP) through this fake account,” she says. “She was assistant to the deputy director. I thought that the deputy director instructed her to do this… In public institutions, employees are usually very afraid of being sacked, so they agree. [The ruling party can also] demand that managers create fake profiles in the name of employees and write flattering comments in favor of the NAP.”
In addition to local and national politics, the trolls and bots actively post pro-government comments about the conflict with Armenia, a hot-button issue in Azerbaijan.
But some observers doubt that the bots really influence Azerbaijani politics or voters.
Javid Agha, a technology expert, believes that paying for bots has become an easy way for officials and bureaucrats to make it look like they are drumming up public support for the ruling party.
In reality, however, he argues their real impact is limited. “As they are just tools, they cannot guide politics. I think they use it just to get funds from the budget,” he says.
Meydan TV’s Habib Muntazir agrees that one tangible result of the bots is that it inflates the number of people who support the ruling party. “The party spends so much money because it makes it look like they have fans, but they are all fakes," he says.
Take, for instance, Facebook user Habiba Suleymanli, who has written strongly in favor of President Ilham Aliyev. “Every person appointed to a high position must follow in the footsteps of our President and serve the people with dignity. If he fails to do so, there is no way he will be able to keep his position,” she posted. The problem, however, is that she doesn’t exist. Her account was created with a photo pulled from the Instagram account of Russian journalist Ekaterina Andreeva.
Habiba Suleymanli and Rahim Aliyev are examples of the scores of fake pages that are created with the sole intention of flooding the comments section of news articles and other posts with praise for the government. The fake users actively post on articles published by the opposition and independent media.
Journalist Shahin Rzayev says his identity has been twice used by different people: “One of them used the same name and surname that I have, only the profile picture was a tree. My friends thought that it was me who was writing comments,” he says. “The profile was completely fake. The other one used a picture of mine and wrote a swear word. This profile was then immediately deleted. There were several reports."
There are few avenues for people like Shahin and Leyla to get assistance clearing their names or holding anyone responsible for stealing their identities.
Lawyer Zibeyda Zakariyayeva says that even though no criminal laws directly relate to trolls and bots, there are articles in the Criminal Code that could be used by the police to pursue and stop digital identity theft. She notes, however, that in her experience police do not investigate these cases.
She had clients who wanted to open a criminal investigation into a fake Facebook account that used their photos. “The police wrote that since we could not identify the person, they could not initiate a criminal case,” she recalls. “But the officer did not explain how he conducted the investigation, why he did not call and interrogate the victim if he questioned anyone else."
Shahin says he was not surprised by the identity theft and it didn’t scare him into deleting his own account on Facebook.
He notes that he always thought about the possibility of stealing his profile and tried to be careful.
"I practice self-censorship. And this is not only due to users who are pro-government. I'm also worried about Facebook moderators and some of the Armenian readers.”
Leyla also managed to shrug off the incident, for the most part. She didn’t leave Facebook, although she did start checking for fake accounts more often.
“There was no distrust of the social network, there is distrust toward people,” she says. “But it didn't affect me that much. It was a normal occurrence, anything can happen."
Published with the support of COBERM, a joint initiative of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the organization Chai Khana and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of either the EU or UNDP.