The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) publishes dozens of juicy stories every year.
But very few of them generate the kind of response the group has received this month after naming Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev corruption’s “person of the year” for 2012.
“There has been a coordinated attempt to spam us with a significant amount of e-mails,” says Drew Sullivan, the editor at OCCRP, an investigative-journalism NGO based in Sarajevo and Bucharest. “Most of them are very similar [and] seem to follow a format or a couple different formats. I have received approximately 4,000 of them.”
RFE/RL, which covered the original story on January 2, has also been targeted by the spam attack, receiving a similar amount of mail.
The spam assault seems to be part of a stepped-up effort by Aliyev supporters — possibly prompted by the Azeribaijan government — to take control of the narrative about Azerbaijan on the Internet, analysts and activists say.
Most of the messages received by OCCRP and RFE/RL are signed and appear to come from real individuals. However, for the most part they contain very similar messages in English, Azeri, or Russian. OCCRP computer specialist Dan O’Huiginn estimates that 5-10 percent of the messages are from automated servers (bots), while the rest seem to be cut and pasted or forwarded by actual people.
The messages do not address the specifics of the corruption charges against Aliyev and his family but rather state that Azerbaijani citizens love their president and are impressed with the progress the country has made since gaining independence.
‘Upclassing Of Our Country’
Azerbaijani blogger Hebib Muntezir reported on January 15 that the Education Ministry had issued a directive to teachers and students urging them to send complaining e-mails to OCCRP and RFE/RL. The ministry’s message, which Muntezir also posted online, included sample complaints in Azeri, Russian, and broken English, as well as the e-mail addresses to which the messages should be sent.
The addresses provided in the alleged instruction from the Education Ministry that Muntezir posted were the ones that received the spam, and many of the received messages contained one or more of the proposed sample letters.
The suggested English message says:
The spam campaign may be part of a broader effort by pro-government forces in Azerbaijan to bolster their presence online.
“In Azerbaijan, essentially most of political life now takes place on Facebook,” says Katy Pearce, assistant professor of communication at the University of Washington who studies the use of Internet technologies in the former Soviet Union. “Because, as most people know, there is very little room for freedom of expression in real life, so to speak. So the Azerbaijani political Facebook world is very, very active.”
Until recently, Pearce says, the Azerbaijani opposition had the virtual realm almost to itself, but over the last year or 18 months she has seen an increasingly organized phalanx of pro-government youths posting on Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media sites. She notes that they have been using very aggressive tactics, including spamming the walls of opposition-minded Azerbaijanis and flagging their posts as “offensive” and asking Facebook to remove them.
One of the people targeted by such online campaigns was RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Khadija Ismayilova, who also cooperates with OCCRP.
Ismayilova has written many of the investigative reports into corruption by Aliyev and his family that were the basis of OCCRP’s decision to name Aliyev corruption’s “person of the year.”
Pearce has been studying the patterns of pro-government posts on Twitter regarding a recent protest in Baku and how those posts intersected with the campaigns against Ismayilova. She found that many of the tweets came from recently created accounts that had very few contacts on Twitter and had posted very few tweets in the past.
In her analyses of these patterns on Twitter, Pearce said she believes it is likely the messages were either sent by one person logging into multiple accounts or that an automated program was connected to multiple accounts.
“Most of the evidence points to some sort of organized campaign to use Twitter accounts to post the same message over and over again,” she says. “And if there are actual real people behind those accounts, I can’t tell.”
OCCRP editor Sullivan agrees that the latest spam campaign out of Azerbaijan is something new. He says the organization’s many previous reports on corruption in the country were soundly ignored by the authorities.
However, he adds that the current spam campaign is a mere “annoyance” that will not affect the OCCRP’s work.
“We get lots of much more negative responses to our work,” Sullivan says. “It is a slight annoyance, but we can set filters to move most of this out. It is too bad. We would love to hear from the people of Azerbaijan if it was real. We just suspect from the way that this is written that these are not real people with real concerns. This seems to be somewhat of a bullying tactic. And that’s not going to work.”