Sunday, September 12, 2010

Social Networking and Conflict Resolution?

I’m sure the fact that Azeris, Turks, and Armenians keep hacking each other’s (usually official) websites is not news to most of my readers (in principle, at least). What was news to me, however, was the idea of hacking an individual’s social networking and email accounts.

Last weekend, as I opened my Facebook homepage, here’s what I saw (click on the images to enlarge):

Nareg is a “global Armenian” in the true sense of the word: patriotic but also skeptical, very open minded, and certainly not of the chauvinist type. I should say, I particularly enjoy following his “links” feed on Facebook, as he usually shares insightful articles, raises interesting questions and, often, facilitates engaging “comment discussions.” In short, such an unexpected diatribe of abuse obviously raised a red flag.

What is more, his profile had been completely redone, and here is what his "Info" page looked like:

Very sad.

I remember that during a discussion on the potential of the new media in bringing about conflict resolution, a school-mate from Abkhazia shared the story of his Facebook page becoming the venue for hate speech and a war of insults among representatives of various "parties" in conflict. Obviously, there are many other ways of abusing the virtual "socializing space", especially for those who are new media-savvy. It is just sad to see people going through all that trouble for such senseless "projects".

More importantly, it is sad to see that while some enthusiastic peace-makers are working so hard to bring the conflicting sides together online, others are abusing the very same platforms (and the Internet, in general) for no meaningful purpose, at all.

I'm still cautiously (and should I say, skeptically) hopeful, though.

Nareg kindly agreed to share some details of his "encounter" with Global Chaos:

GC - Besides your Facebook profile, you also had some other online accounts hacked...

N- I had the same password for everything. I imagine the hacker infiltrated the Facebook profile first, then worked on to Yahoo, and LinkedIn, and Gmail.

GC - How did you find out about the hack, and when?

N - Friends, friends and more friends. [...] I was in the library, chatting with someone, when a fellow student came up to me and said that I should look into my Facebook, as it was probably hacked. [...] A lot of friends who saw me on campus informed me of it, and I meanwhile got phone messages, voice mail as well as SMS - my brother all the way from Armenia, friends and family from LA to DC. [...]

GC - How long did the "incident" last?

N - I think the whole episode lasted from about 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m., US Mountain Time, on Saturday, September 4. It took some time to re-re-acquire Facebook and Yahoo. Gmail took a few days, actually. And my LinkedIn page is still out of reach for me, but that says more about LinkedIn's lackluster security settings.

GC - Why do you think you  were targeted, specifically?

N - This is a mystery to me. On the one hand, I feel very flattered. After all, some Azerbaijani person took all this trouble to create problems for me. In truth, there was minimal damage done. I restored the Yahoo account with some loss of e-mails, it is true, but probably nothing important. And I don't know what will happen with LinkedIn, but I was not much of a user there anyway. So, I do feel personally a little bit victimized on the one hand, but more flattered on the other.
But the hacker was probably not doing this as a compliment to me. So why indeed? I guess it could be lumped up under the general rubric of regional antagonism. After all, Armenians, Turks and Azerbaijanis hack one-another's websites all the time. As I type, for example, the Armenian Church's Eastern Diocese's website is hacked.
But why me? I could pretend to be someone important. But I'm not. I have a fair few Facebook friends, and I often share news articles, whether Armenian-related or not, but why such a thing would motivate an Azerbaijani hacker specifically against me, I cannot say. I imagine they or he or she found an Armenian, broke the password, and went to work.

GC - What do you think is the purpose behind such "hacking" incidents?

N - I am actually very curious indeed about the psychology behind all this. I guess I never thought about it much before, because I never had to face it personally. And it isn't surprising, really, to find the general regional antagonism spread to cyberspace.
But now I would like to put myself in this Azerbaijani's shoes. I imagine and understand the hatred, but so much that it inspires one to go through all this trouble to deface an Armenian's Facebook page and try to mess up his e-mail accounts? I am not sure what motivates it, exactly, and, what is more, what it accomplishes.
Let me make a confession. I wrote to him/her. I wrote, using an anonymous e-mail address, to, requesting a reply to another anonymous e-mail address. I don't think the hacker knows English very well (except for a certain four-letter word), but I wrote anyway, and would really love a response. We can have our differences, our political tensions and all that sort of thing, but do we really need to hack each other's websites? And personal Facebook pages?
I also wrote to the Azerbaijani Facebook friends I have. Five of them, smart young people. I asked them what they made of all this, and am yet awaiting a response.

Read my recent post on a short video by the Eurasia Foundation, exploring the stereotypes between Armenians and Azeris in Yerevan and Baku.


  1. Well, as I mentioned many times in D.C., new and social media are tools. And they can be used by everyone -- for good and bad.

    A bit like the printing press or anything else, in fact. So, I am neither a cyber-utopian or a cyber-skeptic. It depends on who uses those tools.

    Meanwhile, I think it's worth pointing out that if you look at YouTube you can also see such hateful comments and opinions.

    And from Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Turks.

    What is interesting, however, is how much more active Azerbaijani nationalists are becoming. And, I would say, more skilled in the process.

    Not condoning it, of course, but I think it's not because some Armenians wouldn't do it, but because they're so far behind in the game.

    And, as I've said to some with cyber-utopian ideas about social media, just wait. Likely we'll see more as new battle grounds emerge.

    BTW: I don't think Armenians are innocent in all of this. The soldier posted was killed in Armenian-controlled territory.

    However, his body wasn't handed over, with the Armenian and Karabakh Ministry of Defense saying they didn't have it.

    However, the pictures of the corpse were posted by Armenians on Odnoklassniki. Perhaps this simply represents how similar Armenians and Azeris are...

  2. Oh, and worth pointing out that I would imagine it will only escalate. If NGOs and activists use new and social media more in attempts at conflict resolution and communication, it's only natural that nationalists (and possible governments) will get into the act as well -- and with possible personal security issues raised. However, nobody is listening to these warnings or even getting ready mechanisms in case they do...

  3. Thanks for the comments, Onnik. Indeed, I did NOT mean to say that Armenians are innocent - be it in certain cases on the ground, or in the hacking/virtual space. Nareg's experience was just a case I observed, and given all the recent discussion of the issue, decided to share it with others, too.

    It is obvious that cyber-utopianism is too utopian and it cannot, in any way, provide a solution to the problems on the ground, by itself, etc., etc.... But as I mentioned in the post, I really did not expect people to start such very personal attacks against individuals (especially individuals who are clearly NOT chauvinistic, and I would say, are openly opposed to hate speech).

    In terms of these platforms becoming a new "battleground" - I'm afraid I cannot agree with you more. I was, genuinely, hoping that the more personal/individual platforms (such as Facebook) would be kept out of this all (unlike YouTube or Wikipedia), but evidently, that is going to be impossible...

  4. Yelena, I think that it is already too utopian to believe that Facebook wouldn't be affected. However, there are still some advantages to it which make it more conducive to peace-building.

    Firstly, it is a personal space so if you maintain your social network as you do in real life there is little room for conflict of the kind we see on YouTube.

    Instead, what we're more likely to see is conflict break out on Facebook groups instead (although actually, the NK conflict resolution ones are pretty much dead).

    So, in Narek's case what we had was hacking, although another new trend is nationalists getting on others' pages and tagging them so their propaganda appears on some FB walls.

    But, all that said, there are two main lessons here. Firstly, take Internet security very carefully, and secondly, be careful who you add (although this was not the reason for Narek's experience).

    I am neither a cyber-utopian or a cyber-skeptic, and again will present the example of the printing press, or even the pen. You can write or publish open progressive material or spread hatred.

    Everything is a tool at the end of the day.

    However, Jillian York at Global Voices and Harvard does says that activists ditch Facebook for a number of reasons. My concern at present is that some of those reasons will apply to Am-Az connections.

    For now they haven't, but I'm sure they will soon enough. Ironically, many could be avoided, but it's instead more likely people will wait until they're affected first.

    As with everything in life, it pays to be cautious and to understand the risks and problems that could and probably will emerge -- and with virtually every single tool and in any area of life.

  5. BTW: I wish more people would familiarize themselves with Global Voices' Advocacy Project started by a Tunisian cyber-dissident:

    No papers on social networking security yet, but with two bloggers in jail in the region, people here should start taking such issues seriously.

    Incidentally, there's an interview with Sami on an offshoot from GV Advocacy, Threatened Voices, which I also am involved with (on Caucasus):

  6. To put this incident into perspective, it's also worth pointing out that there are around 170,000 Facebook users in Azerbaijan, and about 67,000 in Armenia (and likely many more in the Diaspora). This example is just two people.

    Meanwhile, I have close to 100 Azerbaijanis on my Facebook and there has never been an issue at all. Well, once with a Lebanese Armenian, but I deleted him immediately after some very nationalist comments directed at people he didn't even know.

    This also highlights the main strength of Facebook, though. Whatever the problems that occasionally occur (thankfully to others), it is the only tool available which allows relationships to be formed and pretty much equalize them.

    True, that should be done offline in the real world, but as we know, that's not the easiest of things to do given closed borders and unresolved conflict meaning that has to be in third countries. Certain issues noted, but they are insignificant for now.

    Hoping they stay like that, but that depends on how seriously users take information security. In fact, like they say, in this case it was a "human error."

  7. I don't think it all boils down to the Karabakh conflict only.
    Of course, it would be belaboring the obvious to say that new media open up new platforms and space and provide new tools for hate speech, etc.
    All that is too well-known...
    I guess Narek raised an interesting question of motives behind those acts. It would be very interesting to see if the Azeri hacker responds at all and if yes, how...
    My firm belief is that besides propaganda (and it is a manifest function of the official Azeri propaganda and education, etc., etc. to instill hatred in young people towards Armenians and now probably Russians and Jews as well...) there is also a component of provocation. Narek is promoting an unbiased dialogue but he is targeted. Why? Let's ask a simple question: Cui prodest? It will not be far-fetched to conclude that it is a government entity behind the attack because their "work" is threatened or even undermined by people like Narek. So, they did it themselves or used an agent provicateur...
    I would not rule, however, another factor as well. It is most unfortunate that many young people all over the world in general and in the South Caucasus region in particular are very inclined to do random acts (no, not acts of kindness, as you probably thought) of abuse, violence, hatred, etc., especially since the Internet provides more anonymity and impunity...
    It is also very sad...
    I guess these are usually actual or potential losers, persons with many psychological complexes, etc.
    I am sure that a minimally decent person will never do such acts, be he or she Azeri, Armenian or anyone else.
    The trouble is, however, that the number of persons who do not abide by the minimal ethical and moral norms is visibly on the rise.

  8. The trouble is, however, that the number of persons who do not abide by the minimal ethical and moral norms is visibly on the rise.

    Definitely, but on the other hand, my own experience has shown that so too are the number of people on both sides who want peace and open communication.

    Sadly, however, such voices are often drowned out by nationalists in both countries. Actually, the same probably applies to most countries.

  9. Thanks for the post, Yelena.

    I agree with the comments, although I have trouble directly asserting the claim that state-sponsored agencies could be behind such actions. One can never tell, though.

    And I wanted to add that I did receive a response from an Azerbaijani friend, who understood the motivations but did not condone the act itself.

    In the entire region, it really boils down to giving greater voice to the moderates, the open-minded ones willing to at the very least listen to the other side, to say nothing of working towards a lasting peace. Armenian, Turkish and Azerbaijani extremists bear and display similar attitudes; they are the real detriments to a worthy future for the region.