THE CYBER HEADSHOT

THE CYBER HEADSHOT

During the events, now known as the Second Artsakh war, the information field was the second frontline. Regional Post discussed with cybersecurity specialist  Samvel Martirosyan whether it was all quiet on the cyber front.

Interview : Margarit Mirzoyan 


During the war, the phrase “cyber army” was in active circulation. Did these groups succeed? 

There were many such groups. Some of them included over one hundred thousand members. At first, these groups emerged and operated spontaneously and involuntarily but then SMM specialists and people who had the experience of working with a large group of people, such as the Sevan Startup summit team, started managing these flows. All the leaders started organizing their own teams. At some point, these teams started cooperating and the overall process became more organized. 
I won’t discuss everything they did, because part of their activities was confidential, but I can say the effectiveness of what they did varied. There were cases when the actions caused the opposite reaction. For example, someone would write about this or that journalist speaking up against Armenia and the cyber army would attack his/her Facebook comments. This person would then post approximate content for the comments and everyone would copy-paste this information. As a result, all the comments would be the same text a thousand times. Quite logically, these journalists would screenshot these comments saying, “See a troll fabric is working against me”. This type of strategy can be effective, though, for example, when there is a need to spread exact information. 

Where did these groups work most effectively? 

The work of our “cyber army” was most effective on Twitter. It’s an open platform with a lot of foreign journalists interested in the situation. The groups working on these platforms triggered an awareness effect on the one hand, and caused a certain pressure on the other hand, which in some cases made media outlets provide more balanced news and stay unbiased or make some political and public figures raise their voices. So, the overall process had a positive effect, especially when it was well coordinated around a certain idea and was not chaotic. Of course, people were active on other platforms too; Instagram, Youtube, etc. But overall, Twitter was the main getaway to the international community abroad as it is more open and a person searching for information about the conflict would look it up there first. 

 

What about Azerbaijan, how did they manage their information field during the war? 

Azerbaijan has had these types of cyber army groups for several years, long before the recent war. It was already visible in the times of the April war. During the Tavush escalation, foreign research companies discovered targeted operations on Twitter against Armenia. In September, Facebook informed that it had deactivated thousands of fake Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages connecting them to the ruling party of Azerbaijan. They claimed that these accounts and pages were used to post comments that attacked opposition figures and independent media boosting the country’s ruling party. Azerbaijan used various methods and approaches. For example, their hackers would break Armenian Facebook accounts and give them to the social media specialists who would then continue the propaganda through these accounts. Or they would again attack Armenian pages and activate paid promotion for certain information targeting Armenian accounts. Influencing the Azerbaijani society was always a hard task for us because they were gradually blocking all the channels through which we could affect them. There was no freedom of the press and during this war they shut down social media. 

 

What about the level of consciousness of Armenians towards these kinds of attacks as well as fake news?

The level of consciousness was much higher than before, but unfortunately, the level of our media literacy increases only in extreme situations, and right now, in the post-war phase, it’s catastrophic; any lie is disseminated momentarily. Of course, state propaganda had a huge negative role in the situation, it factually misguided people. 

 

What can we do now to make the situation better?

It’s hard to say as there are several aspects to it. People are in an extremely disoriented state. Their whole world changed within hours. Additionally, a quite challenging internal political battle is on the rise at this moment and all possible information methods are being used for it. Actually, right now our problem is not the Azerbaijanis but the Armenians against Armenians.
Another issue is the defeatist moods and complexes among the people. They masochistically watch and follow the Azerbaijani military and political propaganda and spread it around, cry and spread it around again. Unfortunately, this is not only a matter of media literacy, it’s more of a psychological issue, some kind of post-traumatic syndrome. For some people, this will pass, but for others, it may get deeper. Otherwise, it’s impossible to understand why someone would spread Azerbaijani videos and photos from Hadrut or Shushi. You might think people feel some kind of painful pleasure from watching and sharing this information. There should be informational strategies and tactics affecting all media channels and not only. For example, the billboards with the soldiers saying “we shall win” ought to be removed much sooner. People have been looking at them in the city for two weeks and suffering. This is just one example. 

 

I’ve noticed that previously we read Azerbaijani news and thought they lived in a parallel world, now it’s vice versa… 

Unfortunately, our propaganda took us to a point where people think that Azerbaijanis might have been right. We shot ourselves in the head by pursuing wrong information policies and approaches. But in a situation like this the information field is not the primary cycle, it serves the governmental and military fields and is not an independent body. It’s impossible to do wonders just with information. It doesn’t work that way. 
After some time passes and we decide to move forward, it’s extremely important that we learn from our mistakes. What happened was really bad but there’s one positive aspect to it; all our mistakes came to the surface. There are no longer any taboos. We can talk freely and say that our army was managed on a school level and there was no coordination between the state and the army, nor between Artsakh and Armenia, etc. If we escape this depression, it will be possible to create a new system. When everything falls apart, it’s easier to build something new, than put bandages on what is left. Defeat is beneficial in the sense that you get rid of the deceptions and there are no semi-literate people who tell you what to think or do. This is what unfortunately happened after the first Artsakh war and we became the hostages of that war. 

Web site of the Azerbaijani embassy, hacked by Monte Melkonian Cyber Army

 

During this war, there were a lot of limitations, at least on paper. How did it affect the sphere?

Well, this was the first time when martial law was announced in Armenia. Even during the first Artsakh war, there was no such thing. If you have a distinct information policy and strategy, there may be a need for some censorship at some point. But the experience showed that there was a lack of clarity. There was inconsistency in the actions of the government; for example, when they shot down Tik-Tok, some people could still access it, even if others couldn’t. Tik-Tok wouldn’t open on one of my phones but I could easily access it on the other one. At some point, they also shot down all Turkish websites. What was the point? Some of these websites wouldn’t discuss the situation at all. In addition, there aren’t many people who follow Turkish websites. The only readers might be the specialists who might need this information. However, even if there was logic in closing down the Azerbaijani websites, I’m not sure if it was effective as all this information they were trying to block was accessible on Telegram. 

 

What problems did our information sphere have in the previous years? Did the taboos you’ve mentioned above really wreck the situation? 

You cannot avoid taboos. What you avoid creates new ones. In the sphere of information there’s always been the problem of coordination and strategic approach. To be honest, every sphere in Armenia lacks strategic approach. But in the case of the information sphere, there should be precise theses, delegation of directions, and long-term work. We always acted reflectively, based on the situation, putting out fires here and there. In many situations, we were never the attacking side. We were always the defensive.

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