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In Azerbaijan, trolls keep us at each other’s throats

Azerbaijani journalist Ismail Djalilov. Photo courtesy of Ismail Djalilov.

“A friend reported you.” It’s a phrase I find utterly disconcerting and one which unfailingly appears on my phone’s screen each time I hear the familiar chime of a new Facebook message. Given that my inbox is now flooded with this ominous warning, I’ve had a lot of time and reason lately to ponder its meaning. I find those words not just disconcerting but Orwellian, conjuring up images of smiling blonde children cheering for a Dear Leader. Maybe that’s just the way my mind works; maybe it’s my fault that I have these unhealthy associations. To my mind, a friend does not falsely report a friend to any authority, be it the government, or a digital authority. Things shouldn’t work that way, at least not in the universe I want to live in.

But then again, I’m a journalist from Azerbaijan. The universe I want to live in feels a long way off.

Here I should stress that I am writing not as a journalist, but as a private citizen who has had—and continues to have—profoundly eye-opening and terrifying experiences. I write as somebody who is not used to climbing the pedestal of victimhood. I write as an openly gay man and an overt secularist whose worldview is deeply informed by political openness and faith in democratic participation. Those values set the tone for my day, wherever I happen to be. Thus I am not at all surprised to be on the receiving end of a barrage of insults and disgusting comments from trolls. I just did not expect these trolls to come from the opposition

And to cover all of that, I have to depart from the comfortable style and principles of objective, strictly fact-based journalism and enter the intimidating world of opinion. 

I realise that my task is daunting, especially as an immigrant who has lived across the ocean from his homeland for half of his life, for whom a mixture of romanticism, longing, and detachment comes into play. Recently I half-jokingly wrote on my Facebook page (which is temporarily shut down and unavailable to me at the time of writing) that “being from Azerbaijan is a terminal diagnosis incompatible with happiness.”

In my native Azerbaijan, any journalist striving to preserve a shred of their impartiality has to navigate many landmines and risk confrontation with powerful forces. Our government is not too keen on criticism, to put it mildly. Those who do criticise it are often fined, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. In a society where rulers impose such savage rules of the game, others have to adjust their actions and strategies to survive.

My thesis is, if the government employs trolls, those opposing it are forced to do so too. If the government uses harsh rhetoric, some in the opposition are forced to respond in kind. That is the corrosive effect of a despotic government: it imposes its own rules on everybody, stifling democratic inclinations others may have by invalidating them a priori. It lowers the level and quality of political discourse and legitimate political struggle.

My own contribution to raising that bar plays an important role in this story. Last winter, I launched a very small YouTube channel whose name translates from Azerbaijani as “straight talk” (the English pun does not quite translate into Azerbaijani, where “straight” does not have sexual connotations). After more than two decades of lurking on the margins of the Azerbaijani public consciousness, I kicked aside my self-doubt and briefly stepped into the limelight to comment on the outrageous situation in my home country. After that, running back into the shadows didn’t prove as easy as I had hoped.

On 12 November 2018, the BBC’s Azerbaijani service interviewed me as an Azerbaijani emigre now living in the United States. In retrospect, I am astonished by my lack of self-awareness. My interview was a long and angry tirade, but a cathartic one.

I laid into the regime. It felt as though I had finally exhaled for the first time in two decades.

I talked about violence against women and a culture which facilitates it. I talked about the utter crisis of education and healthcare. I talked about the lack of tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community and railed against the widespread ignorant conviction that sexual orientation has something to do with personal choice and willpower. It was ugly, I was a mess. I woke up early for the interview, and bellowed so much so I awoke my husband in the wee hours.

The interview had all the elements of a modern day made-for-Instagram drama. It made waves on social media, but the only thing people seemed to pay attention to was my sexuality. It wasn’t a public coming out; that took place decades earlier when I was pushed out of the closet with a bang during a live radio broadcast. Nothing else mattered: not education, not corruption, and not violence against women.

In a subsequent interview with another Washington-based colleague, I criticised a certain Azerbaijan-based journalist, a former colleague at a now-shuttered independent TV and radio company. I drew attention to his reemergence as a government lapdog. I called him by name, reminding him how he used to be: fearless, fair, outspoken, and captivating. He responded with an insulting tirade containing nothing but allusions to my sexuality (fair game), and with an intentional slip of the tongue called my late father (certainly not fair game) a homosexual. I filmed an indignant, yet measured and polite video response on the spot. It was picked up by an opposition newspaper and aired on their website, gaining more than 400,000 views. (It is still the most-viewed video on my little channel.)

So I stayed in the limelight, and while there I started to interview politicians and newsmakers in Azerbaijan. I grew accustomed to the trickle of trolling comments and insults. As my channel grew in popularity, so did the troll attacks. Many of them weren’t aimed at me, but at guest of mine, the chairman of an opposition movement who had criticised another opposition leader.

I was caught in the crossfire. I spent two full days deleting insulting comments from my channel’s comments section. Over time, the attacks were made not only against my channel; trolls launched a concerted effort to report my Facebook account, claiming that I was impersonating somebody else. An absurdity that could have been resolved by a reasonable human being comparing my pictures with my live videos was dealt with by Facebook bots as yet untrained in the intricacies of human interaction. I woke up to see the “A friend has reported you” message from Facebook. My page was gone.

I had to go through the indignity of sending a picture of my photo ID. Hours later, I was asked to send in a picture of myself holding my photo ID. At the time of the writing in mid-June, my Facebook page has been deactivated eight times in the span of six days in response to complaints by trolls. There is no way of knowing how many more times it might disappear.

For objectivity’s sake I must add that I have no direct evidence of the source of these attacks; such is the nature of the faceless mass of internet trolls. But my suspicions are painful to comprehend: I believe that I was attacked not by pro-government trolls, but trolls working for those I had considered my friends and allies. I was not the only one to be attacked by these trolls; the list of their previous victims is quite long. Given the identity of other targets, I am confident enough to believe a certain party was responsible.

Once my Facebook account was restored, I made a rather emotional video appeal to the leadership of the party I had suspected all along, asking them to rein in the trolls they control. It was not my proudest moment. I felt that I lost my balance due to anger, outrage, disgust, and shock. I demanded that they either deny that these trolls worked for the party, or join with me in condemning their role in distorting public discourse in Azerbaijan. But their response was a blanket denial from mid-level party officials, as well as their numerous supporters. Although I called him out, saying that I no longer believed he was a friend to free media, the party’s leader did not acknowledge my appeal.

Sadly, this episode made clear to me that when a despotic regime attacks freedom of speech, it has a domino effect. Those in opposition feel the need to respond in kind. They do so either to protect themselves from the government, its henchmen and trolls, or out of a mistaken desire to level the playing field a little in their own favour. Whatever the thinking behind it, free and independent media suffers, as does its ability to inform the public and guarantee a free flow of impartial information.

I could go on, but I won’t. I must interview a grieving father of a 14 year-old girl who died at the hands of our incompetent and corrupt education and medical systems—a father who has just discovered that his child’s grave was desecrated. The least I can do for him is not make him wait. The story of my own victimisation will have to wait till later. Much later.

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