The Information War in The Caucasus
On July 12, 2020, skirmishes erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the two country’s shared border. Similar skirmishes have occurred in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. The ongoing clash is notable for being removed from Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan self-styled as the Republic of Artsakh. Along with physical combat, both sides deployed their digital propaganda arms to win the information war around the events.
From July 12 to July 19, we found 6,809 publications relating to conflict, with 95% originating with Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, Turkey, and the United States. The Azerbaijani state has published 5.3 times as much content per day in the week of the skirmishes than in the preceding week, representing the most prolific period of content creation for Azerbaijan in our database. With 2,565 publications, Azerbaijan published more on the subject than Russia (1,823 publications), even though Moscow published 33 times as much content overall as Baku. Publications related to the skirmishes accounted for 70% of all Azerbaijani publications. The majority of Azerbaijani posts were in English (56%), suggesting a focus on international sentiment. Azerbaijan expressed a highly negative sentiment towards the subject of -0.44 on a -1.00 to +1.00 scale and induced a -0.12 sentiment in audiences.
Artsakh, the de facto government in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia combined for only 813 publications, primarily in English (61%) and portraying Azerbaijan as the aggressor. Azerbaijan’s threats against Armenia’s nuclear power plant elicited comparisons to the genocide of Armenians conducted by Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan. Armenian actors and Azerbaijan portrayed each other in similarly stark terms: Armenia and Artsakh expressed a sentiment of -0.48 towards Azerbaijan and induced a -0.14 sentiment in their audience.
Russia, which is in a military alliance with Armenia via the Collective Security Treaty Organization but maintains close links with Azerbaijan, played different sides in different languages. In Russia’s 106 publications in Azeri, Russia decried “Armenia’s provocation,” amplified Baku’s claims that “The Armenian side is hitting residential homes,” and highlighted Armenian losses. In Armenian, Russian editorialists claimed Azerbaijan had set back the border settlement process by half a decade, amplified a “touching message from the front line” from Armenian soldiers, and denounced the lack of consequences for Azerbaijan. In other languages, Russia focused on its mediator role.
The consistency with which tensions flare and settle–every two years on the dot for a decade–reinforces the importance of public opinion in shaping any future settlement. Azerbaijan’s far larger media engine allows for a much stronger response than upstart Armenia and Artsakh. Russia, meanwhile, is able to deftly adapt its message to each audience and benefit across the board.