For most of September, the official @Armenia Twitter account issued its usual mix of soft diplomatic outreach and tourist-friendly miscellanea. On the 24th, that included a multiple-choice quiz tagged #MovieLovers. The 25th introduced followers to a type of local goat cheese, and the 26th celebrated the birth of priest, composer, and national hero Komitas.
The following morning, however, heavy clashes began between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Both sides soon reported casualties. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared martial law and full military mobilization. On Twitter, @Armenia abruptly changed its tone. By early afternoon, it had tweeted footage, set to a dramatic soundtrack, of tanks and armored vehicles engulfed in flames. Hundreds of Twitter users commented, with many applauding the deaths of the crew members or promising revenge. Another Armenian government channel posted graphic shots of what it claimed were the corpses of Azerbaijani soldiers strewn in the mud, along with equipment and destroyed personnel carriers. Over on Facebook, the official Armenia account, which two days earlier had wished a “peaceful night to everyone!” posted a video showing another armored column under devastating fire.
“The annihilation of Azerbaijani tanks and manpower! You shall not pass!” the caption read, apparently referencing a Lord of the Rings quote often used in memes.
In Azerbaijan, as the parliament in Baku also implemented martial law and national curfews, the @Azerbaijan Twitter account moved from putting out snippets of history, music, and scenic pictures (“God created Our Motherland by decorating every inch of it!” read one recent Tweet) to enthusiastic military propaganda. The Ministry of Defense quickly began posting videos on YouTube and Twitter of drone strikes that it claimed had targeted Armenian emplacements, weapons stores, and military vehicles. Those too were met with happy, emoji-filled replies.
In a matter of hours, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had become the latest example of 21st century online warfare. As fighting intensified, both governments continued to disseminate colorful propaganda and near-real-time battlefield footage from their blue-tick-verified official accounts. Even the most graphic of this content is edited with the apparent intention of having it shared as widely as possible. This phenomenon appeared alongside the latest hostilities, but instead of purely responding to them, it risks stoking long-standing animosities between the two countries and making further cycles of violence more likely.
The modern phase of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s dispute over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region began with clashes in February 1988 that left at least 30 people dead. They culminated in a brutal war four years later with a death toll which reached around 30,000 before a Russia-brokered ceasefire was agreed upon in 1994. By that point, nearly the entire enclave was under Armenian control, and some 700,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis had been forced to leave. The region is now predominantly ethnically Armenian and controlled by a self-proclaimed independent government, despite being internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
More than two decades later, resentment remains widespread and recent surveys have shown attitudes hardening even further. For Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh is widely perceived as an existential issue, while Azerbaijanis think of it as a long-unaddressed injustice, said Kevork Oskanian, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.
Hundreds have now been killed in Nagorno-Karabakh since those initial September clashes, including dozens of civilians, and roughly half of Karabakh’s 140,000 residents have been displaced, according to Armenian authorities. Each country has repeatedly accused the other of sparking the recent hostilities — of shelling civilian areas, of hiring foreign mercenaries — and then of lying about it. This cycle of claim and counterclaim, said Anna Naghdalyan, spokesperson for the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meant that the war extended to social media almost immediately. The @Armenia account, which is run by her team, was intended to be “a business card for Armenia and the Armenian people,” she told Rest of World, but when war broke out, the change was natural. “There was a huge flow of disinformation from the Azerbaijani side … and in order to be able to provide a response, we have been putting a lot of information out about the situation on the ground and about what’s happening with the military.”
On both sides, the glut of battlefield videos are “a mobilizing device,” Oskanian told Rest of World. “Unlike American interventions in faraway places, this conflict is up close and personal for both societies. … Neither side can afford to lose, so they have to demonstrate success in the most accessible way — visually.”
Disseminating propaganda videos via social media is not a new tactic, but it is one that has been more common in recent asymmetric conflicts, such as the fight against ISIS or the Syrian war. These gave rise to mostly sanitized U.S. airstrike footage and video game and movie trailer–influenced videos shot and edited by militias. In Nagorno-Karabakh, however, belligerents are instead turning their official diplomatic accounts and online resources against each other.
While each side maintains it is merely providing the public with reliable information, some content has clearly been designed for broad cultural consumption, like a picture of an Armenian priest holding an assault rifle captioned “Faith & Power.” The Azerbaijan State Border Service even released a high-production heavy metal song called “Atəş” (“Fire”), featuring uniformed band members performing in front of military equipment, intercut with scenes of rocket artillery firing.
Political rhetoric has escalated in turn. Armenia’s Pashinyan warned that the southern Caucuses are on the brink of full-scale war, while Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said there would be no cease-fire until Armenia agrees to a timeline for its withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh. (On October 10, the countries agreed to a truce, but almost immediately accusing each other’s forces of breaking it.) As casualties mounted at the front, virtual efforts intensified. On social media, official Armenian accounts began using hashtags like #StopAzerbaijaniAggression or #ArtsakhStrong (referencing the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh), while Azerbaijanis countered with #StopArmenianOccupation and #KarabakhisAzerbaijan.
Throughout the conflict, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense has continued to release a steady stream of drone videos. On September 30, it posted footage of a strike on more than a dozen soldiers standing out in the open around a truck. The explosion sent bodies flying out of view, and when the smoke cleared, the shot revealed several prone, motionless figures, prompting another swell of celebration in the Twitter comments section.
Azerbaijani defense ministry personnel also have followed Armenia’s lead and begun adding music to their videos, including a dramatic track borrowed from the blockbuster role-playing video game Mass Effect 3. (The Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson did not reply to queries about the rationale behind this decision, but this footage found renewed support when it was promoted through accounts linked to Turkey, a key Azerbaijani ally.) Naghdalyan, of the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Armenia’s own music-backed battlefield footage is not edited to “promote hostilities or promote hatred,” but noted that the soundtrack added to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense’s videos is likely intended to “attract attention.”
In an emailed statement, an Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Rest of World that the videos being released by the country’s Ministry of Defense are “aimed at informing the wider society on the latest developments on the ground.” The statement went on to accuse Armenia of spreading “fake news and disinformation” and maintained that “videos by official channels of the Azerbaijani government constitute a reliable source of information on the latest military activities and their results.”
Judging from standard social media metrics, Armenia’s online engagement strategy is working, and perhaps more effectively than Azerbaijan’s. Armenia’s official Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have significantly more followers than the majority of their Azerbaijani counterparts, and their posts generate more likes, shares, and retweets. This is likely in part because Armenia has enlisted support from high-profile members of its extensive diaspora population, including reality television star Kim Kardashian West.
Oskanian, the University of Birmingham research fellow, does not expect the spread of violent imagery to have an immediate effect on the battlefield, where violence will unfold regardless. However, he said that broadcasting hundreds of deaths on social media may pose larger challenges in reaching a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “For broader society, it is the kind of online interaction between the two sides that matters, and, yes, the sight of the other side celebrating kills or excusing war crimes by bringing up its own grievances will no doubt have a deleterious effect,” he said. “The damage done to any prospects for reconciliation will be tremendous, and long-lasting.”
“If there is a stalemate, the images of death and destruction will remain seared in both societies’ consciences and amplify their mutual fears and hatreds,” Oskanian continued. “Solving the issue has just been made even more impossible than it was before.”