In war, as the old saying goes, the first casualty is always the truth. This is particularly true in the South Caucasus where the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan more often than not spreads misinformation or subjective propaganda concerning the long-running and unresolved conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. Following two high-profile skirmishes along the Line of Conflict (LoC) separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces at the beginning of the week, that also appears to be the case on Twitter.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war in the early 1990s over the disputed territory, situated within Azerbaijan, but mainly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. Around 30,000 people were killed and over a million forced to flee their homes before a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, but efforts to broker a lasting peace have faltered. Some estimates, including those from publications such as The Economist, put the number of fatalities since then at over 3,000, with tensions often escalating as they did earlier this week when 3 Armenian and 5 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed.
Coinciding with a high-profile visit to the region by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the danger of frontline skirmishes escalating into a new ‘accidental war,’ as flagged by the International Crisis Group in early 2011, once again surfaced. Following the clashes on 4 and 5 June, however, those fears were to again materialize in reports and tweets from Azerbaijani social media users on 7 June.
@parvanapersiani: locals’ve just informed my friend about serious battle between #Azeri and #Armenian troops in occupied territories. what’s going on?
@MahirZeynalov: Azerbaijan Defense Ministry reports clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in ten provinces.
@MahirZeynalov: Armenia-Azerbaijan MT @ErkinGadirli Learned from a serious source there is calmness in Agdam & Fuzuli. Only small skirmish near Goranboy.
Nevertheless, despite an escalation in tensions, the situation on Twitter soon became more and more sensational.
@MahirZeynalov: MT @vusal ANS reports Azerbaijan retakes Ciraqli village from Armenian troops after clashes.
Others, however, started to doubt the reports given little or no coverage from reliable sources let alone the international media.
@nhacizade: there are rumors *of a report* of a village in the Agdam region (in the buffer zone) taken, with no proof of said report. #Azerbaijan
@mhikaric: MT @nhacizade: been searching for an hour and there are ZERO credible sources/links on the rumors on escalation. #Azerbaijan
@onewmphoto: @mhikaric @nhacizade Indeed, until there’s independent news, confirmation, I’m withholding judgement. @joshuakucera @MahirZeynalov @niftiyev
@nhacizade: @onewmphoto @mhikaric @joshuakucera @MahirZeynalov @niftiyev thank you, I wish everyone would be more cautious. stuff spreads like fire.
@MahirZeynalov: ANS TV says Twitter is falsely spreading rumors that Armenian army is advancing against Azerbaijani territories.
Nevertheless, reports soon turned into tweets announcing that a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan had broken out. Reportedly, this particularly included tweeps in neighboring Turkey.
[Private DM]: great, two hours in the story spread to turkish twitter. people are tweeting about a state of emergency, troops going places, all out war
@Bugrahanboyraz: Yaşasın bütov Azerbaycan ! Long live Great Azerbaijan ! WAR WİTH ARMENİA !
@FirdaousAmri: The war started between Armenia and Azerbaijan!!!
@mervemania: @FirdaousAmri Really !!! Where did u get this information ???
@FirdaousAmri: @mervemania From somebody I know working in the media field and that person learned from his journalist friend living in Baku!
Some Armenians also spread less than credible information.
@AlainTabibian: Armenia and azerbaijan got into a war and russia is bombing azerbaijan. RIP to the 54 armenians who lost their lives
A few calmer heads tried to clarify the situation in their tweets, including those from Azerbaijanis in Turkey eager to defuse tensions by alerting followers that reports of a new war were false.
@nhacizade: @onewmphoto this is getting too funny. defence (sic).az is quoting azeridefence (another sic).com and everyone is retweeting.
@ZaurShiriyev: There is escalation in the #Armenia – #Azerbaijan conflict, but not yet open war. Only false rumors and disinformation. #Karabakh #Caucasus
There are tweets going around about Azerbaijan-Armenia war being officially announced. There is no such thing, friends. Please, do not buy into false news. RT pls
@nhacizade: #Azerbaijan seems to be having first of its many twitter-spread rumor frenzies, except it’s about war so people need to be more sensible.
@nhacizade: tonight’s news: star shoots over the Caucasus, Russia tests missile, the entire Near East goes berserk as if they needed an excuse. bye now!
That tensions are increasing on the Line of Contact (LoC) between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces is not in doubt. However, Twitter appears to run the risk of potentially becoming a new instrument for increasing them further.