In another example of what has become the commonplace harassment of media outlets and individuals critical of prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government, an amazingly brash two-part hit piece attacking local Armenian media outlets was released yesterday by a new outfit of the Atlantic Council. Called the Digital Forensic Research Lab, their website refers to them as the Digital Sherlocks, although their work here would make the sleuth of their eponym cringe in embarrassment.

For context, the Atlantic Council counts among its members the former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza – who infamously became an apologist for Turkey and Azerbaijan after serving in the US State Department – and Armenian Genocide-denier Brent Scowcroft.

While the articles’ length, images, and charts suggest a serious forensic study worthy of the Digital Forensic Research Lab’s (lofty) name, the reality is that most of the information provided are bland observations that more than one site or individual posted similar content, unsubstantiated allegations that there is a Russian connection or how that’s relevant and, ironically, writing misleading and false information about their subjects.

What’s most worrisome is that a handsomely-funded foreign organization is attacking local Armenian media outlets and individuals who are working to shed light on the often disingenuous and dishonest statements made by Armenian government officials, including prime minister Nikol Pashinyan. They seem to be doing so in coordination with at least one foreign-funded media outlet and individuals in Armenia who make a living from grants provided by foreign sources.

Purposeful Dishonest or Plain Ignorance?

For a piece exposing supposed inauthentic content, the author, Zarine Kharazian, translates the motto of Adekvad, an Armenian media outlet, as, “Adequate: That on Which Liberty keeps silent.” The problem is that the “Liberty” referred to in the motto is actually the name of the US-funded news organization Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Armenian branch and not liberty, with a small L, as one might think in that translation without context.

So, Kharazian is either purposely lying to readers or is so oblivious to a fact anyone remotely familiar with Armenian affairs would know that she made a huge blunder that colored the rest of her piece. The latter wouldn’t be especially extraordinary because besides being Armenian, Kharazian’s Twitter account does not indicate she has any interest whatsoever in Armenian affairs.

Azatutyun (the US-funded media outlet, not the concept) didn’t hold the mishap against her and published an extensive article covering the details of the DFR piece. This was not surprising as many in Armenia’s opposition mock Azatutyun as a Pashinyan mouthpiece for things like their near-24-hour coverage of his protests last year and for providing pre-written questions to his daughter prior to a live interview recently.

Less than two weeks ago, when leaders of the #SutNikol movement, covered by the DFR’s article, were arrested in the center of Yerevan, Azatutyun didn’t find it newsworthy enough to cover. However, within hours of the DFR’s report, written in English, an extensive Armenian article appeared on its website.

It should be noted that the individuals and outlets in question have been severely critical of the backgrounds of new officials in Armenia’s government, many of whom worked for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by billionaire George Soros. This wasn’t mentioned in the DFR’s article.

Given the critics’ penchant for harping on Soros and his former employees in Armenia, it’s worth mentioning that one of the contributors to the article, Yulia Reshitko, works for Chesno, a Ukrainian organization funded by Soros‘ International Renaissance Foundation, as well as several foreign governments. Since the article does not say what role she played in an article about Armenian media outlets and individuals who write and speak almost exclusively in Armenian, it is hard to know but since the DFR did not see it fit to state her potential conflicts of interest, we thought we should.

Straining for a Russian Connection

The article is unsurprisingly laden with the same anti-Russian paranoia common to the Atlantic Council. In fact, the Twitter account of the other contributor to the article, Eto Buziashvili, reads like a veritable compendium of anti-Russian sentiments.

Despite failing to state what a nefarious “Russian connection” means in the context of the article, the extent of evidence of such a connection was: “A lookup of the domain’s public Whois record revealed that its IP location was listed as Saint Petersburg, Russia.” Yes, that’s it.

Although Kharazian tries to follow this up with “The DFRLab also found evidence to suggest that the AntiFake.am website may be affiliated with individuals or entities based in Russia,” she offers zero evidence for the reader to consider.

Coordination Straw Man

Kharazian goes on to suggest that some websites – Adekvad and AntiFake.am – coordinated. As in the “Russian connection” case, it’s not clear what the problem is here. Many media outlets the world over, including in the United States, share stories that overlap with media outlets who share their views.

What’s curious, however, is the Atlantic Council’s evident lack of interest that for the past ten years, dozens of foreign-funded media outlets in Armenia coordinated attacks on the country’s administration with patently false information, often led by now-prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and his newspapers, some of which were closed due to numerous libel lawsuits.

Actually, what seems like a standalone straw man soon starts to look like a straw man for a purpose when we see what Facebook has to say about coordinated posting.

False Pretexts for Removal from Facebook

The piece seems to be an effort to provide a pretext for removal of these groups or individuals from Facebook. Without proving that there was any actual misleading or inauthentic information, DFR notes that, “Facebook’s definition of ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ refers to instances in which individuals, pages, or groups ‘work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing.'”

Danielyan spends a full minute explicitly stating that theirs is not an anti-vaccine video.

Then they go on to say that “Facebook announced plans to curb vaccine-related misinformation,” prefacing a review of an anti-Gardasil video by Adekvad and Arthur Danielyan, one of its co-founders. Except the article misleadingly makes it seem as though Adekvad promoted an anti-vaccination campaign with its anti-Gardasil (an HPV vaccine) video.

Kharazian must not have watched the video – or may not be proficient enough in Armenian to have understood its contents – because at the very beginning, Danielyan spends a full minute explicitly stating that theirs is not an anti-vaccine video. The video isn’t even against HPV vaccination; it is against a potentially unsafe, outdated version of Gardasil which was bought, distributed, and used by Armenia’s government.

The article says that it is “outright vaccine-related misinformation about Gardasil, the brand name for the HPV vaccine,” it fails to say what in the video was misinformation.

In what seems to be a part of the full-court press following the publishing of the two pieces, there have been reports that AntiFake.am was reported to Facebook thousands of time. The consensus is that these were associated with Nikol Pashinyan’s “cyber army” which has been regularly mobilized since last year’s political upheaval to stifle dissenting viewpoints by reporting Facebook pages and individual accounts, as well as viciously attacking dissenters through comments, effectively intimidating many individuals from expressing themselves freely and openly.

Unclear Motives

All of this begs the question: why?

Why does a Washington, DC-based think tank for which Armenia has hardly registered as an area of interest over the years suddenly do a poorly-research two-part hit piece on tiny media outlets and other individuals critical of the government.

It’s impossible to know what exactly led the Atlantic Council to produce this slapdash “expose” but it sends the unfortunate message that it is ready to suppress the free speech of local media and dissenters by casting unfounded aspersions and threatening their right to exist and participate in the country’s political discourse.

With the inauthentic and misleading information offered in these articles and the evident coordination that accompanied in spreading the news, maybe it’s DFR Lab and Azatutyun that need to refer themselves to Facebook for delisting.

Mher Almasian contributed to this story.

5 Comments

  1. +1!
    I receive responses like the authors of original article did very important job. But they did not. It would be important and worth to be republished in case they revealed false statements published by the group, facts of misleading or deception (while the title claims they do). But non is done expect imitating investigation on who runs the pages (what they themselves never made secret of), and Russian IPs part was the only investigative part, that means nothing. As today another opinion said – Pashinyan’s family newspaper has US IPs. Does that mean they have US ties and the website is possibly affiliated to some parties in US?
    Just like fake news is a threat, such imitation of investigation is another threat, spoiling the concept of investigative journalism as a whole and the body publishing it.

  2. The Atlantic Council shall get exposed too. They can slice and dice all they want but truth is that media is less free in Armenia now than before Nikol. People who speak up about things they don’t like get harassed by the police, govt officials and in social media. The US supports Nikol and state department linked outlets will publish things of this sort going after their opponents but people can see right through it. You’re trying too hard…meanwhile regular people in the country are losing their jobs.

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