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An unidentified man has been detained by Armenia’s National Security Service for allegedly making a fake Facebook account which he used to disseminate false information about Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s statements regarding the assasination of Qasem Soleimani.
Shortly after the news broke on 3 January that the United States assassinated Iranian top military commander Qasem Soleimani a Facebook user by the name of Diana Harutyunyan made a post alleging that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had congratulated the US Ambassador to Armenia on ‘the successes of the United States in Iraq directed against international terrorism’.
Pashinyan made no such statement. Nevertheless, the allegations in the post were picked up by Azerbaijani and eventually Iranian news outlets.
On 4 January, Pashinyan wrote on his Facebook page that this news was not true and the account that posted the original story was a fake account.
‘This is one of those instances where fake “freedom of speech” poses a threat to our national security,’ Pashianyan wrote. ‘The authors of this news and their motives have to be identified.’
On 5 January, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) published an announcement and video claiming they had identified the person behind the fake Facebook account and had already detained him. The announcement states that Armenia’s national security interests were undermined when fake information containing national, racial and religious animosity was spread online publicly.
A criminal investigation has been launched, however, the NSS has not revealed what crimes the suspect is accused of committing, stating only that ‘the investigation is based on corresponding articles in Armenia’s Criminal Code.’
In the video published by the NSS, the suspect, without being identified and with his face blurred and his voice altered, explains that he made the post to ‘discredit’ the Pashinyan government.
‘I did this because I have opposing views [from the Pashinyan administration]’, he said, adding that he considers former President Robert Kocharyan’s arrest ‘unfair.’
The suspect claimed that he created the account in 2018 in order to share political articles and personal opinions.
‘I, however, did not think that the [latest] post would become so widespread and cause harm to Armenia’s national interests and security,’ the detainee said in the video. ‘I apologize for what I did.’
The account for Diana Harutyunyan has been taken down.
In an interview with Yerkir Media, Viktor Soghomonyan, Kocharyan’s chief of staff, said that the video was a ‘show’.
‘Whoever wrote the script and directed this show should be fired,’ Soghomonyan stated.
Human rights activist Zaruhi Hovhannisyan told OC Media that in her opinion the confession in the video was forced and not sincere.
She said that if one takes into account the speed with which the NSS was able to identify the real user behind the account, the authenticity of the confession is even more dubious.
Hovhannisyan also had concerns about the account’s age.
‘The part about being a Kocharyan supporter cannot be true, because the account has been active for many years now’, Hovhannisyan said. ‘In the confession, he states that he created the account in 2018, however, that is a lie.’
On 5 January, the Head of Armenia’s Public Council, Styopa Safaryan, posted a screenshot of, apparently, the same Diana Harutyunyan Facebook page spreading false information about the 2016 April conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
‘If now Diana was working against the current regime because Kocharyan is imprisoned’, Safaryan captioned the screenshot. ‘Then who was he working for in 2016 when Kocharyan was living in freedom?’
Zaruhi Hovhannisyan believes that the fake account might be linked to alleged Russian ‘troll factories’ that were discovered in 2017. ‘All the posts under this account were in Russian,’ Hovhannisyan explained. ‘I believe this fake account had specific clients.’
‘Not enough legal grounds’
In an interview with OC Media, Samvel Martirosyan, an information security expert and member of the Internet Governance Council, an advisory board containing both governmental and non-governmental stakeholders, said that the NSS would probably not be able to find enough legal grounds to indict ‘Diana.’
‘It was obvious in the confession video that the detainee was reading a written script prepared for him’, Martirosyan said. ‘However, that does not mean he is not the actual person behind the fake account.’
As for how the NSS was able to identify and detain him in such a short period of time, Martirosyan said that he sees several possibilities.
‘It’s possible that NSS agents had infiltrated fake user groups, or someone from these groups could have outed the person behind the Diana Harutyunyan account’, Martirosyan explained.
Martirosyan also had doubts that the NSS has special equipment (possibly Russian) that allows them to find the real people behind different fake accounts.
Martirosyan also said that it is possible that the NSS was aware of the fake account and had already identified the real owner, but only took action after Pashinyan’s announcement.
In terms of what can be done to prevent the spread of fake accounts and misinformation, Martirosyan claimed that there is no need for a legal solution to this problem.
According to him, many people prefer to remain anonymous online, which is why they would prefer to use accounts under false names.
‘However, the fact that there are fake accounts that intentionally spread malicious and hate-filled misinformation is something to be concerned about’, Martirosyan said. ‘Any legal solution, for example, making the spread of misinformation punishable by law, can become a tool for political pressure and persecution.’