Speculation about the fate of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov once tipped as his potential successor, has gripped Central Asia and observers of the region ever since she vanished from public life amid a corruption scandal more than two years ago. So Uzbek social media was understandably set ablaze when a new Twitter account earlier this month began publishing a stream of posts suggesting Karimova herself was the author of the tweets.
But an investigation by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, has found that the person -- or group -- tweeting from the handle @Zabitaya1972 is merely posing as Karimova, whose popular Twitter account was shut down around the time she was placed under house arrest in 2014. Her conspicuous absence from her father's funeral last month, combined with her prolonged silence, has fueled rumors concerning her whereabouts.
The purpose of the Twitter hoax remains unclear, though critics of the government suspect Uzbek security services may be involved. The appearance of the Twitter account comes as Shavkat Mirziyaev, Uzbekistan's prime minister and acting president, seeks to shore up his power base following Karimov's death.
Mirziyaev has issued no comment on the legal status of Karimova, who was reportedly placed under house arrest in 2014. But for many, the fact that Uzbek authorities did not grant her temporary release to attend her father's funeral in September -- and even omitted her name when offering condolences to Karimov's family -- speaks louder than words.
Shortly after the account was created on October 2, the author or authors -- using the Twitter name Afina -- appeared to confirm widely circulating rumors that Karimova had been moved from house arrest to forced institutionalization in a psychiatric clinic in Tashkent.
Without claiming directly to be Karimova, Afina darkly tweeted about being held against her will, desperately appealing to be allowed to see "my children," and posting an image of a typed letter -- signed by "Gulnara Karimova" -- to her "mother."
The online reaction online was immediate. Uzbek social media users -- fans and critics of Karimova alike -- immediately began analyzing the clues and debating the authenticity of the account.
Many believed that Karimova was indeed tweeting from the account, citing the tone and content, images of handwritten notes posted by Afina, and what appeared to be scraps of insider information only Karimova or someone close to her could have known.
After expressing gratitude that her "requests" to see her daughter had been honored, Afina abruptly began launching bitter broadsides against acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev and the rest of the Karimov family, particularly Karimov's younger daughter, Lola, who remains active in public life in Uzbekistan.
Then, on October 9, Afina wrote in Russian: "Some guests are here. It looks like they are taking me away to be shot."
The tweets continued the following day, albeit with a notably different tone. Over the next several days, Afina posted series of first-person -- and at times obscene -- tweets implicating Lola Karimova in corruption and various crimes, including sex trafficking.
During this period, Afina contacted numerous influential social media accounts and opposition outlets via direct messaging -- including RFE/RL on October 12.
In the appeals, Afina asked RFE/RL and other outlets to write articles based on the account and publicize information from prepared texts.
In a Twitter exchange over several hours via direct messages, Afina explicitly claimed to be Gulnara Karimova.
But when RFE/RL tested Afina on basic information about Karimova's biography, the Twitter user repeatedly failed. For example, Afina appeared to believe that the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) -- where Karimova once took a course -- was in Boston. In fact, it is located in New York City.
RFE/RL then asked Afina a trick question about FIT, asking the interlocutor to "confirm" that the institute is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is located "on the west side of the Potomac River." Afina confirmed this deliberately erroneous information.
In a final attempt to confirm the Twitter user's identity, RFE/RL then asked Afina to take a selfie while holding up three fingers and send it via direct message. In response, Afina sent a photograph of a woman's hand, with four fingers visible, resting on the edge of notebook. The notebook contained handwritten lines of what appeared to be poetry -- similar to posts that Gulnara Karimova had frequently made from her own Twitter account before 2015.
When asked if the "beautiful poem" was her own, Afina replied: "Yes, thanks. Just, thinking out loud." In fact, however, the text is identical to excerpts of a romance advice column published on a Huffington Post blog in 2015.
As Afina adopted a more desperate tone, asking that serious allegations against the Mirziyaev government be published, RFE/RL confronted the user directly with the evidence that he or she was not Gulnara Karimova.
Afina admitted to the deception, but said that Karimova needs "help." The Twitter user then switched to Russian and claimed to be Karimova's daughter, Iman. As evidence, Afina sent a photograph of Iman identical to a publicly accessible image posted several years ago on the teenager's social media accounts.
After RFE/RL continued to press for evidence of the Twitter user's true identity, Afina stopped responding. Later in the day, the Afina resumed tweeting as Gulnara Karimova, providing biographical details that carefully corrected some of the mistakes RFE/RL had challenged him or her on in the private exchange.
'We Need Revolution!'
Although the true identity of the person -- or persons -- behind the hoax cannot be determined with certainty, several individuals contacted recently by Afina via direct message told RFE/RL they believe more than one person may be using the account -- and that Uzbekistan's National Security Committee (SNB) may be involved.
"This is just an SNB project. [They are] trying to get [Karimova's] supporters," a well-known Uzbek Twitter activist using the pseudonym AkhmadxonUSA told RFE/RL.
Akhmadxon, known as a follower of the influential exiled imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, confirmed that the real Gulnara Karimova had reached out to him via videoconference two years ago when she became embroiled in corruption scandals that preceded her spectacular fall from grace.
He says the real Karimova asked for his help in getting her messages to the public, and that her appeals superficially resembled those he recently received from Afina via direct messaging on Twitter. However, he said, having spoken extensively with her on her verified account two years ago, he was "100 percent sure" that Gulnara was not operating the Afina account.He added that Afina refused to communicate over video conference and claimed "not to remember" an agreed-upon password that the real Karimova had urged him to ask for in case others might impersonate her on social media.
He believes Afina's outreach is a provocation. "The last time I talked with Afina, she kept saying: 'We need revolution, we need to demand our rights!'" Akhmadxon told RFE/RL. He noted that "only maybe three people in the world" knew about his exchanges with Karimova, so if Afina is not Karimova, the person operating the account had access to her communication history -- such as the security services who presumably seized her electronic devices when she was arrested -- or had monitored the original exchanges. The pattern of communication from the Afina account and the people the user chose to reach out to via direct messages closely echoes previous tactics known to be used by Uzbek Security Service "trolls," who have adopted increasingly sophisticated messaging tactics in the past few years according to social media analysts.
The editor of a website known for lampooning Uzbek politics also told RFE/RL that Afina had contacted the outlet claiming to have compromising materials about the Mirziyaev government.
The texts Afina asked RFE/RL to publish stressed the importance of human rights and other values promoted by Western governments. They also included claims that Gulnara's son, Islom, was recognized by Karimov as his "true heir."
This claim contradicts speeches made by Mirziyaev, who has identified Karimov as his mentor and teacher and painted himself as the authoritarian president's rightful successor.