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Activists, Be Careful Who Your Friends Are Online

In a post for Global Voices Advocacy, Onnik Krikorian notes that Facebook has been used to "encourage and maintain contacts between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the absence of traditional forms of communication blocked off as a result of the still unresolved conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh."

But this, as Krikorian points out, can be a double-edged sword:

[S]ome activists in Azerbaijan have already expressed concern at how connections with contacts and friends in Armenia might be used against them. “[One activist] said if pictures of Azerbaijanis together with Armenians are found on the internet, then they will have to go to the KGB and be questioned,” a German journalist friend recently wrote after a visit to Baku, the capital of the oil-rich former Soviet republic. It's also not the first time that ‘warnings' have been voiced by officials alleging that social network sites allow “hostile forces us to use different Internet services against us.”

In particular, Krikorian points to an article on the pro-government that calls out prominent Azerbaijanis for having Armenian friends, including RFE/RL journalist Khadidja Ismayilova:

Regardless, responses to the article from liberal Azerbaijanis on Facebook were ones of alarm, with a prominent journalist calling it “disgusting.” Others considered it as part of an ongoing campaign sanctioned by official circles to discredit the use of Facebook in Azerbaijan, while others simply responded by saying “I'm so ashamed” and “truly pathetic.” Of course, with tensions high between Armenia and Azerbaijan, comments on the article, translated here were mixed, but some even suggested that Azerbaijani activists and journalists named should be ostracized or ‘punished.'

Of course discrediting by association is nothing new. Azerbaijani oppositionists have always been accused of being Armenian stooges. But it's interesting to see this applied in an online context, especially given the ease of establishing and proliferation of those "weak ties."

It isn't unfeasible to imagine a future where repressive governments take action against people for who they follow on Twitter (or worse, in terms of framing someone, who they are followed by.) Or a Facebook "friend" could add someone else to a group, perhaps calling for the violent overthrow of the regime -- thus implicating the activist. Take for example this case from earlier this year, when a Palestinian reporter was detained after being tagged in a Facebook image that made fun of the president.

Matthew Ingram at GigaOM wrote a piece this week looking at how a few companies are attempting to build a social version of Google's PageRank (which measures a website's relative importance on the web).

So conceivably in the future, as individuals with social networking presences, we will be ranked according to how many "friends" we have online, or how many "influential" friends we have, or how many times our tweets are retweeted by influential tweeters, or how many times our Facebook status updates are "liked" etc etc. Makes sense for advertisers of course to identify the multipliers, but also sounds like the worst nightmare for the shy kid at high school.

It isn't hard, however, to see such a tool being used for more Orwellian ends, say by a repressive regime, where someone's online presence (and threat level) would be analyzed based on their friendships or links exchanged with "dangerous" individuals. It could be an online automated "credit rating" -- where essentially your credit is based on how clean you keep your nose.

As we reported yesterday, Azerbaijani youth activists, generally a pretty tech savvy bunch, are calling for a day of protest on March 11. It will be interesting to see how it develops.