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Tajik Students, Educators Claim They're Pressured To 'Troll' Government Critics

University students, officials, and lecturers in Tajikistan are being pressured by the state to serve as online trolls to counter opposition figures and other government critics, according to documents and personal testimonies obtained by RFE/RL.

The campaign involves hundreds of people being recruited to work for "response factories" to set up multiple fake social-media accounts to be used as a platform for pro-government activities, according to five sources who spoke to RFE/RL. The so-called response factories are part of a government effort to counter what it calls an online "smear campaign" that it alleges is orchestrated by the opposition and which it claims employs its own fake social-media accounts.

Their activities primarily include sharing and "liking" material that discredits government critics, taking part in social-media debates to attack opposition figures, and promoting state propaganda. For their efforts they are provided no compensation, and failure to comply could result in repercussions, they say.

The five -- all of them university students or lecturers who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of repercussions -- alleged they received orders from their university administrations and the Education and Science Ministry, which they claimed in turn received instructions from law enforcement agencies.

One told RFE/RL that the recruits were required to provide their bosses with detailed accounts of their everyday activities with screenshots of their posts, "likes," and comments.

Another estimated the number of "recruits" at around 400 across the country of some 9 million.

"Each of them have about 10 fake social-media accounts, so in total there are some 4,000 'people' actively engaged in social-media debates...trying to manipulate public opinion," the source claimed.

The pool of "recruits" is divided into several smaller teams described as "information-analysis groups," according to those who spoke to RFE/RL. Each group has its own team leader.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service obtained copies of several letters or instructions the sources said were e-mailed to the heads of schools and universities and to the "information-analysis groups."

A copy of one such letter alerts recipients of a planned statement by Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party, to be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.

The letter, titled: Attention! Attention! Attention!, was sent to heads of schools and universities in April. "Kabiri goes live again this evening at 20.00," the letter states, calling on recipients to be "active during the interview" and to prepare questions and comments.

Kabiri, who lives in self-imposed exile in Europe, is the main target of the campaign, the recruits said.

Another letter obtained by RFE/RL notes public anger over an announced plan by the government in March to raise prices for Internet services.

That letter was titled: Urgent! Confidential!, and sent to directors of schools, colleges, and universities and the heads and members of information-analysis groups.

"As we all know, certain groups ... are trying to use the Internet price hike as a pretext to urge Dushanbe residents, especially the young, to stage protests. They are planning rallies in coming days in the capital," says the undated, unsigned letter. To "prevent such undesirable action," the letter stresses, requires a "full-scale effort."

It issues concrete instructions to defend government policies, including condemning calls for protest rallies, and calling for peace and stability "through social media, especially Facebook."

The letter suggests that "knowledgeable scholars use their experience and skills" to publish relevant articles to aid the effort. It goes on to instruct recipients to report any suspicious activities to authorities, including calls for protests they notice on social media.

The unpopular move to raise Internet prices for smartphone users was subsequently reversed by President Emomali Rahmon in April amid growing public anger.

The government frequently blocks social media and independent news websites. Many Internet users in the country complain of slow Internet speeds.

Official Denial

When contacted by RFE/RL, the Education and Science Ministry acknowledged sending one letter to students, but denied that it had any role in an alleged government effort to recruit trolls.

"We sent a letter [to students] but it wasn't aimed at creating troll farms. The letter was sent at the height of the period when many young people were joining terrorist and extremist groups like the Islamic State," spokesman Ehson Safarzoda said.

"In the letter, we noted that universities need to set up [antiextremist] propaganda groups to organize discussions with students," he told RFE/RL.

It is unclear whether the letter Safarzoda refers to was among those obtained by RFE/RL. However, one letter, which featured an Education and Science Ministry letterhead and was signed by Deputy Education Minister Rahmatullo Mirboboev, addresses concerns over the spread of extremism in society. It calls for efforts to prevent young Tajik from joining "extremist and radical parties and movements."

Dated February 6, 2019, the letter instructs the heads of the schools and the information-analysis groups to prepare articles under the rubric We Against Extremism!

The individuals who spoke to RFE/RL said instructions and letters sent by the ministry came frequently, and were far from a one-off occurrence.

Unpaid Trolls

The five described how they were instructed to use any means online, including bad language and fake photos, to attack government critics and activists.

In addition, they were often required to write articles for various publications, one recruit claimed, describing it as one of the most undesirable tasks. "A student, or a biology teacher...they know nothing about writing [political] articles," he said. "Other activities include trying to hack various accounts, creating fake pages to impersonate someone else...and sending threatening letters to certain people."

The five individuals who spoke to RFE/RL said that recruits had to do trolling on their own time, with no financial compensation or any other incentives from authorities. "I am fed up spending all day writing bad articles about someone or to like and comment on Facebook posts," said one recruit employed by a Tajik university.

However, another said, they had little option but to comply. "Refusing to do it entails the risk of losing your job, and they also use all sorts of ways to bring you into disrepute," he said.

Another said that he had left his job and was now leaving the country.

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