Screen captures from various YouTube videos discussed in this article.

Armenia’s Click-to-Share Democracy

by | November 3rd, 2010 | 4 comments
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Women abused in their homes, conscripts humiliated in the military, and children abused at schools. None of the above are new phenomena in post-Soviet Armenia. But that’s the impression one gets by observing Armenia’s social networking. Day after day, YouTube videos (largely shared through Facebook) emerge depicting human rights violations, followed by societal anger, activism, and some government action.

In early September 2010, a video emerged showing humiliation of two conscripts in Armenia’s military. Within one week, and after vociferous anger floating through Armenian accounts of YouTube and Facebook, the abusive career major was arrested. Less than a month after the military video, a video interview with a young woman (and her mother-in-law) describing her sister Zaruhi Petrosyan’s two-year abuse at the hand of the latter’s husband and mother-in-law resulting in Zaruhi’s death hit the Internet. Tens of thousands watched the video; over 3,000 signed a petition, sponsored by this author, to Armenia’s prime minister, demanding justice and swift passage of domestic violence legislation. And less than a week after Zaruhi’s video, a YouTube clip showing abuse of a middle-school kid in the classroom sparked more anger — resulting in the dismissal of the teacher.

None of the above human rights abuses are new to Armenia. But until recently, Armenian citizens have heard about these instances through unconfirmed rumors — state-controlled or self-censored media wouldn’t show these videos on TV and aggressive opposition newspapers are not a reliable source either.

Now, however, YouTube video evidence is hard to dismiss and is watched more and more in Armenia as more and more users are getting access to faster Internet and are signing up for Facebook — the social networking platform where most of the YouTube videos are being shared. One would think that Armenians trust online activism more than the conventional political process of voting. Such activism sometimes combines entertainment:  a repatriate driver in Armenia posts funny (or annoying — depending on your perspective) videos of confrontation after being pulled over for what he believes to be bogus reasons (see this Ianyan  interview). Armenians’ trust in the Internet (and growing comfort with using it; according to government data as reported by Ditord’s blog, “over 160 thousand broadband internet users were reported as of October 1 against 125 thousand in January 1.”) has been foreseeable: despite imperfect Internet connection, Armenians are savvy with computers — the tiny country ranked number one in 2008 in pirated software by businesses.

With mice as their best friend, this is not the first time Armenians are voting unconventionally. Famous for distrusting traditional voting (mostly for the right reasons — Armenian celebrities, for instance, curse incumbents off camera during the taping of their endorsements), Armenians might still be the greatest voters of all. Until recently, Armenian citizens have been voting with their feet — leaving their homeland not only in economic desperation but also because of the blatantly corrupt and unjust governance they love to hate. Those who have voted with their feet in the past decades are probably close to a million, more than a third of Armenia’s current population. But while leaving a corrupt polity and a judgmental society behind, many Armenians (especially in Southern California) have found themselves in unhealthy families (see Ara Arzumanian’s The Lost Kids of Armenian America special for Ararat) — parents forced to work two full-time jobs to provide for their families in order to catch up with America’s cult of consumption while their children turn to drugs and violence in their subconscious substitute for quality family and networking time — something that citizens of Armenia take for granted. Voting with their feet, then, has its obvious shortcomings.

Those in Armenia who have not yet voted with their feet might see social networking as an alternative to the desperate search for democracy. True, YouTube and Facebook won’t make Armenians economically well off, but they have provided accessible and effective platforms for sharing concerns and ideas (something that Armenian bloggers have been doing for a longer time). For many, the Internet has become the only hope for pursuing justice. (Unfortunately, Facebook is also used for closed-minded purposes by some in Armenia.)

One may wonder why Armenia hasn’t banned Facebook or YouTube. An insider would dismiss this question, probably rightly so, as uninformed. Armenia is nowhere close to banning social networking. But such tolerance is nowhere close to the expectations and hopes of Armenians, who have a very high bar for democracy albeit being realistically cynical, and will find different methods of projecting their voices — whether “voting” with their feet or clicking-to-share Armenia’s next human rights abuse.

With computer mice as their new best friend, Armenians might have a more practical shot at justice in internal governance. As communications specialist Katy Pears observes, however, Armenia’s citizens seem to prefer mobile networking over personal computers.  It is yet to be seen whether Armenia’s mobile boom (there are estimated 1.3 million subscribers) will broaden the click-to-share democracy into digital democracy.