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Armenia's velvet revolution and the political power of social media

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Armenian student protestors harness the power of social media to support Nikol Pashinyan (screenshot via YouTube).

Pashinyan’s rise to power in Armenia provides Australians a powerful case study of social versus mainstream media, writes Arthur Marusevich.

A GROUP OF PEOPLE wrapped with Armenian flags squatted around the grill perfecting the khorovats (BBQ), a bunch of children played hide and seek, musicians of all calibre entertained a mixed crowd of locals and supporters from diaspora. Into the darkness, they all revelled together as one.

Yet no one anticipated the outcome. It started as civil disobedience by a single opposition parliamentarian. With the support of a handful of independent journalists, this protest against a two-decade-old elite armed with the mainstream media turned into a velvet (or gentle) revolution.

How it all unfolded

When maverick Parliamentarian Nikol Pashinyan started his 14-day “My Step” march along the 195 kilometre stretch from the northern Armenian city of Gyumri to the capital Yerevan, little did he know that his protest would make him the next prime minister.

Pashinyan – a former journalist turned politician of a small opposition party – had never been a popular leader against the conservative old-guard, the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which had been in power since Armenia’s independence in 1991. Its latest leader, Serj Sargsyan, was the Prime Minister and President of Armenia between 2008 to 2018. He had done everything to stay in power, from changing the Constitution to massacring his own people during the 1 March 2008 elections, commonly referred to as “bloody March 1”.

But it seems that the people had had enough — especially the vibrant youth. They began merging forces with Pashinyan to display their anger and frustration over lack of economic opportunities, corruption and injustice, demanding Sargsyan’s resignation.

After an unsuccessful negotiation between Sargsyan and Pashinyan on 22 April, the people turned their protest into a national carnival revolution, this time paralysing the entire country. At one point, a group of men dressed in civilian clothes drove into the crowds and kidnapped Pashinyan. For the next 24 hours, Pashinyan was nowhere to be found. It was only until the protestors’ multiplication by the hour and the exacerbation of their frustration forced Pashinyan’s safe release. Within three hours of Pashinyan’s release, the self-proclaimed Prime Minister Sargsyan resigned.

During the 1 May elections, at first, the RPA blocked Pashinyan’s bid to replace Sargsyan as prime minister. However, in a vote on 8 May, Pashinyan was elected as the next Prime Minister of Armenia.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was amongst the first to congratulate Pashinyan.

Challenging the mainstream propaganda

The success of Pashinyan’s protests was largely dependent on social media — which explains why Pashinyan said his rucksack contained everything needed for the job: a laptop. In a downtrodden country dominated by the oligarchic political system, for over two decades, the state-run media narrative had predominantly been pro-Government. With the exception of a limited number of programs presenting alternative but irrelevant news, the mainstream media had not offered an objective and pluralistic information to the people.

This all started to change when a young citizen activism and political opposition emerged – one without the memories of the Soviet-era – and started using the tools and tactics of 21st Century social media against the mainstream heavyweights. Relying mostly on Facebook and Twitter, the young protestors were quick to multiply people across all cities, giving the silenced a renewed voice and hope until they were all heard as one. The mainstream media did not predict such a seismic shift in Armenia’s political landscape, as well as their own power, over the people.

Implications for Australia

If there is one thing we can learn from Armenia’s velvet revolution, it is this: no matter how hard the Australian mainstream elite may try to control our perceptions, they cannot compete with the power of social media, not even by undermining it with “fake news”.

This is already happening. For example, a recent survey has found that trust in the Australian media is already at a record low. Yet this does not come as a surprise.

Every day, the mainstream providers feed us with the same old narrative, within which operates a sense of greedy corporate energy, backed by both Liberal and Labor politicians, as well as Murdoch press, selling us the unsaleable — the Adani mine, for example. In such a technologically advanced world, many say that Industry 4.0 – the fourth industrial revolution – has already taken over. Here in Australia, we are being sold an idea that destroying the environment to dig a third-grade coalmine not even destined for Australia is somehow in our best interest.

Even better, take the example of the 2018 Budget. The vote-winning income tax cuts narrative is so bullishly being spun by the mainstream media, it almost has one convinced that it is a fair outcome if an individual earning $41,000 pays the same 32.5 per cent tax as does an individual earning $210,000.

But let Armenia’s velvet revolution remind us that the people will not be deceived by a mainstream media narrative. In this day and age, the power of social media is an unmatchable tool that the people can rely on whenever a handful of mainstream bullies try to erode our democracy.

Arthur Marusevich is a Canberra-based lawyer. You can follow him on Twitter @AMarusevich and find his website here.

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