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Flying the Flag of Facebook for Power to the People – and the Politicians

Flying the Flag of Facebook for Power to the People – and the Politicians

A new flag is flying proudly these days alongside the Armenian national flag at opposition rallies for Armenia’s May 6 parliamentary elections, and it is the flag of Facebook. The US-based social network is proving an increasingly handy tool for shaking up Armenia’s ossified election system — both for exposing abuses and for campaigning — and political parties and voters alike are eager to claim allegiance.

In the last three months, Armenia has seen its number of registered Facebook users increase by nearly 18 percent (to 282,700), according to the international social media databank Socialbakers.com; the second highest increase in the South Caucasus, after Azerbaijan at 27.02 percent.

The social network has “solved” the problem of “the information blockade” about real life in Armenia that characterized the 2008 parliamentary election, commented one youth activist who bore the Facebook banner at a March 30 campaign rally in Yerevan for the Armenian National Congress, Armenia’s largest opposition coalition.

“I brought the Facebook flag to the rally to show the government that now there is a unique, reliable alternative [for information] to be used by everyone,” said 24-year-old Areg Gevorgian. Facebook’s own reaction to seeing its logo displayed this way at an Armenian political rally is not known, but used by everyone it is.

The ruling Republican Party of Armenia, government coalition member Prosperous Armenia, and the opposition Heritage and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun Parties are the most active political groups on Facebook, said social sciences researcher Laura Baghdasarian, who is working on a study of how Facebook is used in this year’s elections.

It makes for “a unique situation,” she continued. “Many politicians and parties have registered accounts in Facebook since last fall,” said Baghdasarian, director of Yerevan’s Region Center for Investigative Journalism. “It is interactive, and this is of key importance; through likes, shares and comments, no other tool provides such an opportunity to understand an audience.”

Or to get information from the source. Arguably, sensations like the Yerevan apartment that somehow managed to accommodate 101 registered voters also are contributing to voter curiosity about the site. Twenty-five-year-old Facebook user Edgar Tamarian posted about the apparently unusually spacious flat after finding it on a list of registered voters on the national police website; all of the supposed voters hailed from Georgia’s ethnic Armenian village of Nardevan. The police claimed the entry was “a mistake” that they had somehow overlooked.

For a political culture more alike to an insiders’ club, the public notoriety to be gained — or to impart — at the click of a mouse is a heady departure from the past. Opposition politicians sound off against government officials on the officials’ profile pages, while users post information about various party-sponsored handouts — vodka and coffee for a funeral dinner, for instance — or display photos and videos that they believe show the true face of various political figures.

“These elections are going to be interesting,” commented Samvel Martirosian, an IT expert who works on the election watchdog site iditord.org (“i-observer”), which maps reports of election irregularities filed by site visitors. “On the one hand, civil-society networking and reporting are intensifying in Armenia; on the other hand, Armenians have gotten to see how social media was used . . .by movements in Arab countries or for exposing and disseminating information about election fraud in Russia” and are eager to try their own hand.

[Editor’s note: the Open Society Foundation-Armenia, part of the Soros Foundations network, contributes financial support to iditord.org. EurasiaNet.org is operated under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of that network. ]

Ways of adapting to Facebook’s communication ethos of “post much, post often” vary, however. The Armenian National Congress attributed to youth activists the idea of taking Facebook flags to rallies, but did not comment to EurasiaNet.org further. The Republican Party of Armenia, for its part, notes simply that having a Facebook presence is “a universal practice.”

Personal styles are at odds, too. Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, now a member of Prosperous Armenia, and Heritage Party parliamentary faction leader Stepan Safarian manage their own profiles, while Artur Baghdasarian, head of government coalition member Orinats Yerkir, and Heritage Party Chairperson Raffi Hovannisian appear to delegate these tasks, said researcher Baghdasarian.

To what extent the Facebook relations between these groups and their supporters will stay civil remains open to speculation, noted independent media expert Lilit Bleyan, who works on an online TV program for the opposition-inclined A1+ news site.

“We have not yet developed a specific culture of Internet communication and this becomes apparent during the pre-election period,” she said. “Before the Facebook era, [voters] would not perhaps have had a chance to argue over these topics, and would stay friends after [the elections].”

But many voters appear willing to take that risk. Twenty-seven-year-old Yerevan economist Haroutiun Minasian said that “the power of the Internet” makes him “feel more confident” in the chances for a fair election. “I know we can now speak out about problems that no one used to discuss before,” he said.