Social Media as a Resource for Mobilization in the Electric Yerevan Protests

BY MARGARITA BAGHDASARYAN (Op-Ed Contributor) 

Paper poster may be accessed here: http://bit.ly/2md4nqD

Electric Yerevan, the Movement

On June 19, 2015 protesters gathered on the streets of Yerevan, Armenia to expresses their discontent about the Armenian Public Services Regulatory Commission’s decision to raise the price of electricity by 16.7%. The electricity price hike scheduled to take effect in August 2015, would constitute the third such price hike in two years. The Russian owned energy company Electric Network of Armenia (ENA), requested the price hike because it had accumulated more than $33 million in debt. Public discontent was significantly aggravated by the release of an ENA report that exposed the root causes of the accumulated debt— mismanagement and lavish overspending by ENA officials.  The release of this reported added to an already deep-rooted mistrust towards the government. Paying the higher fee was simply not an option the citizens were willing to accept. The people took this issue to the streets, gathering first at the capital’s Liberty Square then moving towards the presidential palace on Baghramyan Avenue. The protest lasted for 13 continuous days. The demonstrators’ main demand was the suspension of the 16.7% electricity price hike.

What started as a small-scale demonstration organized by the non-partisan activist group “No To Plunder” (Ոչ թալանին), morphed into one of the largest demonstrations in the history of independent Armenia, peaking at an estimated 20,000 participants.[1] The first few days of the protest were largely peaceful with only minor clashes with police. However, on the morning of June 23rd Armenian riot police used water canons and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators occupying Baghramyan Avenue. Police and unidentified civilians forcibly dispersed the protesters; roughly 200 demonstrators were arrested, several people were injured, phones and cameras were damaged in the process. The the police’s use of excessive force rather than deterring further protests, enraged the public. Images, videos, and anecdotes about the use of water canons rapidly circulated around social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter. By nighttime the demonstrators grew by thousands, and continued to occupy Baghramyan Avenue day and night until June 27, when President Serge Sargsyan announced a temporary suspension of price hikes. Some demonstrators viewed this as a victory and left the protest, others continued to stay in the streets until early July.

The organization and mobilization of the movement occurred predominantly on social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter. Facebook “groups” and Facebook “event pages” served as free and unrestricted sources from which average citizens could acquire information, express political discontent, and be motivated to join the activists. Additionally, Twitter was used to expand the scope of the moment to international audiences through the spread of popular hashtags. Because the movement was organized predominately on the web by a non-partisan activist group, it maintained a loose and informal structure, without a popular leader or ideological stance.[2] Furthermore, the activists exercised a consensus-based and horizontal decision-making process.[3] They developed guidelines for the protest, such as a no alcohol policy, mutual respect, and cleanliness. They also presented a list of demands—primarily, suspending electricity price hike—and set up a general body consisting of civic initiatives and working groups open to the public in order to discuss issues related to the protests.

Electric Yerevan and Social Media

On June 22, activist Babken DerGrigorian tweeted the following “I got it! Hashtag for the protest: #ElectricYerevan :-D.” The hashtag,  #ElectricYerevan quickly dominated the online conversation about the movement. Organizers, participants, news-outlets and sympathizers began to use the hashtag as an unofficial title for the movement, successfully webbing together a real-time stream of information. According to a BBC report the hashtag #ElectricYerevan was tweeted 20,000 times on June 24th.[4] Furthermore, according to Al Jazerra Stream the same hashtag was tweeted 64,000 times in just one week.[5] The hashtag trended on Twitter for several days, garnering immense international attention.

The extent of international media’s concern with the Electric Yerevan protests has been cited by some analysts as the reason why the Armenian government restrained its use of force against its citizens. Videos depicting riot police using water cannons and excessive force circulated around the internet raising concerns of human rights violations. Furthermore, the extent of international media coverage also reached the larger Diaspora Armenian communities, with individuals as well as political, social, and cultural groups expressing support by utilizing the hashtag and sharing information.

As a movement, the Electric Yerevan is noteworthy because in a world of failed “Occupy” movements and revolutions gone sour, Electric Yerevan was a success, because it  effectively mobilized the Armenian populous without organized political interference, either from the ruling or opposition parties. Civic initiatives in Armenia have been a relatively common occurrence within the past several years, however the size of Electric Yerevan protests and its presence on social media platforms set it apart from previous protests. In fact, it is extraordinary how a small group of activists, with no tangible resources, operating in a loose and informal structure were able to mobilize an estimated 20,000 people to coerce the Armenian government to suspending the planned electricity price hike.

There have been several significant citizen mobilization movements that occurred in Armenia within the past few years that actively used digital media and social platforms for advocacy and mobilization.[6] This is largely due to the fact that internet use in Armenia compared to traditional forms of media has no restriction.[7] While press freedom in Armenia is considered “not free,” Freedom House reports that there are no restrictions (blocks) on internet use in Armenia; specifically there are no blocks on social media and ITC (APPS) applications, no blocks on political and/or social content, along with no arrests of bloggers and/or ITC users.[8] Furthermore, social media has become “the main tool for producing a counter narrative to the state-owned media outlets and has allowed the distribution of ideas and the coordination of action and attention of participants.”[9] The Armenian population (nearly 50%) who has internet access, can use the internet to obtain independent and opposition web resources with politically neutral, or opposition opinions.[10] During the Electric Yerevan movement social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter served as convenient and instant ways to express and promote such opinions, which were essential for mobilizing the public.

Within the past few years opposition groups and civil society activists have began to use social media—Facebook in particular—for political and civil mobilization.[11] As of January 2015, there are an estimated 740,000 registered Facebook users in Armenia.[12] This is a significant number given the county’s small population. To put it into perspective about 1/4 of the country’s population uses Facebook. About 50% of these accounts are registered to 15-24 year old users.[13] Although Twitter is not as popular as Facebook, these social media platforms are often used to follow and participate in the discussion of political and social issues, rather than entertainment.[14]

Such a large and unrestricted access to Facebook played an instrumental role for the rapid mobilization of the Electric Yerevan movement. Facebook groups, most significantly Facebook event pages reached an unprecedented amount of people. Facebook events open to the public are accessible to anyone registered with Facebook. Direct invitations can be sent via Facebook to a user’s Facebook “friends” (any person or group who is registered with Facebook and linked to one’s account as a “friend”). Invitations to such events can be sent through a chain of “friends”—one person invited to the event can then freely invite others. Furthermore, users can easily access popular events in their vicinity, since Facebook provides users with a list of “popular events nearby.” The Facebook event pages created by Electric Yerevan activists provided the populous with an exact time and location for meetings, an official list of demands or reasons for the protest, along with an unrestricted platform to express opinions, ask questions, encourage others, discuss issues, post pictures and videos, and provide live updates.

For example, a Facebook event page created to mobilize the public for June 23, 2015 reached an estimated 60,000 individuals: over 60,000 people were invited to the event via Facebook, of whom 12,000 responded that they will be “attending.” The Facebook event created by the Facebook group “Electric Yerevan”  titled, “Mobilization campaign, to revoke the price hike,” (Համախմբման արշավ՝ չեղյալ համարեք թանկացման որոշումը) clearly stated the time and location for the mobilization,  «Ազատուցյան Հրապարակ» (Liberty Square) at 6 pm. The Facebook page also included the purpose of the event, along with a list of demands. The following text is obtained from the “event description” section of the above mentioned Facebook event.

Այսօր՝ Հունիսի 23-ին, ժամը՝ 18։00-ին, կոչ ենք անում համախմբման արշավ իրականացնել այն բոլոր ուժերին, մարդկանց, ովքեր նպատակ ու պահանջ ունեն՝

-Ազատ արձակել մեր եղբայրներին և քույրերին,

-Իջեցնել էլեկտրաէներգիայի սակագինը,

-Պատասխանատության ենթարկել ապօրինություններ կատարողներին,

-Բարեփոխել էներգետիկ ոլորտը։[15]

Translation:

Today, June 23, at 18:00 pm, we call on all parties to implement a mobilization campaign, for people who wish to and require:

-the release of our brothers and sisters (the 200+ individuals arrested on June 22nd)

-lowering of electric prices

-punishment for the violators and

-energy sector reform

Facebook events reaching a vast number of people were also created for June 24th, 25th and 26th by the Facebook group “We are against the increase in the price of electricity” (Դեմ ենք ԷլեկտրաԷներգիայի թանկացմանը) reached 28,000 people on June 24th, 18,000 people on June 25th, 11,000 people on June 26th. Like the previous example, these events also included an exact time and location for the meeting, along with directions and demands.

The following is from a the Facebook event page for the gathering on June 24th 2016. The event page is titled, “The struggle continues, 18:00 Liberty Square” (Պայքարը շարունակվում է՝ 18։00-ին Ազատության հրապարակ).

Հարգելի հայրենակիցներ, էլեկտրաէներգիայի ապօրինի թանկացման դեմ բողոքը շարունակվում է։ Ցուցարարները վերանվաճել են Բաղրամյան փողոցի սկզբնամասը՝ նախօրդ ամբողջ գիշեր մնալով այնտեղ։ Այսօր՝ 18։00-ին հավաքվում ենք Ազատության հրապարակում և երթով գնում միանալու Բաղրամյան փողոցում ակցիան շարունակող մասնակիցներին։

Մնում ենք փողոցում մինչև էլեկտրաէներգիայի սակագնի ապօրինի թանկացման որոշումը չեղյալ համարելը։

Ինչպես նաև օրվա ընթացքում կարող եք միանալ Բաղրամյանում ակցիա իրականցնող մասնակիցներին։

Յուրաքանչյուրիս ներկայությունը պարտադիր է։[16]

Translation:

Dear compatriots, the protest against the illegal electricity price increase is continuing. The protestors have regained Baghramyan Avenue, they have spent the entire night there. Today, at 18:00 pm we gather in Liberty Square and march to join the continuing demonstration on Baghramyan street.

We will stay on the street until the decision to increase electricity prices is annulled.

You can join the demonstrators carrying out the action during the day.

Everyone’s presence is required.

Similar Facebook events were created throughout the duration of the protest with numbers dwindling as the movement progressed. The largest number reached was 64,000 people invited to a Facebook event titled «Պահանջատիրական մեծ երթ ընդդեմ էլեկտրաէներգիայի սակագնի թանկացման» (Large march against the electricity price increase) on June 19th 2015, organized by “We are against the increase in the price of electricity.”

Facebook events also served as community hubs where active demonstrators not only provided updates, but also asked those at home to bring supplies for the protesters, such as water and food, blankets, first aid kits etc. along with exact locations where supplies can be dropped off. Local business also utilized the Facebook event pages to inform participants that they are welcome to wash up, eat and drink at their location. In one particular instance a local mother offered to babysit for the demonstrators. Her Facebook post read as follows;

«Աղջիկներ, մամաներ! Ես չեմ կարողանա միանալ ցույցին երեխեքիս նայող չկա, բայց ես հաճույքով կնայեմ ձեր երեխեքին! Լուրջ! Գրեք ինձ, պայմանավորվենք!»

Translation:

Ladies, mothers! I cannot join the protests because there is no one to watch my children, but I will gladly babysit your children! I’m serious! Message me to make arrangements.”

These examples demonstrate how social media created an active online community operating in a nonphysical space, and how activists were able to harness the political power of social media as space for expressing political opinions and a venue for joining causes and finding mobilizing information.

A “Like” And a “Tweet” Do not Make a Revolution, or do They?

Electric Yerevan’s presence on social media is in no way unique, in fact the Arab Spring protests and Iranian Green Revolution have been referred to by international media as well as academics as “Facebook and Twitter Revolutions.” Since the Arab Spring, political scientists and sociologists have produced a significant amount of academic research discussing the role of social media in modern socio-political movements. Some academics disprove the theory entirely, claiming that social media fabricates a sense of false-activism—hidden behind computer and phone screens—while others remain considerate of the political power of social media, claiming that social media plays a critical role in mobilizing, empowering, shaping opinions, and influencing change.[17] What is important to understand is that social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter are tools which can be utilized to achieve political outcomes, by mobilizing and empowering the public as well as shaping public opinion and influencing change. Social media itself cannot start a revolution (protest, movement, etc.) but it can be used to develop and spread one.

Similar to the print media, television and radio, social media platforms are simply tools. However, unlike traditional forms of media, social media has little to no cost, and works instantaneously, making it possible for a small group of concerned citizens to initiate political change within a short time span. Resources such as time, money and manpower, which are necessary for utilizing traditional forms of media are not necessary for utilizing social media. The only essential resource to access such a platform is internet.

Electric Yerevan was a movement which successfully utilized the resources that Facebook and Twitter provide in order to mobilize and empower the public, spread and shape anti-corruption opinions and influence real political change—such as the temporary suspension of the electricity price hike and improvement of accountability through an international audit of the ENA. Activists with relatively few monetary resources were able to reach hundreds of thousands of people by utilizing Facebook event pages, and popular hashtags.

The success of the Electric Yerevan movement cannot be solely attributed to the utilization of social media platforms. The will of the people, the universality of the issue in question, the general opinions held about corruption at all levels of government were all important and necessary aspects of this movement. However, in order to fully understand the success of the movement one must first understand the mechanisms it utilized for mobilization. It is reasonable to assume that without the existence of Facebook and Twitter this movement would have remained within the boundaries of  small activists groups. By spreading popular hashtags and creating Facebook event pages, where thousands of people could be invited to attend the demonstrations as well as engage in political discussions and access unrestricted information and live updates, the activists were able to successfully and rapidly mobilize the Armenian public without any monetary costs.

Conclusion

The rapid spread of internet technologies and online resources enhance the potential of social media to increase engagement in protests and other political behaviors. Those who join social movements and political groups on social media platforms have unrestricted access to mobilizing information that they may not obtain elsewhere, which provides them with abundant opportunities to engage in political activities. Because of this, social media is an essential resource in public mobilization for contemporary social movements and should be further studied.

References

[1] Ann Nielsen, “Protest Movement Electrifies Armenian Civil Society,” Cipe Development Blog, July 29, 2015 http://www.cipe.org/blog/2015/07/29/protest-movement-electrifies-armenian-civil-society/#.VrqvLbArIdX

[2]Nielsen, “Protest Movement Electrifies Armenian Civil Society”

[3]Nielden, “Protest Movement Electrifies Armenian Civil Society”

[4]BBC Trending. “What #ElectricYerevan is all about,” Facebook Video, 1:01, June 24, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/832942320102956/videos/909234485807072/

[5]Al Jazerra, The Stream. “#ElectricYerevan: Bringing power to the people in Armenia” Youtube Video, 38.08, July 1, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGvE1_9lAck

[6] “Freedom on the net 2015, Armenia,” Freedom House, Accessed Feb 1, 2015, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2015/armenia

[7] “Freedom on the net 2015, Armenia.”

[8] “Freedom on the net 2015, Armenia.”

[9] Nielsen, “Protest Movement Electrifies Armenian Civil Society,”

[10] “Freedom on the net 2015, Armenia.”

[11] “Freedom on the net 2014, Armenia,” Freedom House, Accessed Feb 1, 2015

https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2014/armenia#_ftn39

[12] Samvel Martirosyan, “Social Media in Armenia (2015 data),” Noravank Foundation, October 7, 2015, http://www.noravank.am/eng/issues/detail.php?ELEMENT_ID=13690

[13] Katy Pearce, “January 2015 Facebook use in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – according to Facebook,” Adventures in Research, January 3, 2015 http://www.katypearce.net/january-2015-facebook-use-in-armenia-azerbaijan-and-georgia-according-to-facebook/

[14] Mould, David H., and Yusuf Kalyango Jr. “Conclusion: Prospects on Global Journalism Practice and New Media.” In Global Journalism Practice and New Media Performance, pp. 72. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014.

[15] “Համախմբման արշավ՝ չեղյալ համարեք թանկացման որոշումը,” Facebook event page, June 23, 2015, Accessed February 1, 2015 https://www.facebook.com/events/1416322305362535/

[16] “Պայքարը շարունակվում է՝ 18։00-ին Ազատության հրապարակ” Facebook event page, June 24, 2016, Accessed February 1, 2015 https://www.facebook.com/events/914306131965092/

[17] Mourtada, Racha, and Fadi Salem. “Civil movements: The impact of Facebook and Twitter.” Arab social media report 1, no. 2 (2011): 1-30.

Image source: cbw.ge

About the Author 

Margarita Baghdasaryan is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. She currently works at the Transparency International Anticorruption Center (TIAC). 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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