Post-revolutionary Armenia, as a Target of Propaganda: Key Messages and Myths
Executive Director, Media Education Center, Armenia
Part 2, August 2019
After the Velvet revolution when the Armenian public found itself under the pressure of misinformation and fake news, biased reporting and propaganda, the term ‘hybrid war’ has quickly entered the Armenian public discourse. Experts started discussing how disinformation targeting the Armenian government and the elected leaders can undermine the achievements of the Velvet revolution and democratic changes brought with it.
The information manipulations have been involving topics of ‘Soros’, ‘LGBT’, ‘criminalization of domestic violence’, ‘Istanbul Convention’, ‘March 01 events’. Experts mention that anti-western rhetoric in Armenian media coincided with a range of information campaigns in foreign media aimed at portraying Armenia as a “pro-Russian country” for western audiences and “pro-Western” in Russia.
A set of messages which penetrated Armenian media even before the Velvet Revolution have not even changed since then. According to the media monitoring of six Eastern Partnership countries and Russia “Propaganda: Deepening the Gap in Mutual Understanding” implemented by Yerevan Press Club and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and the Secretariat of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, following messages, in particular, can be mentioned among the widely circulated ones:
• “Russia’s supply of arms to the parties to the Karabakh conflict is a means of deterrence, maintaining a balance of power. If Russia does not supply the weapons, some other players would do it and with worse consequences”.
• “Unfreezing of Karabakh conflict is a consequence of implementation West’s interests”.
• “Anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia are paid by the West”.
• “Civil Society organizations, which are advocating for rights, are instruments of the West”.
• “The prosperous future of Armenia is possible only in alliance with Russia (within the framework of the EAEU)”.
• “The Eastern Partnership is an anti-Russian project. Its only goal is to “tear off” the former Soviet countries from Russia. EaP leads to impoverishment and loss of sovereignty of partner countries”.
According to the study, those propaganda messages often enter the information environment ‘from Russian federal channels or under the influence of their content’. Moreover, propaganda being spread by those channels has a tangible impact on public opinion in the EaP countries. This circumstance is more important, since due to insufficient information exchange between EaP countries, ‘largely their image of each other is formed indirectly, through Russian media’. Currently there are about 2,000 TV programs of various types being broadcast in Armenia, the majority of which are in Russian language. As Tigran Hakobyan, Head of the Commission on Television and Radio, said recently in the RA Parliament when presenting the report ‘On the Activities of the National Commission on Television and Radio in 2018’, Armenia has to broadcast Russian channels. Unlike other countries, “in Armenia they are forced to allow the presence of foreign television companies in the public multiplex”, and that, in his opinion, poses certain risks in technical, political, and ideological dimensions. Out of 27 television companies operating within the framework of Armenian public multiplex 5 are broadcast in foreign languages and provisions of Armenian legislation cannot be applied to these foreign companies in case of any violations on their part, said Tigran Hakobyan. Besides, according to him, they may also create unfair competition: “it’s not a secret for any of us that they can broadcast racist, religious and other calls of discriminating character during their talk shows”, he said.
As Boris Navasardyan, Head of the Yerevan Press Club said in an interview to Aravot news paper, the audience of Russian TV channels in Armenia is smaller than it was in previous years. The latest researches show that as sources of topical information (except entertainment programs) Russian television channels yield to online publications, social networks and to Armenian television, and in terms of influence they rank third.
Propaganda messages have a certain effect on public opinion, and criticism of the new authorities, some stories about life in Armenia in Russian media outlets, especially the leading ones, “add fuel to the fire”, making the current Armenian opposition’s claims against the authorities more sound.
As Mr. Vavasardyan stated, “Democratic processes taking place in Armenia are considered unacceptable and alien for some representatives of Russian political elites having access to the Russian federal channels broadcasting in Armenia”. According to him, their negative attitudes to changes happening in Armenia after the Velvet revolution are reflected in TV programs, which they can influence. “Some circles – both in Armenia and Russia are dissatisfied with the processes taking place in Armenia. They have connections and ties in Russian television, and they add to the negative perception of Armenia to the existing negativity that we hear from the relevant Russian political circles”.
A certain part of the Armenian society has a perception that everything that is aired on the leading Russian television channels reflects the position of the Kremlin and the Russian authorities. “I am sure that connection is greatly exaggerated, but nothing can be done with this perception, people believe if something is said on TV, then it means Vladimir Putin thinks so”. In this sense, some publications about life in Armenia in the Russian media introduce a certain tension and negatively affect the perception of Russia by the Armenian public.
In order to address the problem of disinformation and propaganda, a number of educational initiatives have been implemented in Armenia to raise the level of media and information literacy among the public. Non-governmental organizations have been actively working with schools to provide them with necessary toolkits to develop their media literacy and critical thinking skills. “Media literacy cannot be limited to young people but should encompass adults as well as teachers and media professionals who often cannot keep the pace of the digital transformation induced by technologies,” says Haykaz Baghyan, head of Media Education Center, an Armenian NGO working in the field over the last decade.
According to him, media and information literacy curriculums should become part of national school curriculums, and wide-scale public education programs are to be considered. “Last week 30 teachers from urban and rural schools of Armenia gathered in Aghveran town at the Media Literacy Summer School to hear lectures on a subject that is yet not a common in many Armenian schools. The Summer School, organized by Media Initiative Center covered such topics as, news literacy and fake news, and included among others checklists of methods used to deceive readers on social media: image and video manipulations, half-truths, cyber risks and fake profiles.
According to Mr. Baghyan, media education refers to teaching and learning about how we search and filter information for importance, how can we analyze and evaluate critically its authenticity and credibility. Information overload today makes it very difficult to distinguish what is true and what is false. Essential part of media education classes is learning how to create own media products and messages, he said, as media production is the most effective way to acquire new skills.
“Propaganda detection is a difficult task,” said Lilit Karapetyan, a teacher from a rural school in Tavush province of Armenia. “We see that propaganda instead of stating facts, often present them selectively, with some bias with the aim to influence the public opinion”, she said. Children and adults should be able to question: is it an opinion or it is based on facts, does a story or a video or any piece of information choose only certain facts supporting the claim, what stereotypes are used, is the news too good to be true?,” she said. Media and information literacy can be an effective antidote to information distortion in the information age because it can empower people and lead to a greater social resilience against disinformation and propaganda.