Trolls and Politicians: Anxieties of Governance in the Internet Age

Less than six months into its first term, Armenia’s new government has a lot on its agenda. Tasked with overhauling medicare, revamping entitlement spending, improving education standards and implementing judicial reform, lawmakers can barely tackle Armenia’s international commitments.

As if the workload weren’t daunting enough, the Prime Minister is expected to juggle the commitments of his office with never-ending requests to weigh in on minor social disputes, no matter how inconsequential. Unhappy members of fringe political movements demand sit-down meetings with the Prime Minister. Disgruntled employees insist on personal assurances from Pashinyan in support of their causes. Others still block major thoroughfares until their protests are acknowledged by the highest offices in the country.

the King Solomon approach to governance risks undermining the very pillars of democracy which Pashinyan hopes to prop-up.

As a leader who built his political career on the promise of direct democracy and a reputation for empathy, Pashinyan knows not to disappoint the crowd, lest a particular spout of bad weather be blamed on the failure of the Revolution. This strategy can certainly be beneficial in the short term, as it empowers citizens to take on a greater role in civil society. In the long-term, however, the King Solomon approach to governance risks undermining the very pillars of democracy which Pashinyan hopes to prop-up

Properly functioning democracies are usually endowed with robust institutions designed to deal with precisely those sorts of issues. Ministries should be equipped to respond quickly and effectively to the concerns of citizens covered by their respective portfolios—NOT the Prime Minister. Achieving such a level of ministerial prerogative would require his ministers to take on a greater level of responsibility in the way their particular agencies are run.

Adekvats (Photo: Facebook)

A recent scandal surrounding an obscure political group perfectly illustrates this problem. Following a cryptic Facebook Live rant in which the Prime Minister warned viewers about the dangers of black-clad people roaming the streets of Yerevan, police, apparently eager to please, picked up the ringleaders of a fringe anti-Pashinyan political grouping known as the “Adekvats.” Perhaps taking a page from the “Proud Boys” playbook (a controversial right-wing men’s organization fronted by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes), the men live-streamed themselves walking across central Yerevan dressed entirely in black clothing in an act meant to provoke authorities.

Though they were promptly released without charges, the episode triggered sharp criticism from all sides of the Armenian political spectrum. While some commentators attacked the Prime Minister’s increasingly paranoid and populist rhetoric, others spotted a strategic faux-pas for the authorities. The entire affair brought much-craved attention to the group, which did not hesitate to milk it dry. They could now claim, with some degree of truth, to be political dissidents.

As is the case for most political movements born out of the internet, Pashinyan’s latest opponents have learned to wield the language of social media into a powerful tool with which to jab authorities. That the tools of social media which brought victory to the new government less than a year ago are now used against them might be construed as poetic irony. It also makes the authorities’ lackluster response to the challenge that much more puzzling in context.

In politics, a week can feel like a year. This incident will likely blow over only to be replaced by countless others. The government should not have to worry if it concentrates its efforts on delivering promised change. Come next election, the results of successful reforms will speak louder than any meme.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister would do well to follow one of the oldest pieces of advice on the internet: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

1 Comment

  1. Those Adequat would probably have stayed in the shadow if only the PM and the police would not have put them in the light. This alone says a lot on their very limited capacities to deal with more complex tasks, such as diplomacy for ex, or medicare.

    In journalism, even occasional, facts are important : they became de facto legitimate dissident and victims of the gvt double standard policy when they got arrested for their voluntarily provoking declaration to “throw stones on PMs head”, which was echoing the earlier same declaration from a My Step member during a My step rally to “throw stones over Bako Sahakyan head”. One got arrested, the other not. Free advertising offered By Nikol ans Ossipyan. And its just the beggining.

    But yes its highly ironic that the opposition is using exactly the same method (less heavy populism and the cohort of fb fake accounts though) that was used by Nikol to take the power. Considering how it started, I wonder how long the gvt of the new Armenia will stand before a massive crackdown on the opposition, to “lay them low on the asphalt and throw them to the walls”, as our mentally instable PM already announced…

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