For Armenians stuck indoors, the internet provides comfort, festers hate

Author: Nelli Petrosyan

Illustrator: Mananiko Kobakhidze

I look out of the window; there is an empty playground, a few grandparents and people rushing home from the store. One the other side of the window, my family—like many others around the world—has been stuck in self-isolation for weeks.

The coronavirus officially came to Armenia on March 1, when the first case was confirmed. Over the last several weeks, the number of cases has grown and more and more Armenians are stuck indoors, waiting for the government to lift restrictions and return to normal life.

In the meantime, however, people are spending more and more time online. While the internet has been a blessing in some cases—charity drives have assisted the vulnerable and online classes have helped children and students continue their education—it has also fed a growing storm of disinformation, fake news and hate speech about the virus.

Hate speech, online or in other media, is nothing new for Armenia. Like most countries around the world, social media platforms have become amplifiers for disinformation, fake news and hate speech against women, minorities and other groups.

But human rights defenders and media observers note the trends have been accelerated by the coronavirus and our new reality.

Gegham Vardanyan, the editor of website, notes that Armenian media outlets usually spread whatever type of  disinformation is trending in the world—which today is the coronavirus.

"In general, in the case of rapidly developing events, the volume of false news grows. It happens during political and civil movements, natural disasters, major disasters or celebrations. Covid-19 was no exception,” he says.

“There are many false, half-true, manipulative and mythical rumors about the origin, spread and treatment of this virus, they are spreading and I think they will spread in the future too.”

Arman Gharibyan, a human rights activist and the founder of the Human Rights Power, a local NGO, has noticed that hate speech on social media is now targeting different groups.

 “In general, I can say that the groups that were targeted before this state of emergency are not as targeted these days. In the past, it had mainly been religious and sexual minorities, often women and human rights defenders,” Gharibyan says.

He points out that as more people are stuck at home, they have started to use social media as an outlet for pent up aggression. Instead of just consuming fake news and disinformation, they are now also creating it.  

Psychologist Zhenya Vardanyan notes that some of the hate speech and disinformation is driven by a sense of panic in the general public.  "Under conditions of high anxiety and fear, sometimes a person tends to present information in an exaggerated, unrealistic way,» she says.

“People's lifestyle and schedules have changed, and various restrictions lead to information stress. This happens when a person is not able to solve the problem, to make decisions for himself.”

One of the first victims was the woman who has been blamed for initiating the widespread of the coronavirus in Armenia. Known locally as the Etchmiadzin case, she quickly became a stimulus for the spread of hate speech. Her photograph was widely spread and trolls (as well as politicians) started to target her.

The Human Rights Defender and many human rights organizations decried the attacks.

Karine Davtyan, director of the Women's Rights House, a local NGO, says the government played a role in spreading hate speech against the woman

"Officials were constantly spreading information about the woman's illness and the spread of the virus, which always contained certain personal information. I think some politicians could have taken into consideration the skepticism of members of our society about the disease and predicted such behavior,” she says.

Davtyan notes that after the woman’s case was publicized, public and media attention was focused on the ceremony she attended, ignoring other public gatherings.

She adds that the attention fueled tension, eventually leading to a fight between members of the woman’s family and one of the Facebook commenters. 

There have been other cases over the past few weeks. For instance, the number of fake pages and groups about the virus has also increased. 

One of the most famous examples was a report about the hantavirus, which was reported by Armenian media. Although the Global Times Chinese-language tabloid soon reported that the virus was not new and there was a vaccine against it, Armenian media described it as a "new virus."

In a separate incident, a Facebook page reported that "The Ministry of Defense has announced 10 servicemen were infected with the coronavirus."  

The article itself, however, was about the US Department of Defense, not the Armenian Ministry of Defense.   The ministry spokesperson responded to the reports in an effort to calm the public after the report was widely shared.

But Gharibyan, the human rights activist, argues the government should be doing more to combat the growing number of fake news reports, hate speech and disinformation about the virus. 

“In order to reduce discrimination on social networks, it is desirable for people with real authority to raise their voices in the public sphere. First of all, I mean the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, whose Facebook page is followed by 600,000 people; he should start implementing these rules from his page,» Gharibyan says.

Vardanyan, the psychologist, sees some cause for optimism, however. She says recently she has noticed more positive messages on social media, especially compared to several weeks ago, when the first cases were announced.

“Some picture of adaptability, positivity, social responsibility and a sense of the public redefining values is noticeable among our society,” she says.




Chai-khana Survay