SGI Quarterly, April 2011

Social Media in Armenia-Azerbaijan Peacebuilding
By Onnik Krikorian

When Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, two youth activists in Azerbaijan, were
detained on politically motivated charges in July 2009, supporters naturally
used social networking sites such as Facebook to campaign for their release.
Spreading networks wide in order to disseminate information and updates,
there were obviously risks involved, especially as activists could be
monitored if privacy was compromised.

For them, however, that didn't matter. The important thing was that Facebook
was crucial in the campaign to release the two men. And, as international
awareness of their plight increased before their unexpected conditional
release in November last year, they were probably right. Despite the
inherent risks, there is no doubt that connecting people is something that
Facebook excels at.

Indeed, significant progress had already been registered in another area,
that of online communication and dialogue between Armenians and
Azerbaijanis, months before the activists' arrest. Moreover, it was again
Facebook, rather than blogs or other traditional means, which was pivotal in
this respect. As a result, the online environment which exists today was
unimaginable two and a half years ago.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the disputed territory of
Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. Over 25,000 were killed and a million
forced to flee their homes until a 1994 cease-fire agreement put the
conflict on hold. Even so, frontline skirmishes claim the lives of dozens of
conscripts each year. Traditional forms of contact have also been cut off,
and it is impossible for citizens from either country to visit the other.

True, meetings between civil society activists take place in third
countries, but both societies generally frown upon such events, and
potential participants are sometimes reluctant to take part. A recent survey
by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC), for example, found that 70
percent of Armenians opposed friendship with Azerbaijanis, while 97 percent
of Azerbaijanis felt the same way about Armenians.

Therefore, such meetings are often shrouded in secrecy, even if this limits
their effectiveness in wider society. Meanwhile, even when contacts are made
outside of the conflict zone, people lose touch when they return home. But,
in a brave new world of Facebook and Twitter, such a situation can now be
addressed, or at least to a certain extent.

However, even if civil society organizations should have been the first to
introduce the use of such tools into their own peacebuilding activities, it
was instead left up to individuals. Through my own personal project and work
as Caucasus regional editor for Global Voices, a citizen media site
established at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, adding contacts in
Azerbaijan allowed them to look into the lives of some Armenians and vice
versa.

And while propaganda on both sides sought to convince respective populations
that the other thinks only of revenge, the reality was quite different. For
example, it probably comes as no surprise that many Armenians found online
are not too dissimilar from their counterparts in Azerbaijan, with most
rarely posting about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, preferring to instead
share links and commentary about music and films.

True, this isn't always the case, with nationalists from both sides also
online. However, as Facebook is primarily "social," spreading hateful
propaganda can result in users having their accounts suspended.
Nevertheless, if one of the key attributes of Facebook is that it is a
social networking site, some critics argue that rather than extend
connections, it simply replicates those to be found in the real world. Such
concerns are valid, of course, but they overlook the fact that Facebook is a
tool with strengths and weaknesses determined by how it is used. It should
also be evaluated in the context of fairly ethnically homogenous countries
such as Armenia and Azerbaijan with no other means to communicate. Even
"liking" a personal photograph or openly wishing someone a happy birthday
can be revolutionary in this context.

Simply put, after a period of virtual trust building and overcoming
stereotypes, a space for dialogue can finally be created. Even on a small
scale, such interactions directly challenge the very basis on which
isolation from each other is justified. Skype can also be considered
invaluable here too, and sooner or later, networking not only spreads, but
also becomes "acceptable."

Even so, such connections can eventually begin to taper off, and herein lies
the problem. Although Facebook has broken down barriers between some
Armenians and Azerbaijanis, those involved tend to be incredibly similar.
They are perhaps already libertarian and cosmopolitan, and simply needed the
tools to circumvent restrictions in place. Of course, this is still a huge
success, but such people remain a minority. So, while some users on both
sides now have access to information and opinions they never had before, we
need to constantly monitor, assess and evolve the use of new tools in order
to spread the net wider. At the time of writing, for example, there are
111,480 Facebook users in Armenia and 304,380 in Azerbaijan, while mutual
connections number only a few hundred at best.

This isn't to negate the importance of Facebook, of course, as it has proven
itself an indispensable tool which has achieved more open communication
between Armenians and Azerbaijanis than any other medium to date. However,
there is also the need to strategize its use, especially as others will
eventually attempt to obstruct progress in this area. Privacy issues will
therefore become key.

---
Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist and photographer of Armenian and
English descent now based in Yerevan, Armenia. He has covered the conflict
between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of
Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994 and is also the Caucasus regional editor for
Global Voices (globalvoicesonline.org), a major international site that
monitors, amplifies and curates citizen media.

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From: A. Papazian