Armenia excels at video. Even before Internet was widely available in the South Caucasus nation, activists were sharing video clips of police brutality to raise awareness. Local media outlets similarly have experimented with video since the mid-2000s. But beyond recorded clips, livestreaming – broadcasting events as they unfold in real-time – has profoundly changed digital witnessing.
In the protests that led to Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation last month, several media outlets have been livestreaming 24/7. During the day, crews follow protesters around the city, sometimes using a picture-in-picture view to show two locations simultaneously. The well-funded Radio Liberty (known as Azatutyun locally) enjoyed nearly 100 million views on YouTube and Facebook Live in April, according to site analytics that employees provided me. Others saw growth as well. Civilnet, a newer Armenian media outlet that’s linked with the diaspora, saw viewership increase to over a million on YouTube and Facebook Live last month, according to employees.
Of course, Armenia isn’t the only place where activists livestream. But Armenia’s history and the large potential international audience – with high levels of out-migration and a politically engaged diaspora – make livestreaming especially salient. For viewers, livestreaming is compelling because it has authenticity. Hours of unvarnished, unedited footage without commentary allow people to immerse themselves in action far away.
For recent emigrants, keeping abreast of developments directly from family and friends is important, but the livestream is essential. Armenia-born Narine Matinyan, who now lives in France, watches whenever she can. Sometimes "I jog and watch a revolution unfold in my home country,” she says.
But the livestream is not only for Armenians from Armenia. Liana Aghajanian, a diasporan Armenian in Michigan, is “addicted,” watching livestreams and social media feeds around the clock. Aghajanian (a sometimes Eurasianet contributor) watches the stream starting at 2 a.m. in her time zone. After sleeping, she wakes up early to watch again.
Multitasking with the livestream is common. Nyree Abrahamian, a diasporan in California, has “been living two lives for the past two weeks," she says, keeping up with the protests while tending to routine tasks. She doesn’t just watch – she supports activist groups by helping translate material.
Others, too, engage beyond viewing. Several diasporan Armenians describe a sense of teamwork with other social media users, tweeting and commenting during the livestream, sharing resources with each other, and helping to contextualize events.
People in Armenia, even in Yerevan, also watch the livestream. In fact, nearly two-thirds of Civilnet’s total livestream viewers and Azatutyun’s YouTube livestream viewers are located within the country. Livestreaming allows locals to see what is going on. Some watch sympathetically or use the livestream to decide if going to an event is safe or worthwhile.
Mikayel Ghazarian, a Yerevan father of two now in his late 30s, was an active protester in his youth. “Compared to my old activist days, I now have kids, I am not in great physical shape, and I have more responsibilities – both at work and at home. It is harder for me to go out into the streets, especially because I cannot afford to get arrested […] anymore. So, at this stage in my life, I watch the livestreams, and see these young people and think, ‘It is their turn now’,” he explains. But during the 2015 Electric Yerevan protests Ghazarian used the livestream to gauge when it was time to join.
Some activists feared that livestreaming could keep people off of the streets. But in Yerevan, Civilnet Director Salpi Ghazarian reports a drop in livestream viewers on weekends, which she attributes to viewers going to the protest in person.
Besides amplifying a message, livestreaming can also hold power to account. When a regime knows it is being watched, it changes its behavior. Several activists tell me that they are certain the violence and deaths of the 2008 protests would not have happened if livestreaming had existed then.
Today, Armenia’s livestreaming star is undoubtedly the protest movement’s charismatic leader, Nikol Pashinyan.
Pashinyan speaks plainly. He is obviously intelligent, but he does not speak like an intellectual. In writing, he employs sophisticated metaphors. But his public spoken language as well as his social media posts are accessible. He too livestreams his evening rallies, his interactions with Armenians of all stripes, and personalized direct video broadcasts.
In his livestream videos interacting with a farmer, a parliamentarian, an oligarch, or the prime minister, it’s clear Pashinyan treats each as an equal. With the farmer, this comes across as endearing and respectful; with powerful people, it’s bold. This speaking of truth to power is appealing for Armenians, interviewees tell me.
“He has always advocated for equality and justice. But I think people mostly admire him for his guts, [saying] things that maybe a lot of people think but never have the courage to say out loud,” says Matinyan, the Armenian in France.
Pashinyan has livestreamed intimate and direct commentaries for years. When speaking from a laptop webcam or from inside a car or while walking, he looks directly at the camera and speaks with respect and a smile, establishing a sense of a relationship between politician and viewer.
Indeed, viewers indicate they feel a personal relationship with Pashinyan, as if he is speaking to them individually; they describe him like a guy from the neighborhood, or an uncle, in stark contrast to Armenia’s often-inaccessible leaders.
The shock, says Aghajanian, is that viewers are “dealing with someone who is addressing them directly.” This is not only new in Armenia, but very much in demand.
Katy Pearce, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, researches the uses of social media in the South Caucasus.