1 Nov 2010
Social Media for Social Lynching? Facebook as a Platform for Xenophobia Following the Announcement of an Azerbaijani Film Festival in Yerevan
One of the negative stereotypes about Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis that I often hear from Armenians is that the ‘majority of Azeris are intolerant, they are full of hate toward Armenians and not ready for cooperation.’ Then there is the mirroring positive stereotype among Armenians about themselves who, unlike the Azeris, are ‘tolerant, open-minded and ready for cooperation.’ Based on some recent events, I have to question the latter notion.
A few days ago, an announcement was posted on the Armenian language section of Facebook that a Yerevan-based NGO, Caucasus Center for Peace-Making Initiatives (CCPR) is planning to hold an Azerbaijani Film Festival in Yerevan on November 2, 2010. Of course, the event is out of the ordinary, and as expected it has already had some backlash, though there is also a small minority of people who are speaking out in support. Yet I should confess that the extent of the negative reaction and how fierce it has been has caught me by surprise.
First, the negative reaction has been overwhelming and those who have spoken up in favor, at least on the Azeri Film Festival Facebook page, could be counted on one hand. The most disturbing reaction is the way opposition to the event has been voiced. While few raised their concerns in a respectful way, the loudest voices have directed hundreds of insults and curses toward the organizers, potential attendees, Azerbaijani people and culture.
Crossing every line, some have gone further and resorted to threats of physical violence. The trend has not been limited to Facebook and has carried over to the blogosphere as well. Here are some quotes from a post of Live Journal blogger ‘crazy-patriot’:
‘…grab him [the organizer of the festival] few times in the streets and break his neck; keep him in a basement for few days hungry, he might come to his senses… get him, put into a trunk of a truck, take him to Karabakh and put him into a jail there, let us see how many days he will survive…do this instead of ‘promoting’ his work on Facebook and other sources…are we really a nation that cannot ‘take care’ of such a jerk internally?…’[i] .
‘Crazy-patriot’ is not alone in his/her desire to ‘take care’ of the organizers. The post has been reposted on the Facebook page of the Film festival on Tuesday, October 26 2010 1:01PM and ‘liked.’ Hundreds of other posts have followed suit, threatening not only the organizers, but also the writer Lusine Vayachyan who created the page of the event on Facebook as well as anyone who has supported the idea. The future attendees of the Festival have not only been labeled ‘Azerbaijanis’ (used as a derogatory term) and ‘traitors’ but have also been threatened to be ‘burned alive along with the organizers,’ ‘to be ‘blacklisted’ and taught a lesson’ etc. The Facebook page has also became a place for mass expression of open xenophobia and racism, often in a very proud manner. Someone even signed his post on October 28, 2010 with words ‘…Respectfully, RACIST and NATIONALIST ARAIK,’ written in capital letters.
There have been dissenting voices. One of the most prominent Armenian bloggers, ‘Unzipped,’ published a post called ‘Nationalists gone hysterical in Armenian sector of Facebook over Azeri Film Festival in Yerevan’ on October 26,2010. A number of people expressed support for the festival on their Facebook pages; few have tried to engage into dialogue with protesters on the very Facebook page that announced the festival, yet they were silenced quickly. Some wrote blog posts on their Facebook profile, often leading to another round of fierce debate in this rather private environment. These conversations, unlike the ones on the official page of the Festival, have overall remained respectful perhaps because they were among Facebook ‘friends’ only.
The local mass media has remained tellingly silent, as there is almost no mention of the event or controversy over it. The only exception is the website Epress.am, an Independent Journalists’ Network that features a number of articles on the topic, including: Azerbaijan Film Festival in Yerevan Sparks Hatred and Xenophobia; Armenian Writer Threatened for Facebook Page on Azerbaijan Film Screenings in Yerevan; No Enemy Nations, Only Regressive Societies and Governments: Ara Nedolyan; and Intolerance Hidden Under Veil of Patriotism is Dangerous: Opinion.
While I consider myself a proponent of reconciliation, I have certain reservations regarding the constructiveness of this event. We lived through decades of anti-Azeri propaganda. I believe it has to be reversed and the two societies have to gradually learn to appreciate each other and each other’s culture if we hope to ever have a normal life. Yet this change has to happen gradually. An Azerbaijani Film Festival in the midst of anti-Azerbaijani propaganda sets the stage for a backlash, not for learning Azerbaijani culture.
Ultimately, however, for me this is not even an Armenian-Azerbaijani issue, but an issue of freedom of expression. Whether any of us agrees with the organizers or not, they should have a right to organize any festival, in any format at any time except if it promotes hatred and violence, and this one clearly does the opposite. Similarly anyone has the right to protest the organization of any festival, but not through the use of violent means (whether it be physical or verbal). In this case, the protests have already crossed this line.
As this post is being written, the organizers and a handful of supporters are planning to move forward with the festival to be held on Nov 2, 2010 at 4:00PM. Those opposed to the Festival are also mobilizing. According to several posts on the same Facebook page there are plans to ‘prevent the festival from happening at all costs,’ and that the attendees and organizers ‘will be taught a lesson’ etc. What will actually happen on Nov 2 remains to be seen.
[i] Translated by the author