The “Vardan Ghukasyan Party” Or How Social Media Affects Armenian Elections
Armenian News Network / Groong
June 12, 2021
By Hovik Manucharyan
Campaign image of Hayots Hayrenik
The electoral campaign for the June 20 early parliamentary elections is in full swing. An unprecedented number of political parties and electoral blocks - 26 to be exact - are vying for parliamentary seats in a politically turbulent Armenia that is currently feeling the after-effects of the disastrous defeat in the 2020 War in Artsakh.
While the majority of media and voters focus on political heavyweights, the polling performance of a little-known party Hayots Hayrenik (Հայոց Հայրենիք) may hold the key to understanding how social media may affect elections in Armenia. This is because Hayots Hayrenik owes most of its fame and polling success to a single infamous social media personality, Vardan Ghukasyan.
MPG/Gallup Poll - June 5, 2021
According to the MPG/Gallup poll released on June 5 (before campaigning had started), Hayots Hayrenik achieved a rating of 0.5% from a polling sample of 1101 people using random digit dialing. In other words, 5 random people named Hayots Hayrenik as their party of choice. While the poll’s error margin of ± 3% makes it difficult to predict the exact results that the party will receive in the elections, just the fact that it registered at all speaks to the potential power of social media in influencing election results in Armenia.
Who is Vardan Ghukasyan?
Vardan Ghukasyan (nicknamed “Dog”) is a former military prosecutor and later police officer who was known for his rough treatment of suspects. He was fired from his police job in 2013 for pushing and injuring a journalist and in 2015 was convicted of extortion and left Armenia after serving his sentence. Ghukasyan denies his guilt and claims that the trial was a sham.
During and after the war, Ghukasyan went to Facebook with regular live videos providing sensational details about secretive corrupt deals in the armed forces. Many of his claims and accusations, however, cannot be verified. Ghukasyan’s notoriety also comes from using copious amounts of extremely vulgar language in his broadcasts.
While he has been the first to leak some interesting details on corrupt practices in the army, his social media presence soon became a platform for criticizing other perceived injustices, such as ill-treatment of army conscripts, well-being of prisoners in correctional institutions, and even lack of attention by public administrators to the plight of their citizens. In one of his videos, Ghukasyan spent a significant portion of his video verbally abusing the mayor of a city for not prioritizing the running of natural gas lines to a certain street, after residents of that street complained to him. Former police chiefs and top brass in the military are common Ghukasyan targets.
In early 2021, when it became clear that Armenia was heading towards snap parliamentary elections, after weeks of leaving his fans guessing, Ghukasyan announced that he would be endorsing Hayots Hayrenik. Ghukasyan’s friend, Artak Galstyan (also known as Vanoyi Artak) then joined the party and became the prime ministerial candidate. Galstyan announced the party’s intention to participate on May 18, 2021.
Ghukasyan himself cannot run but has promised to return to Armenia and assume a top law enforcement, defense, or national security appointment, should Hayots Hayrenik win the elections.
YouTube Views and Poll Results
Until June 7, 2021, the day of the start of campaigning, the primary means of reaching out to voters for Ghukasyan were limited to YouTube and Facebook. Ghukasyan is known to have used many Facebook channels due to them being suspended often. At the time of this writing, we were not able to locate his pages indicating that they may be banned on Facebook and YouTube may be the only means by which Ghukasyan communicates with his fans now.
Ghukasyan’s channel is one of the most popular Armenian channels, having received nearly 7M views in the month of May 2021. For comparison, the most popular channel for news/politics, Lurer (owned by Public TV of Armenia) received 13M views that month.
Thus, it is likely that with his steady viewership of 6M views per month, Ghukasyan single-handedly was able to secure a poll rating of 0.5% for Hayots Hayrenik, to hit the ground running before campaigning started.
Shady traffic in the dark corners of Armenian YouTube
Fake news in Armenian YouTube is not the exception but the norm, at least for a specific subset of Armenian YouTube users. We’ve previously written about Perfect TV and other such channels.
With the exception of Vardan Ghukasyan, these channels are largely anonymous. You cannot find any information about who writes the content, who narrates it, or the organization responsible for running the channel. A cursory view of these channels shows that they largely support the current Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan.
In May 2021, this phenomenon has risen to such a level, that these channels (labeled as “suspicious” in yellow in the chart below) received 77M views or 45% of the total views from the nearly 100 most popular news and political channels we monitor regularly.
While there is no shortage of available content from varying perspectives, some users routinely rely on disinformation over more trustworthy sources. That said, there is legitimate reason to criticize the objectivity of Armenian media overall. In a recent IRI poll, 34% of respondents said that they don’t trust any media. However, disinformation and misinformation from sources like Perfect TV can only worsen the situation.
Improving media literacy can certainly help, but the precise root cause of why this happens should be studied more carefully and addressed by policy makers, educators, and the journalistic community.
For now, our question is: if 7M monthly views can earn Vardan Ghukasyan 0.5% in poll ratings, how much of a bump in polls can 77M views buy? And who is doing the buying?
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the opinions of the author’s employer.
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