Whom to Trust?

Journalist: Ella Kanegarian Göktas

Illustrator: Tina Chertova

28.09.21

It's June. A very hot June. There is a sense of apathy in the city, or maybe it's just me and my inability to choose has grown to the extent that it has enveloped the whole city.

It's been more than a week since I stopped being able to make decisions. I can’t seem to choose anything. Do I want coffee or wine? Do I want to work from home or should I go out to a cafe? Do I feel ok with what's going around or do I need a change…and if I do, what do I need to do to bring those changes?

My friend, a psychoanalyst, once told me that when we make choices, even about insignificant things, we use a significant amount of inner resources and energy without realizing it. So, minimizing your daily choices about what you wear or eat may help you focus your energy on bigger choices...remember Steve Jobs and his numerous black turtlenecks.

Maybe I have spent my energy on so many stupid things during my life that now I have none left—not even for major things, like Armenia’s upcoming snap parliamentary elections. 

I found myself even cursing my right to vote, since I had no idea what to do with it. The media coverage and all the conversations about politics had reached the peak of an emotional frenzy, the moment in so many election campaigns when one group or supporter of a certain politician starts blaming other groups for espionage, betrayal… 

Everyone was so focused on the idea of an enemy at home, traitors within the upper echelon, that political parties were no longer discussing policy or ideology or even their plans for the country.  Popular wisdom seemed to be that the events of 2020, especially the terrible war, which is still an unresolved conflict, were not the result of a years-long wrong political course. Rather, they were the fault of some secret forces, spies, and secret organizations.

Lost in the current of this narrative, some of my friends and I were beginning to give up, adopting a type of civic laziness. If everything is decided ahead and if some secret organizations are doing whatever they need to do, then why torture ourselves with the idea of a fake freedom of choice?

Moreover, after the war started on September 27, 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, after losing so many friends on both sides, I felt like, as a citizen, I had failed and used my vote wrong all those years. At times I even thought I no longer deserved the right. 

It was in that period I started noticing a post popping up on my Instagram feed: “Your vote is yours.” It was a play on “voice” and “vote,” which are the same word in Armenian. 

Illustration of Tigran Amiryan, the founder of the CSN Lab.The CSN Lab has created a podcast dedicated to discussing conspiracy theories in Armenia.
"Your Vote is Yours" depicts the work done by the CSN Lab's podcast, which explores the impact of conspiracy theories in Armenia. Illustration by Harutyun Toumaghyan

The posts were part of a campaign by a non-government organization Cultural & Social Narratives Laboratory (CNS Lab), part of its new podcast project about conspiracy theories.

The podcast was created by the head of the CNS Lab, Tigram Amiryan, a professor who started studying conspiracy theories almost a decade ago as part of his Ph.D. thesis. 

“The psychoanalytic concept of passivity is very close to the concept of conspiracy,” he told me when I contacted him to learn more about the campaign. 

Tigran noted that conspiracies often rise and become popular when a society is trying to change --when it faces challenges that show that changes are needed. 

For Armenia, 2020 was such a year. The war blew open the bubble that Armenian society had been living in. The process, while incredibly painful, created a space for a wider discussion between different layers of society as people tried to understand how we ended up being where we were. 

There was an atmosphere of fear, mutual blame, and mistrust. And that, according to Tigran, is a firm base for conspiracy. 

Conspiracies offer people easy-to-understand solutions to complicated problems, often putting the blame on particular “elite” groups, effectively freeing the rest of society from responsibility for the trouble.

A powerful conspiracy theory requires “enemies,” Tigran explained—either inside the society or from the outside. For Armenia, he noted, the idea of an “outer enemy” is easy to accept since the country has been stuck in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan for 30 years. 

The governments of both conflicting countries have used the image of the outer enemy numerous times,” he noted. “At the same time, the idea of the frozen conflict and ‘outer enemy’ often created mistrust in both countries toward their own governments, as many were thinking that any reminder from the government about the conflict is simply a manipulation aimed at avoiding possible domestic unrest and protests.” 

If there is not a widely acceptable “outer enemy,” conspiracy theories seek out domestic ones, Tigran said, adding that the easiest marks are communities that look or live differently than the majority or accepted norms.

After the 2020 war, Armenian media and news blogs were flooded with different “news” and “analytical articles” about domestic espionage and double agents working in the government. Becoming a target became easier than ever. All you needed was to be slightly different, have different attitudes, different looks or desires. 

What Tigran said wasn`t just theory, it was actually happening in front of my eyes. The examples were many, but I remembered Nora Petrosyan, a transgender woman and LGBTQ activist who founded the non-government organization Fearless. 

In spite of her active participation in many civic activities, she was targeted as a “domestic enemy” during the war. A video she made featuring herself in a soldier's uniform, which was posted long before the war, was recast as anti-patriotic and widely circulated online under captions that took the video out of context. During a war, any announcement, comment, or quote can be easily misinterpreted, especially if the source is seen as “anti-traditionalist.” According to Tigran, LGBTQ activists are often seen as such in many post-soviet countries because they represent the concepts of freedom and diversity, which for many are considered as destructive forces targeting values. 

Maybe, values and our perception of them are simply a reflection of the reality of a certain time or period, and all traditions were once a rebellion or an experiment, but instead of questioning our current values or their state, we just attack people or the groups or events that appear to undermine the status quo...and often conspiracies help us to target our angers and fears.

Nora sees the attacks and mistrust as a sign to keep moving forward and continue working, even if people don't understand what you are trying to do or see evil in your actions. Stopping and fearing that your work will be misunderstood is the best way to cause more doubt, she told me. 

Changes, even the most desired ones, even the most positive ones, require time to be digested and fully embraced. There have always been groups searching for easy explanations and those who preferred to take time for understanding the world around them.

Poster illustrating the work of the CSN Lab by illustrator Armine Shahbazyan
Poster illustrating the work of the CSN Lab by illustrator Armine Shahbazyan

But modern society, with its infinite options, hundreds of thousands of different apps offering basically anything RIGHT now, makes it easier to fall for simple solutions. The false sense that everything is available RIGHT HERE and RIGHT NOW makes it difficult for us to take time for deeper study and analyses. We search for shortcuts and shortcuts always offer a slight “twist”.

“Anyone can start following conspiracy theories,” says one of the guests of Tigran`s newest podcasts, Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer at Leeds University in Great Britain and author of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World. Yablokov noted that the scope of the target audience is too wide, and encompasses everyone from bankers and to ethnic minority groups. No level of education, logic, or faith can save one from these theories, because the theories always target the gaps and they can always offer you other types of logic, other types of information, and viewpoints. 

“The core of those theories is the clash of two realities, the one in which we exist, the visible reality and the one where the real decisions considering the visible reality are made” noted Tigran, who added “The base for every conspiracy is the possession of secret knowledge,  when one group of people is seen as different, is seen as those who possess some “secret knowledge”, which gives them the right of governing the other group.” 

One of my friends, a documentary filmmaker, believes in secret powers and hidden organizations that are in charge of everything. But even he does not underestimate the power of our free will, and always notes that both the villain and the hero exist in our minds. Our thoughts and choices can change any reality and any events, even if they are set up long before us. Still, this time, he didn't vote, because he saw no exit from the place where our society finds itself. He often says that the world has become too crazy to do something.

But is there any exit anywhere? Or is it the same road, full of light sometimes, and doomed to darkness around the bend...depending on the traveler’s mood and viewpoint? What would happen if we believed that modern society has calculated all the enters and exits? At the end of the day, would we stop searching for new exits because we believe that all doors lead to the same place? 

Maybe my apathy and inability of making decisions is just something very personal, not driven and manipulated by any outer force. Or maybe I, along with my friends, for the first time, didn't understand the difference between our choices. You can pick between different political actors, the candidates offering different political courses, but you can't pick between blurred political courses offered by “political personalities,” whom you no longer trust. To govern a country, you need a leader, not a political actor, not a personality, and even not a great person...but whom can you trust when it appears to you that you know no one, and no one takes a step to bring the light closer?

Perhaps logically and ethically the best thing would be not to vote. But sometimes living in a society means not being ethical and logical, but just acting when it is necessary, even when you do not want to.

And maybe the only thing that can counter apathy is to force yourself to act, instead of feeling like a manipulated victim of secret forces and organizations planning your future ahead. 



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