An appetite for information, self-censorship, and avoidance of participation in the public debates are shared habits of the young social media users in the South Caucasus. This is the finding of the study conducted by the group of scholars of the Georgian
Institute of Public Affairs, who explored the behavior of young social media users and their information “diets” in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
News consumption among the youth globally has shifted towards social media platforms, and the South Caucasus is no exception. The medium of choice for young users in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia is Facebook, which young people use to connect with friends and family members and receive news. Instagram is popular among users who enjoy sharing photos and videos about their daily lives. YouTube, TikTok, v Kontakte, and Telegram have also gained popularity among younger audiences.
According to the 2021 Caucasus Barometer survey, social media is the most frequently used source of news for young people in the South Caucasus. 80% of users aged 18-34 in Armenia and 61% of users in the same age cohort in Georgia use social media as a source of news and current affairs. While no reliable quantitative data are available for youth social media use in Azerbaijan, the interviews conducted during the study confirm the popularity of social media as a news source among young people in Azerbaijan.
Distrust in traditional media
Interestingly, young adults across three countries distrust traditional media, namely, television. The reason is partisan bias and political polarization on television, mentioned by young users in all three countries, and the state control and censorship, mentioned by users in Azerbaijan. Young users consume legacy media content on social media networks, which serve as an access point to news shared by television channels and news websites. As trust in traditional media remains low, young audiences are in constant search of balanced and fact-based news sources both inside and outside their native countries.
Despite the frequent use of social media to consume news, most users remain “passive recipients” of content. They mostly avoid sharing information or news content publicly. Practicing self-censorship by not sharing news content or opinions has become a common practice.
The young users say they don’t want to engage in “meaningless arguments” and want to avoid “hearing insults.” In order to lead a “stress-free life,” young users do not debate with others in public on social media networks and limit platform user to news consumption and entertainment.
At the same time, social media users in the Caucasus consciously and actively try to form tightly-knit communities based on shared interests and beliefs. This most often happens on Facebook, where users often join groups and pages dedicated to specific topics or causes. These groups connect users of shared interests and beliefs, who exchange information and ideas. Often, these groups become instruments of mobilizing in public protests and other collective action.
On the negative side, the users report experiencing bullying and harassment in social media groups. This is an experience of those who express views that are controversial or unpopular among group members. The harassment can lead to significant emotional harm for those who are targeted. When conflicts and harassment become frequent in interest-based communities, the young users revert to self-censorship and avoidance of contact, and only share what they know to be true or what can actually help others.
Thus, hostile attitudes online force young users to become passive consumers of content, stay out of public debate in online domains, and join professional or hobby-based groups to receive and share information.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories
The reliance on social media and heavy usage has been associated with the higher susceptibility to disinformation in different countries as well as in the South Caucasus. Like many other regions of the world, the Caucasus has seen a rise in the spread of false information and conspiracy theories in social media on political and social issues. This can have real-world consequences, such as the exacerbation of ethnic tensions, deepening of conflicts between neighboring countries, and undermining of democratic institutions. According to the Caucasus Barometer study, 88% of Armenian and 59% of Georgians surveyed could recall fake news about their country’s domestic politics. Our research shows that awareness of the disinformation, critical attitudes towards media in general, and media literacy trainings helped young users develop news literacy skills. The users developed ways of checking the authenticity of information, such as looking up the names of content publishers and authors, analyzing if a source is reliable, checking information with people who are trusted and more knowledgeable about the topic.
Azerbaijan stands out in the South Caucasus as the restrictive and autocratic country. Young and democratically minded people in Azerbaijan are seeking information from independent media sources, which operate in exile. These young people avoid expressing opinions or entering public debates on political issues. The exchange of opinions and arguments instead takes place in closed chats or face-to-face meetings rather than on public social media venues.
The polarization is prevalent in Georgia and Armenia. The ruling and oppositional parties in both countries have divided the societies into polarized and partisan groups and engaged in offensive communication toward the opponents. Big television channels have exacerbated the polarization by taking strong political stances and aligning with political parties. The television coverage is biased most of the times. This led young people of Georgia and Armenia to restrain when sharing opinions and moved the discussion out of public to peer-to-peer messenger groups.
Thus, the similar habits of public expression avoidance and self-censorship are present among young users in all three countries of the Caucasus.
The information diet of young people in the South Caucasus is an important aspect of the overall health and wellbeing of the society. The young people facing the need to develop healthy and sustainable habits around information consumption, be mindful of hate speech and disinformation, check the sources and types of information they are consuming, and avoid spending excessive time on social media platforms.
This can help young people navigate the overwhelming amount of information and make informed decisions about their lives and the world.
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