No Modest Voices: Social Media and the Protests in Belarus
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram have largely become a rallying space for protesters and supporters of the opposition.
Since early August the world’s eyes have been turned to Belarus, where opponents of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, led by the opposition figure Svetlana Tikhonovskaya, have taken to the streets to demand Lukashenko’s resignation. While the spirit of protest had been growing in Belarus in recent months, unrest boiled over after Lukashenko’s government declared that he had prevailed in the August 9 election with 80% of the vote despite mounting evidence of fraud. Lukashenko — often called “Europe’s last dictator” — has been in power since 1994, and this would mark his sixth five-year term in office.
Although the Belarusian government has placed significant restrictions on the media, Belarusian citizens enjoy somewhat untrammeled internet access. This has played a significant role in the protests, since online outlets are Belarusians’ main source of uncensored news. The growth of the opposition-aligned Telegram channel Nexta Live over the last 30 days suggests how important the messaging app Telegram has been, in particular:
In response, the government has cut off access to many websites, although it has not yet achieved a total blackout, and Telegram has successfully evaded the government’s efforts so far.
In the near decade since the Arab Spring, there have been intense debates about the relationship between social media and democratic governance. While the platforms insist that there are causes for optimism, scholars find that the evidence is mixed at best. These are complicated questions that will not be settled any time soon. But the Belarusian protests are a reminder that social media can be an essential tool for pro-democracy activists, especially when authoritarian governments have monopolized other media. It also allows Western state media, such as Radio Liberty and the BBC, to reach receptive audiences. In this blog post we survey protest-related content on the major Western social media platforms and offer some initial observations on the role social media has played in these ongoing protests. In general, we find that Belarusian and Russian-language Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter appear to tilt significantly toward pro-opposition outlets and accounts, and that Western state media, such as Radio Liberty and Deutsche Welle, tend to outperform Russian state media.
The Political Landscape on Belarusian Social Media
We surveyed the Belarusian social-media landscape by analyzing the performance — the number of likes, comments, shares, etc., that content receives — of political accounts across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. More specifically, we retrieved public posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter containing the name Lukashenko (in both Belarusian and Russian and accounting for case endings) across the period from May 29 (when Tikhonovskaya declared her candidacy) to August 19. Then we determined the top 10 accounts based on total interactions (likes, comments, shares, etc.) over this time period and ranked these 10 accounts by average interactions per post (to account for the fact that some accounts post more often than others). Finally, we classified pages or accounts according to their political alignment. (It should be noted that this survey does not account for two of the most popular platforms in Belarus — VK and Odnoklassniki — which would shed more light on how Belarusians are using social media. These platforms are not covered by standard social media monitoring services.)
First, we used Facebook’s Page Transparency data, which lists the locations of the users managing a given Page, to narrow results to Pages based in Belarus. Among the ten top-performing Belarus-based Facebook Pages referring to Lukashenko from May 29 to August 1 — that is, the Facebook Pages that received the most likes, shares, comments, etc. on Lukashenko-related content over this time period — the Page that receives the most interactions per Lukashenko-related post is ATN: News of Belarus and the World, a state-run outlet that is overtly pro-Lukashenko. Otherwise, independent media (TUT.BY, Naviny.by, BelNovosti) and pro-opposition Pages (Epramova, Maia Kraina Belarus) fill out the top ten:
On Belarus-based Pages referring to Lukashenko in Belarusian, the balance swings entirely towards pro-opposition content. (Lukashenko is associated by many Belarusians with a policy of Russification.) All of the Pages in the top ten Pages by interaction count were aligned with the opposition — including two Western state-owned media outlets, the US-funded Radio Liberty and the Poland-funded Belsat:
It is clear that, if we use “Lukashenko” as a stand-in for election- and protest-related content, Belarus-based pro-opposition Pages (according to Facebook’s Page Transparency feature), perform somewhat better on Facebook than Belarus-based pro-Lukashenko Pages — with the important exception of ATN, which is the top performer among Russian-language Pages. If we expand our search to references to Lukashenko in Russian irrespective of country — that is, without restricting results based on the location of Page managers — we can see that the same trend holds, but that all but two Belarusian Pages are supplanted by other Russian-language news sources, including two state-run media companies, Current Time (Nastoiashchee Vremia, an outlet run by Radio Free Europe) and Deutsche Welle. Two of the top-performing pages, Usy Peskova (“Peskov’s mustache”) and Yoshkin Krot (“Yoshka’s Mole”), are popular Russian opposition blogs. The only heavily pro-Lukashenko Page in the top 10 is ATN; the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaia Pravda publishes mildly pro-Lukashenko content.
If pro-opposition outlets have the edge on Facebook, they dominate Instagram. While a handful of pro-Lukashenko Pages appear in the top ten Pages on Facebook, there are no Lukashenko-aligned accounts in the top 10 Instagram accounts by total interactions (or the top 30 accounts, for that matter). While the top-performing account across this period was that of an influencer, the comedian Semyon Slepakov — his sole post about Lukashenko received almost 280,000 interactions — the other top accounts were tied to Russian opposition figures (Navalny, Sobchak, Varlamov), and Western state-media accounts. The only non-negative coverage Lukashenko supporters could hope to find among these top 10 accounts appeared on TUT.BY, a neutral Belarusian news account.
Likewise, the top-performing accounts on Twitter tend to be pro-opposition accounts. The top-performing account by far (based on the average number of replies, retweets, and favorites each Tweet receives), is @Spoontamer, which belongs to the Russian comedian Danila Poperechny, who posts content mocking Lukashenko. The other accounts in the top 10 are Russian opposition accounts (like @StalinGulag) and politicians (like @SobolLubov).
Not until one comes to the 37th top-performing account (@i_korotchenko, the account of Igor Korotchenko, editor of National Defense magazine) can one find pro-Lukashenko tweets.
Nine of the top ten Belarus-based Telegram channels by reach, according to tgstat.com, are pro-opposition channels, and the tenth (@onlinerby) is a neutral news channel. The channel @nexta_live, which posts minute-by-minute news and updates from the protests (including instructions from organizers), is by far the largest Belarus-based Telegram channel.
If it is true, as these data suggest, that pro-opposition content outperforms pro-Lukashenko content in Russian and Belarusian, then it is in part because Western state media like Deutsche Welle and Radio Liberty perform well. Across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Lukashenko-related content published by these media companies consistently appears among the top posts. In Belarusian, Radio Liberty (funded by the US) and Belsat (funded by Poland) are among the top accounts; and in Russian, Current Time (also funded by the US) and DW (funded by Germany) are top performers. On the other hand, Russian state media, such as RT in Russian and RIA Novosti, perform somewhat worse:
Lukashenko’s government has relied on force and a partial internet blackout in its efforts to quash the protests. In response, protesters have turned to social media, especially Telegram, to organize and document the protests for the world. The protesters’ message has been amplified in turn by sympathetic outlets on social media, especially accounts run by Russian opposition leaders and Western state media. Since Russian state media has generally kept Lukashenko at arm’s length somewhat — reflecting the Russian government’s ambivalence about his political survival — the work of defending the Lukashenko regime on social media falls to Belarusian state-run outlets. However, there is only one such channel that has any reach to speak of: the Facebook Page for ATN. As a result, social-media platforms have become an extension of the space of the protests to a significant extent. The founder of NEXTA summed up the situation well: “the modest voice of the state media is definitely drowning amid free information from the Internet.” The Belarusian protests are a reminder that, if it is true that social media can be used to attack democratic institutions, then they can be used to attack authoritarian institutions as well.