In Belarus, social media is Lukashenko’s biggest foe and protesters’ greatest weapon

In Belarus, social media is Lukashenko’s biggest foe and protesters’ greatest weapon
Source: Evgeniy Maloletka

On Sunday, August 16, a message posted to Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, read, “Ring the doorbells of your neighbors, call your friends and relatives, write to your colleagues. We are going EXCLUSIVELY peacefully to the center of town to hold the authorities to account.”

The call to action followed a widely contested election in Belarus, where the allegedly “reelected” president, Alexander Lukashenko, secured his sixth term in office. The message contained a list of demands for the country’s government, including calling for the immediate resignation of Lukashenko and the release of multiple political opponents.

In the days following Lukashenko’s reelection, Belarusians experienced a near complete internet “blackout.” Telegram appears to have been one of the few resources still accessible during the worsening political crisis.

As outrage swept across the country, many Belarusians saw the message and took to the streets in revolt.

Not unlike the recent protests in Hong Kong, the demonstrators have been remarkably organized thanks to the app. Each day, messages appear with updated to-do lists for protesters, including the times and locations of gatherings.

Behind these astonishingly organized protests is 22-year-old blogger Stsiapan Sviatlou, who runs the popular Telegram and YouTube channel, NEXTA (meaning “somebody” in Belarusian).

His channel is staggeringly popular within Belarus, a country of less than 9.5 million people. NEXTA’s videos have been viewed more than 106 million times on YouTube and its Telegram channel has even regularly surpassed the leading Belarusian state television station.

Amid the tense political climate, the channel has become a significant source of information for Belarusians and their international neighbors.

While protesters are being met with stun grenades, rubber bullets and beatings, NEXTA – which has largely remained accessible despite internet outages – stands out as one of the few channels to feature graphic videos and coverage of the violent police response. The channel also highlights critical information, including areas of heavy police presence and contact information for human rights activists.

Though many citizens of Belarus deem Sviatlou a peaceful leader in the nonviolent protests, authorities have begun pursuing action against his channels on the charge that they are “fomenting mass riots,” a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The channel has even been declared by Belarusian courts as “extremist,” though the videos are still available for the public to view.

Authorities in Belarus have already arrested multiple bloggers and political activists, including Igor Losik, the founder of a neighboring opposition channel called “Belarus of the Brain.”

According to Criminal Article 342 of the Republic of Belarus, these bloggers have contributed to the “organization of group actions, grossly violating public order and involving obvious disobedience to the legitimate demands of the authorities.” Losik’s alleged crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison.

“We have indeed become the bullhorn of the situation that is unfolding in Belarus right now,” Sviatlou said in a recent interview, “We have become the voice of this revolution, but by no will of our own. It just happened.”

Social media has come under fire recently for its negative political impact, yet it has played a key part in many past rebellions, including civil rights protests in the United States and democratic protests in Hong Kong.

Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian analyst and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, stated, “The fate of the country has never depended so much on one (piece) of technology.”

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