For the past month, since the Aug. 9 election, Belarusians have engaged in daily protests and strikes across the entire country. Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president since 1994, claimed a reelection victory with 80 percent of the vote, but his critics in Belarus — along with foreign governments, the European Union and independent organizations — say the election was rigged.
Lukashenko blocked the Internet for several days after the election, and riot police arrested some 7,000 people. Reports quickly emerged that security forces were beating and torturing these (mostly young) men and women, and there were allegations of rape. Hundreds of thousands in Belarus are demanding that Lukashenko “leave.”
The Telegram app offers encrypted messaging
Pavel Durov, the former owner of Russia’s leading social network site, Vkontakte, created Telegram with his brother in 2014. That year, Durov fell out with Russian authorities after he refused to share Vkontakte user data with law enforcement, then left Russia. Part of Telegram’s appeal is its privacy safeguards that purportedly allow for safer communication.
The app quickly gained popularity, especially in former Soviet states, but also in Hong Kong and the Middle East. Dissidents and terrorist groups alike are reported users. Users communicate using secret chats, which are set to auto-erase, and can broadcast messages to large audiences of up to 200,000 other users. Telegram also allows a high degree of anonymity, as users can set up groups without revealing their names.
For activists, Telegram is easy to use even with unstable Internet service. When the Belarusian government shut down access to news and social media sites, some virtual private network (VPN) services were operational, but few ordinary citizens knew how to use this bypass method. Telegram access does not require a VPN, and the app’s anti-censorship mechanisms reportedly helped many Belarusian users stay online.
Our research looks at how Belarusians mobilized
We combined our ongoing research of Telegram use in Belarus and initial data from an online protest survey of 12,000 Belarusians over age 18 (data from Aug. 17, collected by the MOBILISE project) with our past research on movement mobilization and networked protest communication. We find that what’s happening in Belarus goes beyond the use of a single app. Here’s why.
Judging by the MOBILISE protest survey data, we know that about 40 percent of protesters took part in demonstrations before Aug. 11. However, during these early days of protest, the Internet was blocked and online communication very limited. More than 60 percent of protesters surveyed report that when the Internet was down, they relied solely on word of mouth. Of those who joined in after Aug. 10, more than 80 percent did so after seeing protesters in the streets.
When available, the Internet proved to be the main source of information about protest activity and police movements. The MOBILISE survey finds that approximately 90 percent of protesters relied on the Internet for information, while about half employed online protest repertoires, such as sharing videos, watching live transmissions and using a hashtag.
Belarusians in the survey saw Telegram as the most trusted news source — and 85 percent of respondents who protested in person report using the app. Detailed digital tracing and tracking of user numbers in public Telegram channels over time also confirms this. The data show that on the evening of Aug. 11, while the Internet shutdown continued, 45 percent of people using Telegram protest chats in Belarus were online, despite the government’s efforts to block online access.
Other digital technologies helped to mobilize Belarusians
Our analysis shows that of the protesters we surveyed, approximately 80 percent also use Facebook, 70 percent use Viber (another chat app), 66 percent use YouTube and 60 percent use Instagram — every day.
YouTube’s role is not surprising, as opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Lukashenko’s main challenger in the Aug. 9 election) and Stiapan Putila have ties to popular Belarusian political YouTube channels: “The country for life” and “NEXTA.” We also find that leading independent online media, such as Tut.by and Nasha Niva, remain key sources of information and operated across multiple platforms to create many entry points into protest news flows.
But digital drivers aren’t the only force at work
Two decades of research on the role of Internet and social media in mass mobilization, as well as our own analysis of protests in Belarus, make clear that highlighting digital tools as the main driver of mobilization is overly simplistic. This view also leads to potentially drawing the wrong conclusions about how people come to protest.
When the Internet was down, protesters used what was available. They plastered the walls of apartment blocks with printed leaflets sharing news of police violence and planned strikes. The MOBILISE survey confirms that information channeled through personal and professional social network ties is highly trusted.
Focusing on a single online platform behind any protest movement overlooks the role of protesters, who creatively use all available resources to mobilize. Such a focus also may miss the motivations and collective emotional swell that drive mobilization. Although digital technologies can provide crucial infrastructure for protests, an app alone can’t bring citizens to the streets or bring a regime down.
Our research suggests that focusing just on the “Telegram” part of the Telegram Revolution misses the larger picture of how mobilization is happening in Belarus — and where the “Revolution” part may go next.
Aliaksandr Herasimenka (@alesherasimenka) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.
Tetyana Lokot (@tanyalokot) is an assistant professor at the School of Communications, Dublin City University.
Olga Onuch @oonuch is an associate professor (senior lecturer) at the University of Manchester. She is the principal investigator of www.mobiliseproject.com.
Mariëlle Wijermars (@Marielle_W_ ) is assistant professor in cybersecurity and politics, Maastricht University.