ZOiS Spotlight 34/2020 by Anna Litvinenko (23 September 2020)
When protests erupted in Belarus after the country’s presidential election on 9 August, I happened to be in a Belarusian village near the border with Poland. In the morning, the internet connection suddenly dropped, and I was cut off from any source of information apart from television. I switched on the TV and tried to read between the lines of the uniform speeches of the news presenters, who talked about a landslide victory for the incumbent president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka. I found myself thinking that the government’s strategy of shutting down the internet must be working, because it was forcing people to switch on their TVs and receive the state’s interpretation of events. But I was wrong.
In Belarus’s bigger towns and cities, many people did not switch on the TV. When their internet connection was cut, people took to the streets and connected offline. They exchanged files to install virtual private networks (VPNs) and used Telegram, which, as the messaging app’s founder, Pavel Durov, tweeted, enabled ‘anti-censorship tools’. Telegram became the main instrument for informing and coordinating the protests. Associated Press even called the Belarusian unrest ‘a Telegram revolution’. In the first weeks of the protests, the Warsaw-based Telegram channel Nexta Live increased its audience from 300,000 to 2 million followers. It became a major tool of the leaderless protests.
As with earlier demonstrations in Iran and Hong Kong, Telegram channels helped circumvent internet censorship and coordinate the protesters. It is, however, important to assess the rise of Telegram as a news broadcaster critically. Journalism based on anonymous sources, which thrives on Telegram, is a double-edged sword, which can equally well be pointed at democratic protest movements. My recent research on political news channels in the Russian segment of Telegram, conducted with Anna Smoliarova of St Petersburg University, shows that this type of news broadcasting can be easily manipulated by anonymous actors and could endanger the process of democratic political change.
Anonymous journalism: Who is empowered?
Roman Protasevich, editor-in-chief of Nexta, calls his team ‘pioneers of cyber journalism’. He and Nexta’s founder, twenty-two-year-old blogger Stepan Putilo, are the only members of the organisation whose names are known. As Putilo told news outlet Delfi.ee, in the first week of the protests, Nexta received about 200 messages a minute from all parts of Belarus. This flood of information was analysed by a team of four, which increased to six during the protests. They published news pieces every five minutes.
A major part of Nexta’s content consisted of detailed instructions for the protesters. In an interview with the online newspaper Meduza, Protasevich admitted that mistakes occurred while the channel was spreading unverified user-generated content. He also told Meduza about trolls, who attempted to sabotage their work by sending fake and irrelevant messages.
On the one hand, the anonymity of news and the activist nature of Telegram channels such as Nexta empower democratic initiatives in restrictive political settings. On the other hand, these features of Telegram journalism also provide fertile ground for the spread of misinformation and manipulation. In Russia, it is rumoured that some of the leading political news channels on Telegram have been instrumentalised by state authorities.
Orienting citizens in a labyrinth of narratives
In the case of Belarus, the state has clearly overlooked the threat that online communication could pose to the regime. In August 2020, the government’s major strategy consisted of so-called first-generation methods of internet control: shutdowns and blockages. Meanwhile, other authoritarian regimes are already using more advanced tools of internet control, such as the co-optation of new technologies. It is foreseeable that the Belarusian regime will soon learn its lesson and start using social media, especially Telegram news channels, to conduct surveillance, gather feedback, and promote its own agenda. Some reports already indicate that pro-Lukashenka actors are increasingly using Telegram in this way.
Telegram channels with anonymous news have been effective for mobilising protesters and giving them visibility in the early stages of the protests. Scholars of political communication W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg have called this type of leaderless protest mobilised via social media ‘connective action’. However, after the first stage of connective action comes a stage at which other instruments are needed to convert protest into political transformation. At this point, professional journalism is required more than ever to help citizens orient themselves in a labyrinth of user-generated content and anonymous news.
Anna Litvinenko, PhD, is a researcher at the Division for Digitalization and Participation at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies of the Free University Berlin.