Authorities in Belarus try to harness the power of social networks

Jul 13, 2011
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Since the Wednesday July 6th demonstration of applause in Belarus, a phenomenon that is being increasingly covered by the international media, the organizers of the Revolution through the Social Networks announced in communities on VKontakte and Facebook that they are changing strategy.

While residents of all towns except Minsk were again requested to flock to their central squares and and begin applauding at 19:00, the residents of Minsk were to gather in the centers of the city’s nine districts, the locations of large public structures such as the national library or shopping centers. Their aim in doing so is to spread knowledge about the movement to more people in the city through their distributed applause or even arrest.

Indeed, the demonstrations have traditionally ended with many arrests: in Minsk alone 190 people have been arrested, along with a comparable number from the surrounding regions. However as the meeting places in Minsk have now been moved to the centers of the city’s nine districts, the police have had to disperse its forces to cover all nine spots in the capital. Many passersby and shoppers leaving the shopping centers next to which the demonstrators gathered were arrested in addition to the participants themselves. This was a blow to the already faltering popular perception of the authorities, who were criticized by many after 119 people of the 190 arrested in Minsk were sentenced to administrative arrest of up to 15 days without even being allowed to plead their case.

Increasingly the soldiers in plain clothes have been specifically targeting the journalists who spread information about the protests, as their faces are becoming “too popular” online. However, journalists have managed to make some reports, like this one  from the Malinauka district.

In addition to changing the location of their meetings, the users of the social networks have also started a new initiative, calling everyone to print out the photos of the plain-clad agents who had been brutally arresting and roughing up participants in the Wednesday actions, and to spread these photos in public places.

The plan for July 13 demonstration in Minsk published on July 11 has also met significant changes: instead of gathering in the centers each of Minsk’s nine districts, the demonstrators have been called to gather near two subway stations, from where they will start moving towards each other. At 20:00, they should simultaneously start alarms on their mobile phones, thus attracting the attention of passersby. This is an effort, in part, to improve the safety of participants since “it is more complicated to control the moving crowd”, according to Viacaslau Dzijanau, one of the organizers of the protests through the social networks.

The authorities have retaliated against protesters, both in the street and online. On the eve of the July 3 Independence Day protest, the VKontakte community coordinating demonstrations was suspended for “violating the social network rules.” It was July 4, although the pre-suspension group membership had somehow dwindled from 216,000 to 24,000.

Before the July 6 protests, fake equivalents were established of each of the social network communities coordinating Wednesday actions, and fake accounts with similar names to those of the prominent event organizers were also created. These cloned websites were actively filled with discredited or false information intended to dissuade potential demonstrators from attending the protests. However, judging by the small number of subscribers to the fake accounts and the large number of people who congregated in the meeting places on July 6, this tactic failed.

Since July 6, a community titled “we are opposed to the orange ‘revolution’ in Belarus” has appeared online, as advertised prominently and widely through stickers in the Grodno public transport stops. This group, which united 2,900 people and grows by approximately 30 subscribers each day, also recruits trolls to spam the opposition’s resources. However, 14 of the 15 users I randomly searched from the list of subscribers proved to be from St-Petersburg or Moscow, and the group is growing at a very slow pace compared to the revolution groups.

About the Author

Alaksiej Lavoncyk

Alaksiej Lavonczyk is a media activist and social media expert from Minsk, Belarus. He had been in charge of the training projects for the NGOs and media on building their capacity in online campaigning and end-user security. Alaksiej had also acted as a consulting and technical expert for NGOs and media in Belarus and four countries of Central Asia (except Turkmenistan) on upgrading media/NGO websites to meet contemporary standards, and on their promotion online. Alaksiej is also running an online training centre for the Central Asians preparing the specialists in SMO promotion.
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