The path to the square: the role of digital technologies in Belarus’ protests

The path to the square: the role of digital technologies in Belarus' protests

Over the past decade, experience has shown how large protests at a single public square – like those in Cairo’s Tahrir square or Kyiv’s Maidan – can lead to real political change. At the same time, when state authorities are responsible for allocating spaces to protest – as was the case with Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Square in Moscow in 2011 – even mass protests can end in nothing.

During the first two nights after the 9 August election results, the Belarusian authorities brutally suppressed protesters’ attempts to gather in the central squares of Minsk. This led to the protests dissipating and acquiring a hyperlocal character, whereby protests were not concentrated at a single point, but flared up simultaneously in different places, from street to street, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

This “scattered” protest had important advantages. Firstly, citizens themselves determined the protest’s course and the conditions they set, rather than the state bodies which authorised the demonstrations. Secondly, the “scattered” protest became a transitional stage ahead of protests on the square: a week later, on 16 August, the protesters managed to reach Government House in Minsk peacefully and without resistance, and to gather at a nearby important war monument. This peaceful protest was now much more significant in terms of numbers than the pro-government rally in support of Alexander Lukashenka.

Taking to the streets en masse, individual citizens have been integral to the success of Belarus’ protest, but so have enterprise and factory collectives – that is, group actors. How did the protest reach such a wide audience so quickly? It can hardly be said that internet channels have played a central mobilising role here, especially given the partially successful attempts of the Belarusian authorities to block the internet.

Despite the incredible growth in popularity of a number of Telegram channels (for example, the number of subscribers to the popular Nexta channel increased by 1.5 million in a matter of days), these information streams remained inaccessible to many inside Belarus, with a significant part of this growth in the channels’ popularity associated with the global audience. At the same time, it is important to note the high level of IT literacy in Belarus, where industries related to information technology have been actively developing in recent years. This level of literacy allowed significant numbers of people both to partially bypass the blocking of the internet and produce protest-related content.

Instead, the key question to understanding the role of the internet in the Belarusian protests is: how has the cost of using violence exceeded its effectiveness for the state? In the Belarusian scenario, the internet did not become a key mechanism for mobilising and coordinating protests, but it did create conditions in which the rapid and mass involvement of citizens became possible. This can be attributed to two important characteristics of the protests: unprecedented state violence and the dispersed nature of the protests both in the capital and throughout the country.

When hyperlocal protests take place in the context of the modern information environment, even the most brutal violence does not achieve its goal of suppressing protests, but only contributes to their growth. And just as important is to note how these kind of protests bypass so-called “horizontal mobilisation traps” – a phenomenon well described by researchers of recent protest movements.

The fragility of the digital horizontal

For more than a decade, researchers have debated the internet’s importance for the success of political protests. Internet technologies have played a large role both in protests that brought about serious political change (for example, the Arab Spring or Euromaidan) and those that did not lead to a change in power: during the elections in Iran in 2009, in Russia in 2011-2012, or during the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013. On the one hand, researchers have pointed to a wide range of political and technological innovations that increase transparency of covering protests, as well as facilitating the mobilisation and coordination of actions.

In this vein, Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg have discussed the emergence of a new type of collective action, dubbed “connective action”, that allows joint actions to be organised without the need for any formal organisation or party. Institutions are replaced by digital platforms in this model, making it easier and faster to organise political actions (for example, a Facebook event created by journalist Ilya Klishin played a key role in organising the first rally on Bolotnaya Square in Russia in 2011).

On the other hand, these “connective actions” have vulnerabilities. For instance, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has drawn attention to the cost of simplifying protest mobilisation. While technology makes it possible to quickly bring people onto the streets en masse without leaders or parties, these protests are much more difficult to translate into significant political change. This new type of protest can fade away without real results and as quickly as it emerges. In addition, technology creates new opportunities for surveillance and disinformation, as well as promoting insignificant forms of political participation like so-called “clicktivism” that carries few risks for participants and might be interpreted as a kind of simulation of real political activity.

Cycles of political innovation

Political crises are often accompanied by new waves of innovation that seek to change the balance of power between governments and protesters. For instance, in the 2019 protests during elections to the Moscow City Duma, one could observe several types of innovations in the coverage and coordination of protests as well as in technologies of mutual aid and surveillance. Most often, the authorities respond to the innovations of opposition activists with traditional force and repressive measures (ranging from arrests to shutting down the internet). But in some cases states have also employed innovative tactics, for example, using anonymous Telegram channels for provocation and disinformation. Recent events in Belarus can also be analysed in terms of the dynamics of political innovation. Many practices observed a year ago in Moscow are present in one form or another now in Belarus.

Firstly, citizens have learned to bypass internet blocks through a variety of tools: Belarusian users have made use of VPN and anonymisers like Psiphon. Protesters were also encouraged to use Mesh networks (the Bridgefy app) to communicate directly with each other if the internet was down. Telegram channels and telegram chats (which, with the support of the company, worked even in conditions of limited internet access) were actively used to coordinate actions and transmit information about the location of riot police, although the effectiveness of this communication in conditions of information overload and reliability remains in question.

At the same time, more complex crowdsourcing solutions for data collection were hardly used at all (with the exception of simple maps based on Google Maps). A little later, though, a crowdsourced “Map of Strikes” appeared.

Latest posts