Massive demand for information on Telegram, raids on websites, and internet blocking.

April 12, 2021 17:01

The year 2020 was a revolutionary test for the Belarusian media. Never before had the media sector faced so many challenges at once: the extrajudicial blocking of dozens of websites, arrests of journalists and editors, and the departure of some editorial offices abroad. All this took place against the backdrop of shrinking advertising budgets due to the coronavirus.

In Nasha Niva the situation was somewhat peculiar. It temporarily lost its domain back in June. This was shocking, but it helped to develop response mechanisms, which had to be applied at the end of August after the repeated forced relocation to the mirror domain.

We will use this case to show how the audience reacted to the changes in the site operation.

The two graphs show what was happening to the site audience

We divided this year into eight periods. Some of them lasted only a few days, others lasted a whole week. The turbulence zone for Nasha Niva began in June with the first domain blocking. From there, we begin to see how our audience reacted to the site changes.

The first two graphs will give you an idea of how the audience numbers were changing quantitatively and which sources of traffic either became key or unimportant during certain periods.


Now let’s examine each period more closely.

Situation 1: from the beginning of 2020 until the time when the domain was shut down on June 24

About 190,000 daily site visitors, 3,300 subscribers in  Telegram

In June 2020, Nasha Niva had the biggest audience in the history of the site. The increase in traffic began with the emergence of the coronavirus (in the spring,  the editorial board switched to covering any topics related to it) and continued with the beginning of the election campaign. The social networks of Belarusian users were flooded with political content, and the demand for information from all independent media outlets rose sharply.

Two days before the shutdown, an absolute record was set -- 500,000 daily visitors (hereinafter Yandex.Metrika calculations). On that very day half of this figure was due to the referrals from Google Discover to a headline about the Hruzdzevy sisters. It is unknown whether such anomalous days would have happened later. For the purposes of unbiased analysis, we will look at a flatter week in mid-June.

Average number of daily visitors from June 8 to 14:

  • Google Search — 57 thousand
  • Direct entries — 37 thousand
  • Google Discover — 25 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 16 thousand
  • Yandex.Search — 13 thousand
  • Yandex.Novosti — 11 thousand
  • Facebook — 10 thousand
  • Google News — 4 thousand

An important point: one of the Nasha Niva’s missions is to increase the spread of the Belarusian language in society. It means that we would like to work in Belarusian in all services. Unfortunately, only Yandex. Zen makes it possible, and only under certain conditions.

First, our news materials are only shown to users within Belarus, which means we cannot count on additional Russian traffic on general topics.

Second, we don't have a user area where we can see the success of this or that news, and react accordingly.

Due to all this, the number of conversions from Yandex.Zen to Nasha Niva is much lower than in other media.

Situation 2: days of loss-return-loss of the domain on June 26-29

On 25 June, the editors lost control over the NN.by domain. After spending a day negotiating with the state authorities, we had to launch a mirror of Nashaniva.by.

In the next few days, access to NN.by was restored. This was done by the decision of the administrator of the national domain zone "Nadzeinyia Prahramy" (Reliable Programs). Then it was blocked again by the decision of the Operative Analytical Center under the Presidential Administration.

Actions:

Because the "move" was an emergency, it was impossible to set up redirection and smoothly move the audience to the new domain.

The readers learned about Nasha Niva’s new address from social feeds. News about this appeared in other media, but it was clear that the information did not reach the entire audience. For a long time, people called the editorial office, upset that they could not access the site at the old address.

However,  existence of a loyal audience made it possible those days to at least partially maintain site traffic.

The new address was little indexed in search engines and was not connected with referral systems. Also, it was not quite clear whether it was necessary to transfer all the services to the new address Nashaniva.by, because there was no understanding how long the situation would last.

There is no procedure for registering a new site in the Google referral services, the system itself must see the site.

Yandex has the ability to register in a new way in Yandex.News quickly enough, but in Zen you have to go through a complicated procedure that takes a long time.

Audience reaction:

As a result of these jumps, the daily audience of the site decreased 3-4 times, primarily due to the disconnection of external services.

At the same time, the Nasha Niva Telegram channel began to grow. All editorials additionally mentioned that this channel of information would be used as an alternative in times of disruptions.

Average number of visitors for June 26-29:

  • Direct entries — 22 thousand
  • Google Search — 21 thousand
  • Facebook — 5 thousand
  • Yandex.Search — 3.5 thousand
  • Google Discover — 1 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 0
  • Yandex.News — 0
  • Google News — 0

Situation 3: work in July at Nashaniva.by July 1-17

The editorial board settled down at the new address Nashaniva.by. It was not clear whether it would remain the main one for a long time or it would be possible to return the familiar name.

An important point there was the demoralization of both editors and journalists, who were used to high number of site visitors. This way they felt the need for their work. With the drop in traffic, the number of exclusive articles decreased.

Actions:

Since the new name was not very recognizable, the community addresses in all social networks and messengers were changed to the single name nashaniva.

Yandex.Zen included the new address in its feed, bringing back some of its audience. Some of Google's referral services worked on their own, and some did not turn on at all.

Response:

The major audience that learned about the new address in the first days of its operation remained on the site. It was not possible to achieve the number of direct entries recorded previously.

Nevertheless, with the inclusion of Nashaniva.by in the recommendation services, the outlet retained about 2/3 of the audience.

The number of subscribers to the Telegram channel increased, but not quickly.

The average number of daily visitors from July 10 to 16:

  • Google Search — 28 thousand
  • Google Discover — 24 thousand
  • Direct entries — 21 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 18 thousand
  • Facebook — 8 thousand
  • Yandex.Search — 8 thousand.
  • Yandex.Novosti — 1 thousand
  • Google News — 0

Situation 4: Access to NN.by was restored on July 17 - August 8

In mid-July, access to NN.by returned. This was not noticed by the audience -- the news was not even posted on the site so as not to provoke a reaction from the government.

More and more people were becoming politicized due to the approaching presidential election, and the demand for information grew rapidly.

Actions:

The editors actually returned to the previous mode of operation, as if the temporary switch to the mirror site hadn't happened.

Realizing that during the election new disruptions were possible, we constantly reminded the readers of the need to subscribe to the Telegram channel.

Response:

The public happily returned to the familiar NN.by address. New readers appeared, so the numbers were even higher than in June.

Average number of visitors from August 1 to 8:

  • Google Discover — 72 thousand
  • Google Search — 56 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 45 thousand
  • Direct entries — 42 thousand.
  • Yandex.Search — 17 thousand
  • Facebook — 14 thousand
  • Yandex.Novosti — 10 thousand
  • Google News — 9 thousand

Situation 5: elections and Internet blocking - August 9-18

On August 9, the day of the presidential election, and the following days, mobile Internet in Minsk was mostly blocked. Issues with access to independent media persisted for more than a week. DDOS-attacks were constantly launched against the sites. Some resources either worked for a while, or completely shut down again.

Actions:

The main decision, which was made on Election Day and later proved to be effective, was to move the news feed to a Telegram channel. Because of the widespread use of the Psiphon mobile app, the majority of the Belarusian population had access to the Telegram app, even when the Internet was blocked. As a result, the number of channel subscribers increased from 10 to 75 thousand people.

In the first days after the election, the editorial staff did not even have access to the administrative panel of the site, so the news sometimes did not appear promptly.

Articles were posted on social media in their entirety, without a link to the site, because it was impossible to read them on the site.

Response:

Looked like the audience numbers decreased 2.5 times compared to the pre-election period - but only due to the more complicated access.

The average number of daily visitors in August 9-18:

  • Google Search — 36 thousand
  • Google Discover — 29 thousand
  • Direct entries — 18 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 13 thousand
  • Yandex.Search — 9 thousand
  • Yandex.Novosti — 9 thousand
  • Facebook — 3 thousand
  • Google News — 2 thousand

Situation 6: End of the site blocking August 19-27

The Internet blocking disappeared on its own, without any action on the part of Nasha Niva editors.

For other independent media outlets the situation was different. Some social and political media (Belsat, Radio Liberty, Euroradio, etc.) did not get the informal blocking issue sorted out with authorities and became officially blocked on August 21. It is not clear why NN was not on the banned list.

Actions:

Nasha Niva operated as usual, working on the website and the Telegram channel in parallel. With the increase in the number of the channel's readers, a statistical problem arose that still partially exists today –  calculation of conversions from Telegram to the site, because neither Google Analytics nor Yandex.Metrika can track them.

Response:

The audience of blocked social and political sites was added to the audience of Nasha Niva, so the number of direct entries reached a maximum.

The average number of daily visitors from August 20 to 26:

  • Google Discover - 150 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen - 80 thousand
  • Direct entries are 50 thousand
  • Google Search - 49 thousand
  • Facebook - 13 thousand
  • Yandex.Search - 12 thousand
  • Yandex.Novosti - 10 thousand
  • Google News - 10 thousand

Situation 7: blocked by the decision of the Council of Ministers Commission and the first week of work in August 29-September 4.

As it turned out, the state simply put off the blocking of Nasha Niva and Naviny.by for a week. They were blocked on 28 August without any prior warnings. Readers began to report that some providers showed a message that the NN.by was blocked by the Ministry of Information.

According to the decree, NN.by was supposed to stop working in Belarus. But since the server was located in Minsk, it also became inaccessible for foreign users.

In addition, only the desktop version of the site was blocked, while the mobile version at m.NN.by worked with some providers. The Ministry of Information added this address to the list of banned sites only a month later.

Actions:

The situation did not come as a shock to the editors, as it was a complete copy of the June events. Again it took a day to sort out the situation, then there was another switch to Nashaniva.by.

Again the recommendation services were disabled, and again we had to negotiate with Yandex a switch to Zen.

The difference was that this time the editors had a powerful alternative tool of a Telegram channel, through which information was disseminated as before.

Another problem was that all the previous months redirection from Nashaniva.by to NN.by worked, and many users still had it written in their cookies. This led to an unpleasant situation when people were being redirected to a blocked site. They didn't understand what was going on.

Response:

Another call to subscribe to the blocked Nasha Niva's Telegram channel, spread by other media as well, increased the number of subscribers from 77,000 to 94,000.

The number of visitors to Nashaniva.by in the first days was absolutely equal to what we saw during the June blocking.

The average number of daily visitors from August 29 to September 4:

  • Google Search — 17 thousand
  • Direct entries —15 thousand
  • Google Discover — 6 thousand
  • Yandex.Search — 3 thousand
  • Facebook — 2 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 1 thousand.
  • Google News — 1 thousand
  • Yandex.News — 0

Situation 8: work at Nashaniva.by from September till the end of November and at NN.by from November 25

For almost three months the site worked on the mirror Nashaniva.by. Since it was unclear how long the situation would last, we had to make this address the main one. The number of visitors to the mirror site stabilized. When the blocking was lifted from the main domain and Nasha Niva returned to it, the attendance figures didn't change much. In this regard, we combined two stages of work under different conditions into one.

Actions:

The editorial board sent a request to the Ministry of Information to unblock the site. The first letter was answered with a list of "banned" articles. When the articles were removed, the Ministry of Information sent a list of "banned" comments. The site was unblocked a month after the comments were removed. The official explanation was as follows: "there were no longer any reasons that caused the access restriction".

After NN.by was unblocked, we had to ask Yandex.Zen to move the feed once again. Google's search and referral system switched on their own once again.

Response:

Галоўнае, што за некалькі месяцаў блакіроўкі «НН» і іншых незалежных СМІ інтэрнэт-аўдыторыя настолькі прывыкла атрымліваць інфармацыю з тэлеграм-каналаў, што шмат хто не вярнуўся на сайт. Колькасць прамых уваходаў адносна красавіка скарацілася на траціну.

The average number of daily visitors is December 9-15:

  • Google Discover — 45 thousand
  • Google Search — 23 thousand
  • Direct entries — 26 thousand
  • Yandex.Zen — 12 thousand
  • Facebook — 6 thousand
  • Yandex.Novosti — 4 thousand
  • Google News — 4 thousand
  • Yandex.Search — 3 thousand

Conclusions:

  1. Against the backdrop of the blocked site access (and the Internet disruptions in general), the audience finds an alternative way to get information. Telegram channels became this kind of phenomenon in Belarus in 2020. The number of Nasha Niva subscribers increased from 3 thousand to 105 thousand within a year.
  2.  In the case of Nasha Niva, in the first days after the blockade, the mirror site had only 20-30% of its former audience left.
  3.  The access blocking most badly affects the sites that work with traffic from recommendation services -- they get turned off instantly and completely.
  4.  The most troublesome thing is to switch Yandex.Zen to the new address. The service does not provide an opportunity to do this manually, so the success here depends on negotiations with the corporation.
  5.  Google services switch by themselves, but not quickly.
  6.  Once the site is locked and the media outlet is returned to the old domain, there is no instant return of the audience numbers to the previous level.
  7. It is important to note that Telegram was of paramount importance during the most acute periods, when people needed access to information here and now, when something important was happening every minute, when an endless stream of user content was flowing. Now we see a decreasing audience activity on Telegram. People are getting tired of reading a lot of news and are unsubscribing.

 

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Short title: 
Massive demand for information on Telegram