Revolution in Telegram. How the Belarusians are fighting the regime with the help of the messenger

April 01, 2021 18:32

"My Telegram account was hacked" 

- After our conversation my Telegram account was broken," says Karina, who left Belarus after the presidential election to keep herself safe. She was expelled from the Belarusian university for participation in mass events. After 3-4 days she was already in Ukraine. 

- I knew what would happen next. As the events that followed - the detention of active students - showed I was right. 

Her Telegram account had been attempted to be hacked in early March - then the security forces (peoplewithout uniforms, presumably from the KGB and police – translation edit) detained the active participants and administrators of district and specialized Telegram chats.

After they are detained, they are sentenced to different punishments. For example, for "violation of the order of the organization or holding of mass events", "for hooliganism", or "disobedience to a police officer". They can also initiate a criminal case for insulting a government representative. 

A year ago, the Belarusian law enforcement agencies (police, KGB - translation edit) were not interested in Telegram at all. Very few people were involved in the few chat groups that already existed. They were discussing everyday life and the coronavirus.

Oksana Shelest, senior analyst at the Center for European Transformation, PhD in sociology, writes in her research that it was the chat networks that played an important role in organizing "neighborhood activity," which remains a very important component of the Belarusian revolution. 

We conducted an additional analysis to understand how the use of Telegram changed as the political crisis in the country worsened.

To do this, we took an array of messages from chats from April 2020 to the present, links to which are available at dze.chat, a map with chats of courtyards and neighborhoods in Belarusian cities. There are now 980 chats there. 

In addition to describing the number of chats, messages and active participants, we analyzed the texts of the messages using the LDA algorithm.

Spring and summer 2020

In April 2020, Belarusian Telegram chats were mainly discussing the coronavirus: statistics of infected people, news about the pandemic, the situation in hospitals and pharmacies - many were looking for medicines and protective masks. 

Closer to summer, talk about the election campaign came to the fore. Messenger users discussed the upcoming elections, candidates, the lack of alternatives in the past 20 years, and the financial situation of Belarusians.

"Honestly, I can't imagine how people rent an apartment on their own and manage to survive," messages of this kind were common in Telegram chats in May 2020.

The bursts of activity in the spring and summer of 2020 were mostly related to events that took place in the country. For example, the first major burst came on June 22, when the first trials of solidarity protesters began in the country. During June, the number of chats doubled, and the number of active participants reached a peak of 2,900 on June 24 and 22,000 messages.

The next pick was on 14 July. It was also associated with the protests in support of by then already unregistered candidates Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo.

Belarusians also actively discussed early voting and the work of independent observers. The graph shows that this topic was actively discussed at the end of July, and the highest peak happened on the election day - August 9.

Topic Key words Descroption

COVID-19

covid, doctor, water, buy, store, purchase Discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belarus and drinking water problems in Minsk
Discussion of the protest case, in general, understand, speak, correctly, do

Protest news, announcements of new chats, discussion of actions

Advance Voting election, vote, number, vote, minimum, district Discussion of advance voting, independent monitoring

 

Everything changed on August 9

....Presidential elections were held in Belarus on August 9, and there were no other topics for discussion. On the same day, mass protests began - people did not believe in the midterm official results, which were published by the authorities. 

On August 9, Telegram chats registered the maximum daily number of messages since the beginning of the year - 50,000. They were written by 7,500 people (the number of unique accounts that wrote at least one message in any of the chats) in 143 chats.

Belarusians discussed two important topics. The first was the midterm election results, the work of polling places, and the actions of law enforcement officers (police, special enforcement – translation edit). The second was the blocking of the Internet, which stopped working on August 9.

Key words Description

Voting

election, vote, number, vote, minimum, polling station Discussion of advance voting, independent monitoring
Turning off the Internet telega (telegram - conversational slang – translate edit), communication, website, telephone, Internet, channel to work

Discussion on shutting down the Internet and ways to overcome blocking

It was only possible to access the Internet with the help of blocking programs such as Psiphon. Telegram did not work without a proxy, either. The situation continued on August 10 and 11, and it was not until the morning of August 12 that the Internet started working for all users in the country. People went to Telegram to get the news and make some arrangements for protests. 

That day was the most intense day in the chats - almost 293,000 messages were sent (still a record high by March 2021) by 45,000 users. Most of the messages related to the actions of the law enforcement agencies. For example, information on the operational situation on the streets: the movement of special equipment, law enforcement officers (police – translation edit), and discussion of tactics used to suppress peaceful protests.

"There are «tsihary» (people without uniforms, police officers and special services – translation edit) walking through the courtyards", "Six cars with OMON (mobile special operations unit – translation edit) arrived", "OMON went to School 191". These were the messages exchanged in Telegram chats over the next few days.

Ключевые слова Описание

Situation on the streets

Side, near, car, avtozak, standing, stopping Operational situation, relocation of special equipment and security forces

These topics were discussed at least until December. At the same time, activity increased by the weekend. This was probably due to the Sunday marches, which gathered thousands of people every week. 

- By the weekends, communication increased at least because people simply had some free time. Of course, there were groups of people who chatted all the time (mothers on maternity leave, students on vacation), but mostly people worked on weekdays and were active on weekends," Karina says.

She created the backyard chat group at the end of August. She says that by then all the yards already had their own chat room, but they didn't. 

- I went to dze.chat, couldn't find my yard's chat and created it myself," says Karina, who still continues to administer the chat alone.

In autumn 2020, Belarus began to fight Telegram

Oksana Shelest writes in her research: "Understanding the effectiveness of self-organization using the Telegram messenger capabilities led to repressions not only against channel administrators, but also against administrators and active participants in chat rooms. 

- That's crazy, though. Nothing awful is going on in these chat rooms, people are just chatting," says Karina. - You could say that this is a club of interest, nothing more.  

Her words are confirmed by our second interviewee, Alexei - the creator of a chat room in one of the major districts of Minsk.

- The big neighborhood chat room initially had only a protest agenda," says the guy. - After that smaller chat rooms started to appear, and there people were already solving domestic issues. 

Alexei also had to leave Belarus: "They detained the guys who worked with me on the university Telegram channel. It became scary. And then the KGB detained a woman from my neighborhood who was collecting money to help the prisoners. And this woman knew where I lived and roughly knew who I was. I realized that it was better to leave than to sit and be afraid. 

At this time, security chat room policies changed. In October and November, administrators began deleting correspondence history, removing information that was related to organizing local events and coordinating protests.

- We were opening the chat room around 8-9 morning and closing it around 12 in the night," says Alexei. - Because at some point there was a problem: they (supposedly people from special services, police – translation edit) started posting porn, dismemberment, and complaints in one of the backyard chats for 80 people at three in the morning. Two hours later, Telegram blocked the chat room. We were afraid of losing the asset, so we closed for the night.

- In order to enter the chat room we had to be verified", - Karina says. - I always cleaned the chat room once a day. There are active people sitting there, they go to the actions, and if they are detained, they will definitely come to watch Telegram.

In the autumn, chat rooms continued to discuss the operational situation at the protests and everyday news. But a new topic also appeared: on 13 October Svetlana Tihanovskaya announced the "People's ultimatum" from 25 October. The peak of discussion of this topic came on 26 October (and before that in August), but by mid-November the strikes were practically not discussed anymore.

Key words Description

Strike

enterprise, strike, work, worker, striker, employment Discussion of strikes, protests at factories and universities

Winter 2020: people are waiting for warm weather

In winter and spring, protest activity in Telegram channels was no longer as high. A total of about 20,000 messages per day were sent in all chats in March, although even in mid-December the numbers were at the level of 35,000-40,000 messages. Our interviewees associate this with the fact that mass protests have stopped in Belarus - it was cold.

- The activity in the chat room has slightly decreased, but has remained. Because it's friendship, it's communication. It's interesting for everyone to talk to their neighbors," Karina said. - I think that the main function of Telegram chats is to make friends and expand our social circle. It helps consolidate society. 

Alexei, on the other hand, says that there is not much activity in the chat room right now: "20 messages a day.

- People have stopped coming out to protest because of the cold. That's why there's nothing to discuss," says Alexei. - Plus, people started getting used to not getting burned. That's why everything that's happening doesn't cause such a storm of emotions as it used to.

In December 2020-February 2021, activity peaked on New Year's night. Belarusians congratulated each other on the holiday and planned to go to the Christmas tree. Interestingly, the hike was planned for 23:34 (in honor of the article of the administrative code of the same name, under which most of the protesters were tried), not at 00:00.

Key words Description 

Walks on New Year's Day

morning, walk, night, tomorrow, yesterday, good, evening New Year's greetings, planning New Year's Eve walks
New Year Zhive (long live Belarus – translation edit), karma, new, Belarus, well done, zhiv

Happy New Year, Wishes for 2021

In early February, Telegram chats were actively discussing calls to take to the streets on February 11-12, the days of the All-Belarusian People's Assembly. But Belarusians don't seem to like this idea very much: "This is a great opportunity for the authorities to deal with the remaining active part of the population". 

- But people are really hoping to go out on the streets. Alexei says: "We can see from the chat that they're waiting for warmth in order to go out for a 'walk. 

The authorities themselves understand this; therefore, they continue to repress the administrators and active participants in Telegram channels and chat rooms. For example, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus is going to declare one of the largest news channels in Belarus, MotolkoPomogi, extremist.

In response, Belarusians come up with different ways to protect themselves. "Cyber partisans" made and posted for public access the application " Partisan Telegram", which will help in case of detention. If you enter a special password, the app will send an SOS-message to the contact you specify and delete "destructive channels and chats" (they also need to be specified in advance).


The text was prepared with the cooperation of the partners:

    

Short title: 
Revolution in Telegram