One messaging app helped protesters fight Alexander Lukashenko’s digital blackout. Can it bring him down?
Tuesday 18 August 2020
At 2pm on August 16, a crowd of Belarusians – over 100,000 by some estimates – made its way to Minsk’s Hero City Obelisk, a 150-foot needle dedicated to the city’s three-year stand against Nazi occupiers. Chants of “Leave!” echoed through the crowd, directed at Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s leader for the past 26 years whom many describe as “Europe’s Last Dictator.” Lukashenko had remained defiant amid claims he’d rigged the previous week’s presidential election, to rule for a sixth term.
The “March for Freedom,” as demonstrators had labelled it, was the largest in independent Belarusian history. It crowned a week of turmoil marked by street violence and political repression that has left Lukashenko’s leadership – already weakened by a struggling economy and a slapdash response to Covid-19 – in tatters. But the march was unique for more than size alone. Opposition leaders were jailed, or in exile. Nobody led the crowd through Minsk’s vast, Olympian streets – at least, nobody in person.
Instead, as the demonstrators reached the memorial, they glanced at messages posted to Telegram, the encrypted messaging app that had become, amid a government-imposed internet blackout, Belarus’s leading source of information. Telegram wasn’t just broadcasting news. It was orchestrating the entire movement.
“We gather on Independence Square and celebrate another victory over the dictatorship,” read a message bookmarked by emoji exclamation marks that had gone out across every major Telegram profile, or channel. “Afterwards, we go out and stay on the streets of the city, raising our flags wherever possible.” The crowd looked back up, shielded their eyes from a blue, cloudless sky, and paced dutifully onwards to Independence Square.
“There was no megaphone, no amplifier,” says one Telegram channel administrator, who helped coordinate the message. “A huge crowd… nothing. No stage where anyone was speaking. But in this moment they begin moving because they all received a message. It’s like Black Mirror,” the admin says. “It’s fantastic.”
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Belarus hangs in the balance. Workers have downed tools in a country whose regime controls 80 per cent of the economy. Politicians are defecting to the opposition, whose leader, Svetlana Tikhanovksaya, is in neighbouring Lithuania over fears for her life. Lukashenko has begged Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to help quell what he claims is a foreign-led putsch.
If he really wants to know how his compatriots feel, Lukashenko needs only open his smartphone. The Arab Spring of 2010 was often credited to the popularity of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. So-called “colour revolutions”, in former Soviet states like Armenia and Ukraine, used similar parallel channels to oust autocrats. But something different is happening in Belarus. In lieu of physical leadership, its uprising is channeled almost entirely through a single app. And right now, it looks as if it might just succeed.ADVERTISING
This year’s election was long predicted to be an unprecedented challenge for Lukashenko. Belarus’ economy was weakening already before the coronavirus arrived, and the former farm director prescribed vodka and saunas as possible cures (Lukashenko would later contract the virus himself). Journalists were blocked from accessing hospitals, and the regime blocked a handful of critical news sites to all but those with a virtual private network, or VPN. State television sang from a familiar hymn sheet. All is well, its shows preached. We are in control.
But it wasn’t, and they weren’t. Lukashenko locked up his main challenger, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, in May. Banker Victor Babarika and Valery Tsepkalo – the architect of Belarus’ successful startup incubator Hi-Tech Park – announced their candidacies soon after. But weeks before the election Babarika was jailed with his son, and Tsepkalo fled to Moscow fearing for his life.
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It looked as if Lukashenko would run uncontested before 37-year-old English teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Sergei Tikhanovskaya’s wife, declared she would run for the presidency. She was joined by Babarika’s campaign manager Maria Kolesnikova and Valery Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika, a former Microsoft employee.
It was a spectacular move, if one few believed could topple Lukashenko. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Viber – founded in Minsk – buzzed with support for the opposing triumvirate. But the state media backed its man, and most observers predicted a sham election anyway.
Some chatter was being held on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service founded by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov in 2013. The Saint Petersburg-born siblings had been in a roving, self-imposed exile since being dismissed from Facebook-facsimile VKontakte in 2014, and mused about Telegram’s ability to upend despot regimes worldwide.
But in tiny Belarus, a forested nation of 9.5 million people wedged between Russia and the European Union, Telegram struggled to gather pace, and placed fourth among the country’s most popular social apps. Most news organisations had a Telegram channel, but relatively few subscribed. In fact, Telegram’s highest-profile use was by anonymous, pro-Russian channels that had targeted Belarusian protests in February.
Cops used Telegram to snare potential enemies of the state, and rival apparatchiks leaked gossip about each other. For journalists, Telegram was a great source of information. For ordinary Belarusians, however, it “was just another messenger,” says Franak Viacorka, a journalist and leading Telegram channel manager. That would soon change.
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In the days leading up to the August 9 vote, Lukashenko’s police and KGB – the country’s intelligence service that still carries its Soviet-era name – arrested journalists and activists en masse. Viacorka saw his name posted to a KGB-run Telegram channel called “Provocateurs”. Appearing there usually precedes a knock on the door by uniformed men. Viacorka left the country.
On August 4 observers noted unusually high early voting, suggesting fraud. On August 6 Tikhanovskaya called on Belarusians to register with an alternative voting platform, developed by engineers at the Hi-Tech Park incubator, called Golos – “The Voice”. A day later almost a million Belarusians had signed up.
Perhaps that was the push the regime needed. At midnight on August 9, activists noticed some signs of unusual activity on Belarus’ internet. “These weren’t widely noticed, and they appeared to take the form of some reconfiguration of back-end systems,” says Alp Toker, director of monitoring group NetBlocks.
Nine hours later, as Belarusians headed to the ballot box, their internet cut out. Landline phones were also disconnected. State telecommunication firm Beltelecom blamed “multiple cyberattacks of varying intensity” for the outage. That was a lie. Evidence suggests that Lukashenko’s government had used deep-packet inspection tools (DPIs), a technique normally used to filter out harmful content, to block popular sites, using a list of over 10,000 keywords. The cull also knocked out foreign news services like Al Jazeera and CNN.
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It was a dramatic, if tested, tool in the authoritarian playbook. Recent digital shutdowns in Indian Kashmir, Venezuela, and Myanmar have amplified calls to classify such moves as crimes against humanity. “Threats to digital expression and Internet freedom are more pronounced than ever,” said a UN special rapporteur in 2017. “Internet shutdowns have emerged as a popular means of information control.”
Some Belarusians bypassed the blackout using Psiphon and Tachyon, VPNs popularised by censor-busting Chinese and Iranian citizens. Others turned to Tor, the anonymous browser. Around 100,000 Belarusians work in IT, and the sector is worth 6.5 per cent of the country’s GDP. But over 20 per cent of Belarusians remain offline, and few know how to use VPNs or Tor. Social media apps like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook were either running glacially or not at all. Amid the confusion, Lukashenko claimed victory with 80 per cent of the vote. “This is a crime against the people,” says Veronika Tsepkalo. “Because, for example, when somebody is hurt, you are not even able to call emergency [services] or ambulances.”
Protests simmered, mostly in Minsk. Tikhanovskaya went silent. Lukashenko’s stranglehold on his nation looked set to continue for another five years.
On Sunday evening Telegram, like other social media apps, slowed too. But the Durov brothers had a trick up their sleeves. In spring, they had kept Telegram online despite a massive attempt by Russian state regulators to control the internet there. Now, it was Belarus’ turn. Early in the evening on August 10, the app came back online. Pavel Durov cited additional “anti-censorship tools”, which some Belarusian technology experts think were very likely to be domain fronting – a technique that hosts a platform on a separate system to disguise the traffic’s source. (Emails to Telegram and messages to Pavel Durov’s personal Telegram handle have not been answered).
Overnight, Telegram became Belarus’ principal news broadcaster. Regular outlets, which had been posting to the app for several months, switched to it altogether. Some sites readied foreign-hosted mirror websites, in case they were blocked entirely. “We were prepared,” says Iryna Vidanava, CEO and co-founder of news portal CityDog.
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Belarusians subscribed to dozens of Telegram channels. The most popular was NEXTA Live (pronounced “Nek-ta”, meaning “someone” in Belarusian), founded in 2015 as a YouTube channel by Stepan Putilo, aka Stepan Svetlov, a Warsaw-based activist. He ran NEXTA Live, and its slightly-less-popular channel NEXTA, alongside editor-in-chief Roman Protasevich, a puckish, clean-cut revolutionary with a penchant for publishing dubiously-sourced, anti-state samizdats. By the time of the election, NEXTA Live already had 1.3 million followers, almost a quarter of Belarus’ adult population. During the blackout its readership soared.
Throughout the period Telegram – and in some cases Durov personally – kept in touch with several Telegram channel administrators, to help filter fake news and pro-government propaganda. Channel insiders told me they coordinated with Durov to delete accounts of those arrested by the KGB to avoid information falling into state hands.
Soon, NEXTA Live was broadcasting to almost two million people. It posted tips on setting up web proxies, maps of police locations, addresses protesters could hide at, and contacts for lawyers and human-rights groups. It had become a one-stop revolutionary cookbook. “An internet shutdown is a huge mistake by the authorities,” Protasevich told the BBC’s Russian-language service. “Telegram has picked up almost all Belarusians who are flooding the streets in an effort to bring about changes in the country. Do I feel responsible for what we publish? Only in terms of whether it will bring people closer to victory and the end of the dictatorship,” he added.
Often, the content beamed via Telegram to millions of Belarusians wasn’t pretty. Police and the KGB met growing protests with brutality. Cops bludgeoned demonstrators with batons and doused them with tear gas. One man, Alexander Taraikovsky, was killed amid the chaos. State propaganda claimed an explosive device blew up in his hand; video evidence would show riot police shooting Tarainovsky in the chest with what appeared to be a rubber bullet, before he dropped to the ground.
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Protests in Belarus are almost always confined to Minsk, its cultural and economic powerhouse. Telegram’s surge sent them tumbling into smaller cities and towns, traditionally Lukashenko’s strongholds. The movement “became more decentralised,” says Yahor Malshewski, an artificial intelligence developer based at Hi-Tech Park. “Now people gathered in their neighbourhoods.”
The Telegram channels gave ordinary Belarusians a chance to see through their nation’s digital darkness. In the past, state propaganda drowned out opposing politics. Now, people who wanted change discovered they weren’t alone. Telegram created the feeling that a mass of people supports something,” says Viacorka. “People realised that other people were thinking the same way.” In days, Telegram channels had done what decades of sporadic opposition had not: remove the barriers to coordinating social change.
On August 11, Tikhanovskaya appeared in a hostage-style video, filmed allegedly at the headquarters of Belarus’ electoral commission. She told her followers to stay at home, before fleeing to neighbouring Lithuania. Tikhanovskaya claimed her children’s lives had been threatened. “God forbid you face the kind of choice that I faced,” she said.
By then, the protests had swelled across Belarus. Rioting had calmed and most demonstrations took on a cheerful, almost triumphal tenor. Women lined city streets holding flowers in peace. Some videos seemed to suggest regional police were standing down from confrontation. But dangers remained. Early that morning a cab driver who asked to be referred to as Alexey was driving three teens through central Minsk in his taxi, when police vans surrounded them. Riot cops dragged them out of the car and beat them repeatedly with truncheons before leaving, sneering at the bruise-covered driver that he should continue with his shift. Alexey turned immediately to NEXTA Live. “Do maximum reposts, so that people know how they treat us,” he signed off, alongside photos of his battered body and car.
On Wednesday, after a 61-hour shutdown, Belarus’ internet returned. Protests grew nonetheless. Workers at major factories went on strike. An EU spokesperson called the country’s election “neither free nor fair,” and prepared sanctions. China and Russia praised the vote. On Friday Tikhanovskaya called on city mayors across Belarus to permit peaceful protest.
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“Just half a year ago, no one believed that Belarusians could come together and say no to the old authorities,” Tikhanovskaya said. “But this is what has happened. We turned out and we voted and we made our choice – and we did it obeying the law, peacefully and with dignity. Join the movement.”The day Australia burned
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Neither Svetlov or Protasevich could be reached for this story. They have emerged as heroes of Belarus’ opposition movement: outspoken, incendiary voices for whom journalistic accuracy comes a distant second to toppling Lukashenko. That has riled some media in Belarus, who are wary of NEXTA Live’s propensity to drift towards falsehood. Just hours after the channel reported protester Yevgeny Zaichkin dead, he told a Reuters journalist he had survived a jail beating.
“Roman is pure revolutionary; he wants victory right away,” says Viacorka, the Telegram manager who also worked with Protasevich at Radio Free Europe. He holds daily 10pm debriefs with the NEXTA Live duo. “(Roman’s) message is, ‘Let’s go, it’s our last chance.’ I’m more journalistic, so what I try to do is distance our channels from his.”
Journalist Vidanava agrees, and stresses the importance of providing Belarusians with “balanced and verified information”. But she acknowledges that NEXTA Live, and the wider spectrum of Telegram channels, have achieved something traditional media could never have imagined. “What media, bloggers and ordinary users did during these days using technology is truly amazing,” she says.
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On August 14, as tens of thousands of Belarusians marched on government buildings in Minsk – many holding flowers – Lukashenko took to state television. He told compatriots they and their children were being used “as cannon fodder” by dark forces from “Poland, the Netherlands and Ukraine”. He promised to protect Belarus from “black-skinned, yellow-faced, and blonde-headed soldiers” from NATO.
It was then that plans for Sunday’s massive demonstrations were hatched. With Tikhanovskaya and Tsepkalo out of the country, it was never in doubt that the rally’s leader would be be an app, Telegram, and not a single figurehead. “People have found their voice,” says NetBlocks’ Toker. “And from what I see, these are people who didn’t necessarily have that voice before. So this is the movement that stands a chance of success.”
Its job is far from over. Lukashenko has remained defiant throughout the turmoil. “The elections were valid. We won’t give away the country,” he insisted at a small, rival Minsk demonstration on Sunday. He has reached out to Putin, who has promised, ominously, to “provide the needed assistance”. The alleged gathering of Russian ordnance on the border has stoked fears among some of an invasion.
Tikhanovskaya, who at first maintained she would play no role in leading her country should Lukashenko fall from power, has announced the creation of a so-called ‘Coordination Council’ to ease a transfer of power.
Meanwhile, the deluge of revolutionary content continues to flood Telegram. At time of publication, NEXTA Live has 2.15 million subscribers and counting. On August 18 Lukashenko briefly shut off Belarus’ internet again, when footage of workers at a military truck factory heckling him went viral. “Until you kill me, there won’t be any new elections,” the snapped back. “Yes, without you,” the crowd cheered. Later in the day it seemed even Lukashenko’s mouthpiece had deserted him. Belarusian state television employees failed to show up for work, and channels broadcast empty sofas and muzak.
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If Europe’s last dictator does fall, Franak Viacorka has no doubt where Belarus’ future will be decided. “Telegram seems to be the most organised, most coordinated group in Belarus opposition right now,” he says. “The political parties cannot choose a leader. Tikhanovskaya is afraid to take responsibility. And what will happen next, if the politicians will not choose their temporary government? Telegram groups will choose this for them. I can say for sure that this revolution can be called the Telegram Revolution. Never before in history has one technology decided so much the political fate of a country.”