Choking the Social Networks Revolution
Published: 25 July 2011
Western media often spread myths about the extent of Internet censorship in Belarus. Many have the impression that all or many social media sites have been shut down or blocked by Belarusian KGB. The truth is that unlike television or FM radio, Internet access remains largely unrestricted in Belarus.
Because only a small fraction of Belarusians use Internet to get political information, authorities are rather relaxed about Internet censorship. They usually intervene to temporarily block certain Internet web sites around the dates of scheduled protests. In addition, they effectively use traditional methods against pro-democracy activists such as arrests and pressure on protestors' universities and employers.
Vkontakte is the most popular social network in Belarus which Belarus authorities actively target. The network headquartered in Russia looks very similar to Facebook. Vkontakte is hosting the "Movement for the Future - Revolution Through Social Network" group, where citizen actions are announced, commented and reported on. Instead of blocking the whole network, Belarusian authorities deploy more creative approaches.
For instance, around 22 June a fake page appeared for Belarusian users, informing them that the group page was infected by a virus, and trying to collect information about their accounts from them. On 4 July, the group’s main page was closed for all visitors globally by the administration of Vkontakte, supposedly for violations of the rules by the group. The group’s page was then reopened with 10 times less members than it used to have (was around 200,000 and is now around 20,000). Around 13 July, access to the whole Vkontakte site was blocked inside Belarus for several hours before and during the action of that day.
Security services also visit pro-democracy activists who can be easily identified on social networks. In addition, the authorities increasingly harass bloggers. The most notable criminal cases for defamation were initiated against Andrei Poczobut and Evgeny Lipkovich. Security service agents also conduct "preemptive talks" with pro-democracy activists and detain the most active for short periods of time. Authorities can put pressure on virtually every employer or university in Belarus. The economy is still in state hands in Belarus and most people work on the basis of short-term employment contracts. With rising unemployment the prospect of losing a job is enough to deter many from active protests.
Finally, around the dates of protests opposition and independent web sites are routinely subjected to denial of service attacks. That involves saturating the target web site with an overwhelming number of external requests. The web site then cannot respond to legitimate traffic, or responds so slowly as to be rendered effectively unavailable. Charter97, Nasha Niva and Euroradio web sites are the main targets of attackers.
The Western media often overestimate penetration of Internet and social networks in Belarus. Although the role of Internet in Belarus is steadily increasing, it is far from being the dominant source of information. According to a May survey of the Independent Institute for Sociological and Political Studies, 33% of the adult population in Belarus received information from the Internet and only 2.2% - from social networks. This 33% include hard line supporters of the authorities and those who never read any political news on Internet.
Only around 2% of the Belarusians use Facebook. Twitter is even less popular. According to various estimates, there are less then 50 thousand Twitter users in all regions of Belarus. However, the authorities take no chances and actively use trolling and jamming on the days of street actions. Security services use nicknames very similar to those of pro-democracy activists and independent media to spread false news and negative comments. That makes it very difficult for pro-democracy activists to rely on Twitter.
Because of the small numbers and chaotic character of social networks protests security services can crack down on them with relative ease.
Most analysts agree that only when "ordinary" Belarusians begin to protest the situation may pose a serious threat to authorities. The vast majority of Belarusians relies almost exclusively on television and FM radio to receive information. These media are strictly controlled in Belarus and wide-scale crossborder broadcasts from neighbouring Poland and Lithuania remain possible only in theory.