This article originally appeared in oDR, the openDemocracy section on Russia and the post-Soviet space. Reproduced with permission and edited for style.
In the last decade, experience has shown how large protests in a single public square – such as those in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Maidan in Kiev – can lead to political change. At the same time, when state authorities are responsible for allocating spaces to protest – as happened with Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Square in Moscow in 2011 – even mass protests can end in nothing.
In the first two nights after the August 9 election results, Belarusian authorities brutally cracked down on protesters' attempts to gather in Minsk's main square. This led to the protests dissipating and acquiring a hyperfocal character, so that the protests were not concentrated in a single point but appeared simultaneously in different places, street to street, from neighborhood to neighborhood.
This “widespread” protest had important advantages. In the first place, the citizens themselves determined the course and the conditions set, instead of state entities that authorized the demonstrations. Second, the “scattered” protest became a transitional space before the protests in the square: a week later, on August 16, the protesters peacefully arrived at the Government House in the capital, Minsk, without resistance. They met at a nearby important war memorial. This peaceful protest was much more significant in terms of numbers than the pro-government rally in support of Aleksandr Lukashenko.
By taking to the streets en masse, individual citizens have been essential to the success of the protest in Belarus, but so have corporate and factory collectives, that is, group actors. How did the protest reach such a large audience so quickly? It can hardly be said that Internet channels have played a central mobilizing role, especially given the partially successful attempts by the Belarusian authorities to block the Internet.
Despite the incredible growth in popularity of various 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 in Belarus. A significant part of this growth in channel popularity is associated with the global audience. At the same time, it is important to note the high level of knowledge of information technology in Belarus, where industries related to information technology have been developing in recent years. This level of awareness enabled many people to partially bypass the internet blockade and produce content related to the protest.
Rather, the key question in understanding the role of the internet in 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 to mobilize and coordinate the protests, but it created the conditions that made possible the massive and rapid participation of citizens. This can be attributed to two important characteristics of the protests: unprecedented state violence and the dispersed nature of the protests in the capital and the rest of the country.
When hyperfocal protests in the context of the modern information environment, even the most brutal violence does not achieve its goal of suppressing the protests, but rather contributes to their growth.
The fragility of the horizontal digital
For more than a decade, researchers have debated the importance of the internet to the success of political protests. Internet technologies have played a large role in protests that achieved major political changes (for example, the Arab Spring or Euromaidan) and those that did not lead to a change in power: during the elections in Iran and 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 the transparency of reporting on protests, and facilitate the mobilization and coordination of the actions.
Along these lines, Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg have analyzed the emergence of a new type of collective action, known as “connective action”, which allows joint actions to be organized without the need for organization or formal party. Institutions are replaced with digital platforms in this model, making organizing political actions easier and faster (for example, a Facebook event created by journalist Ilya Klishin played a key role in organizing the first demonstration in Bolotnaya Square in Russia in 2011).
On the other hand, these “connective actions” have vulnerabilities. For example, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has drawn attention to the cost of simplifying protest mobilization. Although technology makes it possible to quickly rally many people on the street without leaders or parties, it is much more difficult for these protests to manifest themselves in meaningful political change. This new type of protest can disappear without real results as quickly as it arises. In addition, technology creates new opportunities for surveillance and disinformation, and also in promoting insignificant forms of political participation, such as so-called “clictivism” that has little risk for participants and can be interpreted as a simulation of real political activity.
Cycles of political innovation
Political crises are often accompanied by new streams of innovation that seek to change the balance of power between governments and protesters. For example, in the 2019 protests in the Moscow City Duma elections, various types of innovations could be observed in protest reporting and coordination, as well as in self-help and surveillance technologies. The authorities often respond to the innovations of opposition activists with traditional and repressive measures of force (ranging from arrests to blocking the internet). But in some cases, states have also employed innovative tactics, for example using anonymous Telegram channels to provoke and misinform. Recent events in Belarus can also be analyzed in terms of the dynamics of political innovation. Many practices observed around mid-2019 in Moscow are present in one form or another in Belarus.
First, citizens have learned to bypass internet blocks with various tools: Belarusian users have used virtual private networks and tools to remain anonymous, such as Psiphon. The protesters were also encouraged to use Mesh networks (the Bridgefy application) to communicate directly if there was no internet. Telegram's channels and chats (which with the support of the company also function under conditions of limited internet access) were actively used to coordinate actions and transmit information on the location of the riot police, although the effectiveness of this communication in conditions information overload and reliability remains in doubt.
At the same time, hardly any more complex mass collaboration solutions were used for data collection (with the exception of simple maps with Google Maps data). But a little later the “Strike Map” appeared, made with massive collaboration.
Another issue has been that of mutual aid. Telegram channels showed information on access codes for properties where there could be hidden protesters (although the authorities could also access). The channels also reported the places where protesters could find water and medicine. Particular attention was paid to coordinating assistance for detainees released.
The Telegram channel Okrestina Lists was used to search for detainees and publish lists of all detainees in the now known Akrestina temporary detention center. Finally, special channels were dedicated to “anonymizing” state officials who participated in the violence. Also noteworthy are massive global collaborative initiatives through which users outside Belarus have been able to help victims of state violence (for example, the initiative launched by activist Alexey Leonchik raised more than two million dollars).
However, the technologies chosen by the protesters are not the most important at risk. A more significant question is which technologies are the most important to transform a political crisis into an opportunity for change, in this case, to prevent the continuation of the Lukashenko regime. This is essential because the current Belarusian protests are carried out without institutions or formal opposition leaders (most are in prison, while Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who the protesters consider the winner of the elections, was forced to leave Belarus). By their very nature, these protests can be seen as fragile and vulnerable “connecting actions,” the kind that make it so difficult to transfer the power of protest to the realm of real political change.
Horizontal surveillance and the critical mass of state violence
Recent events in Belarus show the critical role of the internet in shaping motivations for participation in protests. The initial motivation was electoral fraud. In the hours after the first results were announced, much evidence of the scale of counterfeiting began to appear online. There were photos from the final protocols that showed a convincing victory for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The large scale of the falsification, above all, delegitimized the elections. But that was only the initial reason for the protests.
Soon after, people began to take to the streets, there were reports of violent repression of peaceful protests. Within hours, social media was inundated with evidence of violence. These tragic images of violence often quickly become symbols of a protest. For example, during the 2009 protests in Tehran, video of the brutal murder of Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan was seen around the world. In the case of Belarus, the critical mass of state violence was unprecedented. Social media showed new evidence of violence by police and security forces literally every minute, including beatings of pedestrians with sticks, attacks on people from behind and shooting at cars in residential buildings.
Belarusian Telegram channels, especially Nexta and Belarus on the Brain, became a source of “reports from the battlefield.” This flow of information was made possible in part by the failed attempt by the Belarusian authorities to completely block internet access. Another reason was the fact that the violence occurred not only near the squares, but everywhere, in gardens and even in the streets. Ordinary citizens filmed the police violence from the windows of their houses and drivers who recorded what was happening on the front door. This evidence was added to the material of mistreatment of detainees in isolation, also recorded from neighbors of neighboring apartments.
All of this had a “reverse panopticon” effect: in an environment full of mobile phones, car cameras, and closed-circuit television, the state can observe its citizens, and citizens can also effectively monitor the state. The answer is state violence in this “horizontal surveillance.” The critical mass of evidence of violence becomes the new key trigger for protests and general public mobilization. Crimes against humanity replace electoral fraud as the main point. This evidence can then be used to prosecute the perpetrators. Several organizations have already announced a joint open source initiative, the aim of which is to systematically collect, verify and analyze all data on human rights violations committed during the crackdown on Belarusian protests.
Everywhere and nowhere
Elmer Eric Schattschneider, an American political scientist, argues that one of the main factors in the success of a protest is the “scope of contagion” of a political conflict.
Sometimes attempts by the state to limit the scope of citizen participation through repressive measures have the opposite effect. For example, several studies show that internet blocking often exacerbates protests, as the information gap forces people to take to the streets. The question remains of what awaits those who leave their homes. The brutal repression of the protest by the state creates a dilemma for protesters: on the one hand, it increases the risk of participating in protests. Furthermore, the apparent success in suppressing them can lead to an increase in so-called “free beneficiaries”, people who hope that political goals will be achieved without their participation. On the other hand, the feeling that the number of participants is increasing in response to violence and that the protest is gathering momentum becomes crucial if the willingness to participate is to overcome the “logic of risk”.
Social media turned out to be of fundamental importance not in coordinating the protests but in creating a sense of their invincible growth. This applies both to the geographical extent of the protest and to the diversity of the participants: their location, gender, age and social status. Researchers speak of this as a question of the “visibility” of the protest. it is not enough to go outside, but it is important to show it in such a way that it evokes a sense of mass participation for those who stay at home. An example of an early “visibility technology” is the use of drones to photograph the size of a crowd from the air.
The authorities, for their part, are striving to disperse people from the streets, and also to minimize the potential “visibility” of the protest. The problem of visibility is especially acute in a situation of hyper-local protests. Unlike protests in a “single square” (like in Cairo or Kiev), they cannot be displayed from a “single aerial view of a drone”. The case of Belarus illustrates a solution to the “visibility problem”: the news channel formed by Telegram channels and local Telegram chat groups showed protests taking place simultaneously in hundreds of places.
The “Hyperlocality” and decentralized protests are often an advantage for Protestants, since it is more difficult for the state to suppress them. However, before it was also difficult for these protests to create the effect of mass participation. As has been demonstrated in Belarus, information technologies can compensate for this lack of visibility of a “crowd in the square” and create a mass effect through a constant flow of information and mark new places of protest.
At critical times when riot police, through violence, increased the risk of participating in protests and thus trying to stop them, the opposite happened: the documented violence created a new motivation for mobilization. The effect of the massive scale and geographical distribution of the protests, as seen in the broadcasts of Telegram channels, exceeded the subjective threshold of participation, that is, the threshold beyond which the subjective feeling of danger of participation in Stock is overshadowed by the willingness to get out because everyone was dating. The “snowball” effect of the mobilization had begun: in the emerging information environment, people felt that wherever they went out, they would not be alone.
At the same time, the traditional role attributed to social media in the tactical coordination of protests may have played a second role, especially in the initial phase of the protests. Some forms of online coordination were effective, for example, the emergence of private women's chats, created to organize solidarity chains. However, there were many other chats that could not cope with the chaos of messages and contradictory mobilization instructions, which made it difficult to monitor the development of the protests, even for the authorities.
Coordination is important when it comes to relatively small groups protesting and there is no mass participation. In this situation, it is possible to resist the most powerful government resources precisely because of the greater effectiveness of the action. However, when the ever-present chain reaction of participation begins, the number of protesters becomes more important than coordination. By going out into the streets and squares, people organize themselves without the help of information technology and the internet blocking only contributes to that scenario.
The effect of the mobilization was also facilitated by the viral dissemination of stories that showed the victories of the protesters against the security forces, images of people fighting against any attempt to arrest them, or stories of law enforcement officers taking off their IDs, uniforms or epaulettes as a sign of non-violence.
From object to subject
Of course, the success of the Belarusian protests cannot be attributed solely to information technology; it is mainly due to political and social factors that emerged during Lukashenko's totalitarian regime, and especially during his recent election campaign. Furthermore, we do not yet fully know what the political outcome of current events will be. However, what is happening in Belarus is an important example of how information technology can help turn a political crisis into an opportunity for political change, despite the fragile nature of “connective action”.
I would like to recall the paradox described by the Strugatsky brothers and brilliantly demonstrated by Andrei Tarkovsky in the film “Stalker” (The zone). Once they have entered “the zone”, the protagonists are far from “the camera”. However, the direct path there is not the shortest. The same goes for the protests: upon entering the square immediately, the crowd may find themselves in the trap described by Zeynep Tufekci. It may fail to gain critical mass, lose energy, and disintegrate before it can achieve its political goals. The “road to the square” that the Belarusians have passed has helped them avoid this trap, albeit at tragic cost.
In the new informational environment, the violence used against participants during hyperlocal protests is becoming less effective in suppressing them. Quite the contrary: violence is becoming a new motivation for people to take to the streets. The intimidation effect is offset by the general mobilization effect and contributes to a strong increase in the scope of participation. It is at this point that a chain reaction begins, which is increasingly difficult to stop: repression becomes ineffective and even counterproductive; a crowd of protesters goes from being an object of persecution to being a subject of the political process. In time, the crowd is ready to enter the central plaza and gather hundreds of hyperfocal protests in a single column. It was this path to the square, traced in the first five days after the Belarusian presidential elections, that turned the crowd into a political force capable of escaping the trap of horizontal mobilization and bringing about real change.
Will the Belarusians be able not only to complete the impossible task of eliminating Lukashenko, but also to demonstrate the folly of violence as an instrument to achieve political goals? Perhaps, like the “end of history” thesis, it is too early to announce the “end of political violence.” However, events in Belarus may push other authoritarian regimes to rely less and less on traditional forces to suppress local unrest, investing more and more resources in innovative forms of control aimed at creating new invisible barriers to the 'road to the square' .