Memes and identity
In addition to expansive use of Telegram, the ongoing civil unrest and social movement in Belarus sparked a digital phenomena that was not very widely spread until late 2019: a war of internet memes. The results of this war, which is, after all, a war of symbols, that quite possibly will mark the end of a decades-long conflict of dual identity in Belarus.
Since early 1990s, the population of Belarus was informally divided between two identities. The most comprehensive explanation of these two competing concepts of Belarusian self-description models was provided in 2010 book «Struggle over Identity» by Dr. Nelly Bekus (then – Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw). The author named these identities the «official» and the «alternative» Belarusianness. Long underground, the «alternative» identity fast became a mainstream.
The «official» Belarusianness was embraced in the hands of the state. It presented a collection of civic rituals and social practices common in the Soviet society for decades. To a great extent, it was a box of collective memories and views of the «Red Human Beings» who were often raised in provincial agricultural regions – and rarely presented families with lasting, if any, tradition of urban living.
The «official» Belarusianness was aggressively promoted and enforced nationwide – from schools to monopolized state television – since the rise of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in mid-1990. Since then, the ethno-symbolic concept of nation, common in all modern European countries, has remained an «alternative» and almost did not exist in public realm for a long time.
However, in the last decade both «official» and «alternative» concepts gradually entered the digital world, and social networks in particular. There, two identities of Belarusians have been reconstructed into sets of distinguishable ideas, concepts, slogans, and visual materials (videos, art objects, patterns, etc.) that were widely spread on social media and became known as digital memes. Unlike in traditional reading of the term, for the purpose of this paper we will consider an internet meme any character, image, concept, or idea capable of going viral online and becoming a notable part of Belarusian pop-culture.
Wide dissemination and awareness of memes is one of the elements of cultural domination, and also political promotion. In times when traditional media ruled in the information space in Belarus, the «official» Belarusianness was almost unchallenged. However, things have changed with deeper penetration of Internet and social networks. But this move was also dependent on age-based social transformations in Belarusian society. The first large drift from the «official» to «alternative» identity started around 2014-15 following Russian military intervention into Ukraine. It was the first time when Belarusians questioned the matter of their identity on a very broad scale.
Around mid-2015, two versions of Belarusianness actually split into three with the rise of Russia’s efforts to coerce Belarus to integration. Then, Lukashenka’s propagandists became more careful with the use of pro-Russian symbols such as «the ribbon of St. George» associated with pro-Russian proxies and regular forces in Donbas and Crimea.
Although certain pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups promoted their partisan messages on Belarusian segment of social media in the aftermath of 2014-2015 events, the role of online memes and images in Belarusian politics only became truly notable as a part of nationwide social confrontation on the eve of 2020 presidential campaign.
Political memes during 2020 presidential campaing
Since the very beginning of the presidential campaign, memes became an important part of online campaigning for the opposition. On the one hand, they played a role of contemporary folk art created by Internet users. Prior to elections day, memes were widely used to express a political opinion, political protest or make fun of Lukashenka during elections (memes were used to ridicule Lukashenka and his servant, expose his repulsive phrases, appearance, etc.). After the elections, though, memes and Internet art in general were used as a weapon of political struggle, intentionally used to attract attention, and raise the issues of Belarus.
In April 2020, one of the most recognizable memes of Belarusian revolution was born. «Стоп таракан!» (Stop the cockroach!) was coined by Lyudmila Bareika (58) from small provincial town of Hlubokae who compared Lukashenka to a cockroach in the middle of a livestream run by popular opposition blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski (also known as the husband of president-elect Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Siarhei remains in jail since late spring 2020 and is acknowledged a political prisoner).
The video went viral and got 1.5 million views fast – thus becoming the most popular video in Siarhei’s channel. Later on, Lyudmila was fined for – quote from police report «expressing her social and political interests and personal relationship to acting authorities in online mode on YouTube channel «Country for Life without authorization by Hlubokae City Hall». Soon after that, Lyudmila’s son was heavily beaten.
Later on this meme evolved into «Усатый таракан» (Whiskered cockroach) and «No Pasaran – Стоп Таракан»! (They shall not pass! Stop the Cockroach!) in reference to Lukashenka and his famous mustache. Ultimately, his critics chose home slippers as a symbol of campaign against the «cockroach» hinting that they will pin the insect. Toy cockroaches of various kinds were very widely used as parodies of Lukashenka.
Another hit meme emerged just a few weeks later when in late May major online media in Belarus, tut.by and Online, as well as local Telegram channels launched their online polls to find out the approximate support of perspective runners for presidential candidacy. It has to be noted that Belarus strictly prohibits unauthorized polls related to social and political topics.
The results this time, however were so unexpected that they exploded the whole society. Lukashenka only managed to get 3% to 6% support and immediately became «Sasha 3%». The meme has become one of important psychological markers for the population to realize their power over bureaucracy and punitive units. But also, it became a popular online joke and triggered multiple commercial campaigns that multiplied the 3% meme until it was informally prohibited to show these numbers in public or use them for commercial purposes (such as discounts).
Simultaneously, the supporters of changes reclaimed the status of political majority labelling themselves as «We are the 97%». This slogan was then widely used to promote an online flashmob initiated by NEXTA telegram channel and using tons of user-generated content.
The people of different professions were taking pictures with 97% motto and their respective clothes (the campaign was a popular mobilizer for law enforcement workers to refrain from executing criminal orders – but, sadly, the police and KGB workers showed extreme brutality in exchange).
This set of memes has become so popular that the former president was forced to react in public. It was the first public stand up of his when the public was able to witness him downed by political memes.
Lukashenka himself is, probably, the most widely known meme. Just like former U.S. president Donald Trump, the former president of Belarus is pretty much a product of pop culture. Lukashenka’s public performances have been used by both his supporters and haters. And this is his strongest feature – his ability to produce viral demagogy and memes is unprecedented.
While elections campaign was approaching, Lukashenka repeatedly stated in public (in May-June 2020) that in 1994 in Minsk (before he became the president) there’s only been enough flour to feed people for 3 days. Later on, this information was proven fake, but the meme was born as ironic reference to Lukashenka’s lies and ungrounded self-promotion.
The former president likes referring to himself as «Батька» (An Old Man) claiming he got this nickname from the general public during his first term as a sign of respect. However, there are no proofs to this. Nevertheless, nickname went viral since mid-1990 and resulted in «За Батьку!» (For An Old Mant!) chant used by Lukashenka’s supporters in public gatherings repeatedly.
Online activists updated videos with people using this chant by adding text that says «Сабачку»! (We Want A Dog!). Since the two sound almost equally when shouted by many people, the We Want A Dog meme went viral and later became one of the leading slogans during the rallies of democratic activists, while small dogs soon became a popular protest accessories.
In mid-August 2020, a newly-created slang term «ЯБатька» (Yabatska) is first used among the supporters of Lukashenka. Although the origins of this meme remain unknown, the credit this term is often attributed to Russia-based media advisors of the former president. Although the intention of the creators of this term was to use the I Am The Old Man meaning of this combination, the pronunciation of this word resulted into a more vulgar «A f**ker».
So, instead of building a positive meme, the followers of the former president were being ridiculed and laughed at. However, some people enjoy the Yabatska status despite its foolish nature. Later on, this meme was updated by Lukashenka’s supporter Dmitry Empat (a TikTok blogger known under his nickname Liftador) into #ямыбатька (“Me, Us, An Old Man”), a hashtag now widely used to express loyalty to Lukashenka.
In some cases, memes of democratic activists were unintentionally launched by the oppressors.
The war of memes went into its hot stage after August 9-13 events with the rise of digital protest art. The works of professional artists (such as Uladzimir Tsesler or Olga Yakubouskaya) and hundreds, if not thousands, of junior artists working with digital art, videography, and other media has become an enormous part of protests by itself.
Various viral images: from interpretations of Lukashenka-enforced state coat of arms to posters featuring female activist and political prisoner Maryia Kalesnikava have been created and widely disseminated since the first days of protests. Many of them became iconic, and were widely used by the diaspora. However, a huge portion of visual materials is unclassified, mainly videos, photo and visual art disseminated via Telegram messenger.
Between December 2019 and September 2020, we observed a growth of popular national sentiment. Along with respective social movement, this sentiment has led to a public consensus over identity among the majority of the population after August 9, 2020. With activist and protest art booming on Instagram, there is very little viral / meme-rich art in support of self-declared leader Lukashenka. Belarus_save and verypinkshark are, probably two most notable accounts of pro-Lukashenka meme art, and they only have 3300 subscribers combined.
For instance, the most popular hashtag of «official» identity on Instagram, #ямыбатька was used 25.900 times, the corresponding hastag of democratic activists, #жывебеларусь was mentioned 217000 times. The approximate ratio of 1 to 10 is pretty much relevant to available poll results of Aigust 9 election.
A decade ago, state-monopolized traditional media (foremost, television) owned an almost unchallenged position in defining political agenda and state-imposed «correct» identity nationwide. With little Internet penetration across Belarus, dissidents were left on the margins of agenda-setting process. Expansive availablilty of high-speed Internet has become a true game changer that exposed what’s been hidden under ice for almost two decades.
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund. The article is published on the partner’s site @visegradinsight.