Since February 24, 2022, almost all the 20 most popular toxic public pages among Belarusian audiences on the Russian social network Odnoklassniki have been used to disseminate Russian military propaganda. Against the backdrop of the active promotion of pro-Russian narratives in these communities, the iSANS monitoring group notes the weakness of Lukashenka’s supporters in formulating their own agenda. Along with the synchronization of Lukashenka’s media, such a dissolution of the agenda in Russian military propaganda creates an image of Belarus not as an independent and sovereign country, but as an integral part of the Russian Federation.
If until February 2022, «yabatki» public pages suggested preserving the existing regime and reprisals against ideological rivals within the country as Belarus’s political future, then in the last six months their content is indistinguishable from communities in any Russian region. For the administrators of Belarusian toxic pages Belarusians are now «Russians of Belarusian national origin.»
Odnoklassniki audiences in Belarus
To understand the degree of influence of the top 20 toxic public pages studied by the iSANS monitoring group, we must first consider data Belarusian internet audiences. According to a joint study by DataReportal, We Are Social, and Kepios, in 2021 more than 85% of Belarusians used the internet. At the end of last year, for the first time in Belarus’s history, the number of internet users decreased (by 0.09%) and totaled a little over 8 million people. At the same time, the number of active users of social networks in 2021 increased by 11.5% and totaled 4.3 million people – that is, more than half of all internet users in Belarus.
According to Gemius Prism, in January 2021 in Belarus, the Odnoklassniki (ok.ru) website on desktop devices (57 percent of national traffic) was in 14th place among the most visited sites (with pornographic sites excluded from the rating as part of the study).
It is important to note that the share of users who access Odnoklassniki from mobile devices and desktops are roughly divided in half. According to #DB3 (research titled «The Use of Social Networks and Messengers» in Belarus), the Odnoklassniki audience in Belarus has been steadily declining over the past three years – from 43 percent of the total number of internet users in August 2019 to 32.5% in January 2021.
Despite the protracted decline in the number of active users, in the first quarter of 2022 Odnoklassniki retained its position among the top 10 popular websites in Belarus and, depending on the methodology, occupied either the sixth (Similarweb research) or eighth (Alexa research) place in national rankings. In addition, according to results from 2021, Odnoklassniki was in the seventh place in Belarus in the list of the most popular Google searches.
Among social networks on desktops, Odnoklassniki is second only to Vkontakte in Belarus, and considering mobile traffic and applications, also ranks just behind Instagram and TikTok.
At the same time, Odnoklassniki users have a high degree of overlap with the most popular social network in Belarus, the Russian site Vkontakte (59.21%). Since mid-2021, both social networks have been part of the «VK ecosystem» (an updated version of the «mail.ru ecosystem» created in 2020), which unites about 40 services as part of the Russian mail.ru holding. After Russian intelligence services forced Pavel Durov, the creator of Vkontakte, to exit the structure of shareholders, this social network (like its parent company mail.ru) cooperates with the FSB and shares personal information on users, which is a serious security risk for citizens of Belarus.
Despite this being a serious risk, Odnoklassniki retains an impressive audience in Belarus. According to an internal study by the ok.ru service, the website’s audience in Belarus reached 2.4 million people in 2021, though external estimates of the popularity of the service are much more conservative. According to Gemius Prism, back in January 2021, the audience of Odnoklassniki in Belarus was almost twice less than that announced by ok.ru at the end of the year and amounted to only about 1.4 million real users.
The main audience of the ok.ru website is people over 35. At the same time, Odnoklassniki has a stable image of a meeting place for older, less educated and «provincial» people, the «urban proletariat,» as well as people with «Soviet» conservative thinking.
Monitoring of the top 20 toxic public pages in Belarus
In July 2022, the iSANS team studied the 20 most popular toxic pages that (presumably) are administered from Belarus or publish content targeted to an audience within the country. As part of the monitoring, we did not consider pages directly affiliated with state structures or state media from Russia, Belarus, or pro-Russian groups of influence with a focus on users from Ukraine (which, nevertheless, does not exclude the presence of the latter subscribers and readers from Belarus). The total number of subscribers then for the top 20 toxic pages we reviewed on Odnoklassniki, considering the strict framework of this study, is about 200,000 people.
It must be noted that the total number of subscribers and readers of toxic communities in Odnoklassniki is much higher in the context of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. First, this is due to the inherently toxic campaign of military propaganda, which is unleashed both in Russian state media and in media controlled by Lukashenka in Belarus. The audience of toxic communities then in Odnoklassniki potentially includes groups of Russian media, their branches in Belarus and Ukraine, as well as Russian and pro-Russian toxic channels and groups promoting the ideas of the «Russian World» from Belarus (primarily communities of media controlled by Lukashenka and armed groups known as «siloviki») and from other states (Armenia, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states, etc.).
The iSANS monitoring group studied for the first time the situation with toxic public pages targeted at Belarusian audiences on Odnoklassniki in the fall of 2021. Since then, the total growth of subscribers in the top 20 toxic pages we studied has been less than 30,000 people (which corresponds to an increase of about 15-17 percent per year). Such an increase in the audience for one year, with a rather low base in 2021 (170,000 subscribers or less than two percent of internet users in Belarus), we consider insignificant, especially given the aggressive propaganda campaign that the Minsk regime has been waging since the fall of 2020, and especially considering the jointly coordinated military propaganda campaign that Moscow and Minsk have been waging since February 2022.
Five of the twenty largest toxic communities we reviewed among Belarusians on Odnoklassniki were founded within six months after the «August events» of 2020. (The previous peak of the appearance of toxic communities on Odnoklassniki was in 2017.) Three of the five groups were registered in the first week of protests in August 2020 as a response by security services and regime supporters to the largest protests in Belarusian history. It is important to note that only one of the five communities that were created after the «August events» was able to exceed 10,000 subscribers over the past two years. At the same time, none of the communities of supporters of Russia or the Lukashenko regime reviewed by iSANS, which were created in Belarus in 2021 and 2022, could pass the threshold of 1,000 subscribers.
Possible reasons for this include the following:
- The «ceiling» of the audience has been reached (which is clearly seen in the weak growth of already existing groups and communities)
- Lack of strength, skills, and resources (both financial and human) to administer new projects
- Unwillingness of pro-Russian activists to get involved in media projects in Belarus given the continuous political repression there
- Rejection of Odnoklassniki as an effective platform for content distribution
It is important to remember that Odnoklassniki, like all other social networks accessible in Belarus, generally reflect the mood in society, including the extremely low level of social support for the Lukashenka regime, which maintains power in the country solely due to loyal armed groups. At the same time, the lack of significant growth among openly pro-Russian pages from Belarus is curious. An additional explanation for the low interest among Belarusian audiences in such communities may be the fact that pro-Russian individuals probably subscribe not to local, but to Russian groups and communities (which, nevertheless, does not exclude the focus on the «ceiling» of a small pro-Russian audience in Belarus).
The results of the monitoring highlight significant activity by the Russian far-right organization National Liberation Movement (NOD) among Belarusians on Odnoklassniki. Over the past two years, up to half of the largest toxic communities have been used to promote NOD movement publications in Belarus, which on the eve of 2014 played a central role in fomenting the armed conflict in the Donbas.
Of the other pro-Russian organizations of this kind among Belarusians on Odnoklassniki, only the Civil Accord movement is represented by a large community, among whose current members include activists who are directly related to the hostile Russian structures of influence in Belarus. However, on their page «Politics of Belarus,» new stories have ceased to appear since May 2022.
Format and ideology
Belarusian toxic public pages can largely (with frequent content overlap) be divided into two main types.
Pages of the «first» type include communities that promote, foremost, pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation (including promotion of military propaganda, support for the genocide of Ukrainians, great-power chauvinism, «victory frenzy,» «Soviet conservatism,» Eurasianism, Orthodox radicalism, Russian «Slavic Messianism,» the ideology of the «Russian World,» and conspiracy theories). Pages of the «second» type are classified as communities that, in addition to purely pro-Russian disinformation, promote the aggressive ideology of the Lukashenka regime as one of their priorities, the followers of which call themselves «yabatski.»
Until February 24, 2022, the content of the second type of pages, as a rule, included personality cults of Lukashenka and police violence, para-fascist ideology, deliberate discrediting and harassment of the national movement and its participants, as well as the publication of humiliating videos with illegally imprisoned critics of the Lukashenka regime. The secondary messages of such communities until February 24, 2022, included a demand for the establishing of an authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorship in Belarus, while promoting the ideas of Western Russianism, Eurasianism, anti-Semitism, the rehabilitation and promotion of the cult of Stalin, and the ideology of the «Russian World.» Often in the publications of these communities, the localized, Belarusian version of the Russian «victory of victory,» «Soviet conservatism,» calls for discrimination against minorities, and popularization of various kinds of conspiracy theories were promoted.
The content of 80% of the popular toxic pages among Belarusians on Odnoklassniki changed after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. According to research conducted by the iSANS monitoring group, 4/5 of the toxic communities that worked through Odnoklassniki were almost completely focused on communicating Russian military propaganda and popularizing the genocide of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukraine as a state among Belarusian audiences. The content of these communities has become almost indistinguishable from their Russian counterparts. The effect of pumping them with military propaganda has also intensified due to the synchronization of Russian media narratives and that of media controlled by Lukashenka. (Regarding the latter, we will still widely use the term «Belarusian state media,» which does not now match today’s realities.)
Until February 24, 2022, a feature of Belarusian toxic communities was that the ideology and value matrix of the «yabatki» communities, as a rule, derived from Russian communities. After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, even the estimation of the Belarusian democratic forces and the internal political situation in Belarus began to be presented not from a local, but from a Russian point of view while employing Russian vocabulary (for example, the campaign of political repressions in Belarus began to be called «denazification» analogous to one of the goals Putin voiced for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). The «yabatki» communities, as a rule, consider Belarus a «splinter of the USSR» and a secondary – and therefore dependent – state in relation to Russia, which, at best, sweeps everything Belarusian into Belarus to further integrate Belarus into the Russian Federation. A rare (and somewhat paradoxical) exception is publications that are directly related to Lukashenka’s personality. On the contrary, they emphasize the role of the former president as the creator of an autonomous, independent, and strong state. This prominent distinction is likely a security measure that administrators of toxic pages take to insulate themselves from the liability of indiscriminate political repression.
Page supporters of Lukashenko, as a rule, were initially secondary relative to purely «pro-Russian» communities. Until February 24, 2022, they accounted for approximately 1/3 of the total number of the largest toxic pages among Belarusians on Odnoklassniki. After then, almost all popular toxic pages operating in Belarus focused totally on the Russian agenda and became more like traditional «communities of regions» within Russia than like groups of representatives of an independent and sovereign state. In the last six months, up to 90 percent of the pages from the top 20 denigrate any manifestations of Belarusian national culture and replace it with the Soviet «culture of an urban village» or simply Russian culture, which completely dismisses Belarusian cultural features, artifacts, and intangible heritage («Belarusians are Russians of Belarusian national origin»). At the same time, among pro-Russian pages, those affiliated with the Russian radical movement NOD, which pushes for the unconditional admission of Belarus into a part of Russia, are especially active.
Over two years, the pro-Russian and Lukashenka toxic communities on the Odnoklassniki site have not shown significant growth. However, the entry of the Lukashenka regime into the war against Ukraine on the side of Russia on February 24, 2022, completely changed the content of the most popular toxic public pages, which not only remain a threat to Belarus’s national security, but also take more radical pro-Russian positions.
Материал доступен на русском языке: «Одноклассники»: топ-20 токсичных пабликов Беларуси растворились в «русском мире».