The new structure of society at the heart of the Telegram phenomenon in Belarus 

The new structure of society at the heart of the Telegram phenomenon in Belarus
Photo: Photos from social media

Vasily Gatov is one of the most well-known Russian media analysts. He is the author of many publications on new trends in journalism, the media industry, and on the impact of social networks on social transformations. Since 2015 he has been living and working in the U.S. Alexander Morozov continues a series of conversations on the topic of «Social media and public mobilization in Belarus.»

Right around now marks a decade since the «Arab revolution,» in which, as we know, social media played an important role for the first time. And today in Belarus we again see a very vivid example of the role of social networks in public mobilization. My question is, do you see something fundamentally new, or is this something in front of us that has already been well analyzed by media experts?

The events in Tunisia were the essential story. They served as the first example of how social media becomes part of the offline political process. That is, when social media accumulates a gigantic overhang of popular anger, and then, when it collapses, points it in a certain direction. In Tunisia, we first saw both that accumulation and routing. In Tunisia, at that time, Twitter was the main messenger and was used to exchange SMS messages. It is easy to create mailing lists on Twitter. And this played a decisive role, because it allowed the use of mailings below the level of censorship control. In Egypt, the situation was different. It already required the participation of substantial intellectual and technological resources. If you remember, there was Wael Ghonim, an employee in Google’s Egyptian office, who wrote the simplest algorithm that allowed him to send messages to his entire contact list. 60 lines of code that could be installed on any phone, on any operating system, on any computer, and worked flawlessly and was not picked up by any counterintelligence.

In a sense, NEXTA borrowed the ideas of Wael Ghonim, using Telegram technologies. The combination of a very logical and simple computer algorithm that was discovered in Egypt – with a «social algorithm,» with ideas of massive non-violent protest, covering large segments of the population, which then clearly manifested itself in Hong Kong – revealed the apparent uniqueness of the Belarusian situation. Why «apparent?» The Belarusian situation has its own uniqueness. But not in the technological field. The number of social tools on the internet continues to grow and the range of services and their features are changing. Telegram has its own advantages, as do WhatsApp and Instagram. But the range of services that are needed in the field of social communication is more or less clear. I remember that somewhere in the mid-2010s, probably in 2015, Yuri Milner, who was a well-known investor in Facebook, expressed the opinion that new social networks that would be able to kind of break the Facebook monopoly or, to be more precise, the dual power of Facebook and Twitter, will no longer be, as they say, a «closed subject.» It turned out that Milner was wrong. Yes, regarding «messengers» the majority trust and use the functions of Facebook and Google, but it became clear that there is a demand for narrower, specialized, differently tuned methods of communication. Pavel Durov felt this and in Telegram he was able to create an IP system of information channels. As a result of these processes, we see that closed communication channels, for example, in Yakutsk, have more coverage than all state television channels and local media combined…

Yes, this is an important context for the development of instant messengers for understanding the situation in Belarus…

It seems to me that the uniqueness of the internet situation in Belarus around the protests is not in the technology. It is in the specifics of the structure of society, which has changed a lot literally over the past few years and which has gone unnoticed by observers.

Many analysts pay attention to the following issue. Social media amasses popular anger, an avalanche ruptures down the mountain, but networks do not establish a kind of «political subject,» in contrast to previous historical forms of mobilization. This was already evident in Tunisia and Egypt. And I recently read an article by Grigory Asmolov, where he devotes his entire piece to this problem. I want to ask you: Is it possible that social media not only does not create that political subject, which further – after the revolution – is able to be a driver of social change, but perhaps even inhibits it? Do social media dissipate, scatter, leave people in a state of depoliticization, preventing them from forming a political core? How would you comment on this?

It is not easy to answer your question. It would require a whole dissertation. But I will try to answer with a thesis. The first consideration is that over the past 50 years or so, societies that are transitioning from industrial to a post-industrial era have seen very significant structural shifts in the way society expresses its opinion, including political opinion. Therefore, one must be careful when referring to those theories

of social action that Marxists or fascists had in the twentieth century; that is, in those times when there were classical trade unions, parties, etc. Today, all these «political subjects» exist, but they are no longer able to dictate to society «models of behavior» as it was in the first half of the last century. The leftist mobilization, which had previously thought of itself as a powerful organized force, collapsed. It does not work in a post-industrial society. And if we look at the right, they have never had a kind of philosophy of the «subject» as the left have had. It has always been a huge mass of separate small parties and situational movements. And the struggle for domination by the right almost always depended on the presence of a powerful political force on the left. And now and more generally, the expression of opinion through old political forms has ceased to be universal like it was before. And a second point: social media has broken the old party press model. The era of universal propaganda media is gone. Now everyone has a voice, everyone has at least the opportunity to declare their agreement/disagreement.

There are lots of funny memes about how Engels and Marx would try to write a communist manifesto on Facebook. The very first comments would have made it such that they simply would not have been able to even finish this 78-page text. It would have been buried under the comments. In other words, my answer to your question is this: we must now try to think of social change without traditional left-wing theories about the political subject.

Explain, please, the following. Why did YouTube turn out to be a platform for promoting alternative ideas to the authorities in Russia, whereas in Belarus it was Telegram? After all, it is obvious that Navalny and his political movement are all conducted through YouTube. And it develops further into «partisan television.» And in Belarus, these are Telegram channels.

An interesting question in the sense that there is most likely no quantitative, and thus evidence-based answer to it. If we, for example, compare some formal data on television viewing in Russia and Belarus, we will not see any fundamental difference. Yes, there are big differences in content. Belarusian television is «much more boring» than what is available in Moscow. Belarusians do not have these loud talk shows, for example. However, if we look from the point of view of media consumption, then it is impossible to assert that Belarusians, due to some of their specific characteristics, used information from social media more intensively before the protests. And that is why we have Telegram there and not «YouTube television.»

But at the same time, Tikhanovsky and other Belarusian YouTube bloggers played a role at an early stage. This suggests that the Belarusian situation could also develop in this direction. And, by the way, Maxim Katz was very well received by Belarusian audiences through his YouTube channel…

Maybe that is the point.

Before a YouTube blogger turns into a socially significant figure, it takes a very long time to form a loyal audience.

Look, Navalny began to do this systematically in 2008, without retreating a single step, very consistently. And as a result, he has an audience of 100 million for the story about the palace. Or, let’s say, Yuri Dud’. He entered as if «from the back door,» through an audience of rappers, etc. And he also moved a long time towards a large audience. In Belarus, it seems to me, the specific characteristic is that the situation developed very quickly. Yes, there was and Belsat with its video content, but it is unclear how much this affects the population. But we saw that a new IT cluster was formed in Belarus in just three years. The audience of Belarusian IT specialists was small, but it was economically very influential. They created a virtually separate media ecosystem for themselves, which allowed them to shield themselves from what is happening in the rest of the country. And in this environment, they had “all their own”: videos, newspapers, websites. This new IT environment, in essence, has created for itself something like a Hong Kong inside Belarus. And it turned out that this «Hong Kong» – combined with people’s fatigue from lies, the monstrous quality of bureaucracy and state communications – set off an avalanche from the mountain. For this IT environment, «messengers» were native and not YouTube. That is why we have NEXTA.

Here is another question that is very important for understanding the situation in Belarus. It is usually believed that under such dictatorships as that of Lukashenko media consumption of sources from neighboring countries plays an important role. You remember, of course, how they watched Finnish television in Soviet Estonia and then, when the USSR ended, they thanked them for a long time. Belarus borders on Poland and Lithuania, it is on the border with the European Union. But the media of neighboring countries has not seemed to have significantly influenced people’s political orientations. On the other hand, everyone in Belarus watches Russian television channels. However, they have not influenced political preferences. Sociologists note this even now, during the crisis. The Kremlin’s propaganda was all aimed at integration, at the image of unity, while the Belarusians, Russian television notwithstanding, say, «Yes, we want to live together, but we don’t want to have integration.» For comparison, the same factor worked differently in Eastern Ukraine at the time. How do you explain this?

Yes, that is correct. In my opinion, the answer lies on the surface. The difference is that there were no Belarusians who spoke their own language but who lived on opposite sides of the same border. That is why the media influence of Lithuania and Poland was minimal. But with Russia it is more difficult. This is a difficult story. The Russian media presence in Belarus is colossal. The Belarusian authorities, given that domestic media is extremely weak, gave their audience to Russian television channels. But at the same time, many people now see that Belarusians were somehow not very much affected inwardly by this Russian discourse. For example, «geopolitics,» which in Russia is one of the main narratives and includes the people. Or, for example, the «Ukrainian theme,» which is plastered over Russian channels. And the Belarusians found themselves, as it were, internally outside the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The Belarusians found themselves at some inner distance in relation to Putin. Much more than might have been expected by looking at the share of Russian channels in media consumption. Why is that? My answer is this: Since Russian television thinks of itself as «the television of the empire» its discourse is the discourse of continuous «internal colonization,» to use the term of our friend Alexander Etkind.

Political talk shows and news are put together as if Moscow were running an «imaginary expanding empire» and its media audiences were invited to continually participate in this «captivating» imaginary journey.

There, Belarus is also considered the outskirts of this empire. But Belarusians do not feel that way. They have the same attitude towards life as in European countries. The news from your city is more interesting than the news from your capital. And this is even more true for the news of an «imaginary empire.» That is why the entire «geopolitical discourse» went far over the heads of Belarusians.

Материал доступен на русском языке: Новая структура общества — в основе феномена беларусского Телеграма