Key findings from annual monitoring of Instagram.
The growth of popularity of Instagram
Even before the start of the 2020 election campaign, Telegram and Facebook were widely perceived by the professional community as important platforms for receiving and disseminating information about life in Belarus.
Instagram (like TikTok) was filled with mostly apolitical entertainment content until 2020. In just a year and a half, it has become a popular platform for civic journalism, political blogging, and promotion of independent media content.
The growing involvement of Belarusian society in domestic political life since the summer of 2020 was reflected in the public demand for independent sources of information. For example, in the study «Media consumption and media literacy in Belarus in August 2021,» 53% of the Belarusian internet audience named Instagram as one of their sources of information on social networks. According to this indicator, Instagram is second only to Vkontakte (63%).
The popularity of critical posts on Instagram forced the Lukashenko regime to pay attention to this social network and form a pool of «bloggers» and administrators of anonymized accounts. These people were called upon to discredit democratic forces, post disinformation, and demoralize critics of Lukashenko by positing insults and through harassing public activists.
Instagram monitoring results: key trends
The Instagram monitoring conducted by iSANS in late 2020 to early 2021 found that attempts by representatives of the regime to take over the social network have yielded little results. The study identified the 45 largest Instagram accounts that are involved in promoting Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. Of these, 25 represented so-called «collective accounts» (impersonal) while the remaining 20 were personal accounts of users who posted propaganda materials.
Recent monitoring has found that by October 2021, Instagram’s administration had deleted 80% of these «collective» accounts. Also, 13 out of 20 «personal» accounts that were on the iSANS monitoring list were removed from Instagram for violating terms of service.
Among the seven remaining «personal» propaganda accounts on Instagram, almost all either replaced the original usernames or were forced to re-create new accounts under different names, since the profiles existing in the fall-winter of 2020 were blocked by Instagram.
Based on the monitoring of Instagram accounts on Belarusian topics over the past year, it is important to note the following trends:
- Most of the remaining «collective» accounts have changed their privacy settings from «public» to «private,» apparently to reduce the number of complaints from Instagram users about inappropriate content.
- Due to regular blocking and deletion of accounts by the Instagram administration, which responds to user complaints about inappropriate content, propaganda accounts need to periodically rename accounts or create new ones. The owners of the surviving accounts are forced to regularly change nicknames or add special characters or numbers to them to make them more difficult to detect, identify, and block.
- Many «collective» Instagram accounts that were involved in propaganda activities ceased working and left Instagram due to their inability to grow their audience because of the continual deletion of accounts by the site’s administration.
Almost all propaganda accounts that were identified as «personal» within the framework of iSANS monitoring, as a rule, belong to persons who are systemically involved in pro-government propaganda outside of Instagram. These people are generally associated with two groups affiliated with the Lukashenko regime and its propaganda system through the Belarusian Union of Bloggers or the Center for New Media.
The two main propaganda groups
The first group operates under the auspices of Alexey Golikov and Tatiana Sidorovich. Aside from the relatively small number of subscribers to their personal Instagram accounts (1,300 and 2,100, respectively), the low engagement of their audience is also worth noting. Videos in both accounts, as a rule, barely get a few hundred views and photos only a few dozen likes.
Nevertheless, Golikov and Sidorovich position themselves as authoritative bloggers, conduct training for beginner bloggers, and record «master classes» with the participation of propagandists. One invited guest for a «master class» was Belarus Today columnist Andrei Mukovozchik, who is known for his rhetoric of hatred against political opponents, public activists, journalists, among others. Golikov himself, who previously hosted an opinion program on the television channel STV, made a number of scandalous statements calling for violence against political opponents and expressing approval of the Nazi occupation.
The Belarusian Union of Bloggers regularly holds events in the office of Yuri Voskresensky’s so-called Round Table of Democratic Forces (KSDS). This small puppet organization imitates political dialogue with society and «constructive opposition.»
Close cooperation of the Belarusian Union of Bloggers with the KSDS may be an indirect confirmation of the fact that, as an analogy of the role of simulated political competition played by the KSDS, the Belarusian Union of Bloggers is used to imitate media competition and «diversity of opinion» in Belarus through connecting managed internet personalities with a small audience.
This hypothesis is also supported by the fact that Golikov regularly accuses the state media of lying and disinformation, sharply criticizes the NGO Belaya Rus, and occasionally insults other pro-government bloggers and feuds with them publicly without significant legal consequences. However, the Belarusian Union of Bloggers in the summer of 2021 was marked by the expulsion of one of its former comrades-in-arms.
The second group of Instagram bloggers is associated with the Center for New Media and consists of individuals who organize a media «cheerleading group» at various pro-government events. However, the Center for New Media also has the potential to recruit young people for work in the propaganda system. Some members of the Center for New Media (Yulia Khomich and Styusha Time, for example) have already been given positions as presenters and correspondents on state television channels. Center for New Media members also maintain a Telegram channel (1,150 subscribers as of November 2021).
Representatives of the Center for New Media publicly adhere to a radical dichotomy, within which Belarusians are divided into only two categories. Those who do not openly support Lukashenko are automatically included in the category of enemies. One of the reasons for the more radical position of the Center for New Media is possibly owing to the younger age of its participants relative to the Belarusian Union of Bloggers.
Public conflicts periodically flare up between these two communities of «bloggers.» Although Golikov from the Belarusian Union of Bloggers at times puts on a show of being a critic of the Belarusian regime, the ideological differences between these two groups of pro-government bloggers are insignificant.
How things stand with the pro-democratic segment of Instagram
Instagram propaganda accounts generally lag behind those advocating for political change and the restoring of the rule of law.
For example, the Instagram account Nexta_tv has about 250,000 subscribers; Maya Kraina Belarus more than 90,000; the Coordination Council – 38,000; the courtyard initiative Change Square (Ploshchad Peremen) – more than 23,000; and the accounts for the Sports Solidarity Fund, Basta_bel (the account is linked to the civic campaign European Belarus) and Artists from Belarus – 10-11,000 subscribers.
For comparison, among the propaganda pages and personal accounts of active supporters of the regime, there is only one large account – belarus365 with about 57,000 subscribers. The number of subscribers of the remainder of the «collective» public pages with similar content varies between 1-2,000 people.
What is interesting is that up to 50% of subscribers for most of these accounts are mass followers and spam accounts. That is, the number of real subscribers (the so-called «quality audience») for most propaganda pages is about half that of the figures indicated.
As for personal accounts, the difference in popularity in favor of pro-democratic forces is even more evident. Viktor Babariko’s profile (currently the channel is managed by his headquarters team) has 246,000 subscribers, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has 204,000; Maria Kolesnikova (the channel is managed by a colleague) – 94,000; and Pavel Latushko has 67,000 subscribers. Other public and cultural figures promoting an agenda of political change in Belarus have significant numbers of subscribers, including Margarita Levchuk (59,000), Anton Motolko (22,000), and Vadim Prokopiev (more than 10,000).
For comparison, at the time of this publication, the number of subscribers to none of the personal profiles of propagandists of the Lukashenko regime had exceeded more than 3,500.
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