Amid ongoing economic integration talks between Russia and Belarus, eight channels attacked opponents of integration and spread pro-Kremlin narratives
Eight anonymous Telegram channels published unsupported claims that protests in Belarus against the country’s plan for further integration with Russia were organized and controlled by the Belarusian government.
The spread of disinformation through pro-Russian anonymous Telegram channels represents a growing concern for Belarusian civil society and media observers. The messaging app Telegram has more than 200 million users globally and is being increasingly used as a means of spreading disinformation. In late 2019, these Telegram channels targeted anti-integration protests in Belarus. The renewal of integration talks between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin heightened worries among some Belarusians that Russia may want to absorb their country. In order to signal that Belarus would not surrender the independence regained after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarusian opposition parties organized several rounds of protests.
Negotiations between Putin and Lukashenko about the integration between Russia and Belarus began in December 2018. In September 2019, the two countries initiated an economic integration program. The presidents of both countries held talks in the Russian city of Sochi on December 7, 2019, but failed to sign an agreement to deepen integration. Against the backdrop of these negotiations, Belarusian opposition parties held five rounds of protests against the integration plan and in support of the country’s independence.
Developed by Pavel Durov, the businessman also responsible for the creation of Russian Facebook counterpart VKontakte, Telegram works similarly to WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging platform, though accounts — or “channels” in the platform’s preferred vocabulary — have the option to publish in a public setting. Similarly, the platform ensures a certain amount of anonymity, as users are not obligated to verify their identities.
In 2019, over 68 percent of people in Belarus out of a population of 9.4 million people used messenger apps, while around 50 percent did so on a daily basis. Telegram was the fourth most popular messenger application after Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp, with 13.1 percent of messaging app users utilizing it.
The DFRLab identified eight public Telegram channels that posted unsubstantiated claims about the protests in Belarus: Trikatazh, Bulba Prestolov, BeloRusski Dialog, Kompromat Belarus, Beloruskii Gambit, Belarusskii Insaider, Vostochnoe Pritvorstvo, and BY-News. Four of these public channels featured posts that were among the top 10 most viewed in the country for 2019, according to a Telegram Analytics search. They also had a clear agenda of promoting deeper integration between Belarus and Russia and criticizing the Belarusian government.
The Trikatazh channel, for instance, described itself as openly critical of the Belarusian government and supportive of integration between Belarus and Russia. The channels also characterized relations between Belarus and the European Union in a negative light, as well as amplified anti-Ukrainian narratives.
These Telegram channels disseminated various narratives to discredit the anti-integration protests, often claiming that the protests were organized by the Belarusian government. Trikatazh, for instance, alleged that protests on December 7–8 in Minsk were personally coordinated by Viktor Lukashenko, the oldest son of President Lukashenko, with operational support from the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs and other key figures from the government.
The channel known as Bulba Prestolov claimed that Lukashenko brought nationalist opposition to the streets of Minsk to use them as a “trump card” in the negotiations with Russia. According to the channel, Lukashenko wanted to send a signal to the Kremlin that the people of Belarus hated Russia. The BeloRusskii Dialog channel, meanwhile, wrote that Lukashenko brought protesters to the streets in a failed attempt to extort money from Moscow.
None of these channels presented evidence to back their claims that the protests were organized by the Belarus government, and there is currently no evidence to suspect they had been. More than 15 opposition parties and civil society organizations signed a joint appeal to the Belarusians to take part in protests to defend the country’s independence, suggesting that the protests were the manifestation of a bonafide movement on the part of the Belarusian opposition and civil society.
Some channels also claimed that police were too tolerant of the protesters, an argument used supposedly to confirm that the government had organized protests. The December protests, nonetheless, were followed by the arrests of opposition leaders who were among the organizers of the rallies.
The make-up of the Telegram channels
Telegram’s enhanced security system ensures a certain degree of anonymity for the authors of the channels and their sources. As a result, identifying who manages these eight channels presents a significant challenge. The content in the channels, however, is primarily political, frequently featuring supposedly ”insider” information about developments in Belarus and on its relations with Russia. Much of the information has been disproven by other reliable outlets. Interestingly, the strategy of posting dozens of pieces of so-called “insider information” is a recognized tactic employed by anonymous Russian channels on Telegram.
According to the social listening tool Telegram Analytics, seven out of the eight channels used Belarusian phone numbers to create them, and one was created with a Russian phone number. All of the channels post in the Russian language and disseminate pro-Kremlin narratives.
As of February 21, 2020, the eight channels had more than 43,500 members and a total daily reach of over 122,000 views. Trikatazh had the largest audience among them, while BeloRusski Dialog had the highest number of posts per day. BeloRusski Dialog also had the highest daily reach for its content by a wide margin. This finding indicated that other channels actively shared content from BeloRusskii Dialog.
Registration on Telegram is quite easy — creating an account just requires a mobile phone number and a first and last name. There are no extra verification steps, except confirming that the SMS code was delivered to the registration phone number. This fairly lax registration process enables bad actors to set up multiple Telegram accounts using different SIM cards. Subsequently, these actors can help other channels grow their audiences artificially by subscribing via inauthentic accounts.
As another sign of the possible inauthentic activity of these channels, the proportion of inactive followers — accounts without any activity that appear to have been created as a means of boosting follower numbers only — to the total number of channel members is high; with such a distorted ratio, posts receive fewer views because a majority of the accounts that would see the posts are inactive. The eight channels the DFRLab investigated likely did not have significant shares of inactive followers, however, as the average post reach was higher than the number of followers in most cases. This pattern indicated that real people viewed the posts in the channels.
The majority of channels were created between November 2018 and July 2019. The creation of several of the channels coincided with the beginning of integration talks between Belarus and Russia in December 2018. These eight channels frequently reposted each other’s content, published posts mentioning one another, and suggested that channel members follow the other channels as well.
Moreover, the eight Telegram channels actively reposted content from each other as well as mentioned each other in their posts. The pie chart below shows the total mentions and forwarded posts for each channel by the other seven channels.
An experiment done by Ukrainian outlet Liga.net exposed that owners of Telegram channels can pay popular channels to promote their content to their followers. These eight channels, however, all promoted each other’s content, so it was less likely that any of them did so for profit. Moreover, Telegram Analytics showed that four out of the top 10 posts in terms of views among all posts on Telegram in Belarus in 2019 were published by Bulba Prestolov, Belorusski Gambit, Trikatazh, and BeloRusskii Dialog. This demonstrated that these channels already had significant reach on the platform.
As Belarusian outlet Nasha Niva suggested, before the appearance of Belarusian Telegram channels, pro-Russian disinformation narratives about the country were mainly disseminated through Russian Telegram channels that primarily targeted domestic Russian audiences. This started to change, however, at the end of 2018, as Belarusian channels started to emerge that disseminated the same narratives but targeted a Belarusian audience.
Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.
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