Telegram users increasingly seeking independent news sources and engaging with the regime’s official channels
Belarusian Telegram channels about citizen activism are losing their subscribers, while the audience size of independent media outlets’ Telegram channels is growing, according to a new analysis by the DFRLab. Additionally, pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels, while relatively small, are garnering new subscribers.
Telegram has become the central platform for information-sharing amid the internet shutdown initiated by the government on the morning of the elections on August 9, 2020. According to the final election results, the longtime president Alyksandr Lukashenka received 80.1 percent of the vote to opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya receiving 10.1 percent. The lopsided vote count, the Belarusian people’s distrust in their veracity, and allegations of electoral fraud have led to ongoing protests around the country.
NEXTA Live is losing audience
The most popular Telegram channel in Belarus, NEXTA Live, garnered 1,816,349 new subscribers during the first week after the election. Three months later, the account gradually lost 17 percent of its audience, or 367,629 subscribers, according to TGStat.com, a Telegram analysis tool.
The NEXTA Live channel was founded by Stepan Putilo, a 22-year-old Belarusian who is now studying film directing in Poland. Before the previous presidential elections in 2015, Putilo made a satiric video suggesting that Lukashenka was giving the public no choice but to re-elect him. In 2019, Putilo released a documentary about alleged crimes committed by Lukashenka and his regime. The film garnered over three million views and later was listed as extremist content by Belarusian authorities.
The election day internet blackout turned Belarusians to Telegram — the only major digital communication platform that still worked. NEXTA Live became the most popular channel for providing information about the protest movement and police violence against protesters. The channel also amplified calls to participate in protest rallies and instructions on how to resist riot police.
On September 27, NEXTA Live chief editor Roman Protasevich announced that he was leaving the project. On November 5, the Belarus Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Putilo and Protasevich for “organizing the mass riots that have been taking place in Minsk since August 9 and continuing up to the present day.”
It is not clear if lack of interest in the channel’s content, the criminal case against it, or its clearly pro-activist stance aimed at removing Lukashenka made Telegram users unsubscribe from the channel. Other factors may have also played a role in user attrition.
Additional anti-Lukashenka Telegram channels have experienced a similar trend, including Belarus golovnogo mozga (@belamova), which lost 18.6 percent of its audience; Tipichnaya Belarus (@tpbela), which lost 13.1 percent; and Belorosskie novosti, (@belorosskie_novosti) which lost 20.4 percent. The one notable exception was the channel Chai z malinavym varennem (@Belteanews), which grew by 11.5 percent.
At the same time, the channels’ engagement rate by reach (ERR), which is the share of single post reach per month divided by the total number of subscribers and multiplied by 100, shows that despite users unsubscribing, NEXTA Live’s relative engagement rate slightly increased since August. Belarus golovnogo mozga’s ERR went down, but in case of Tipichnaya Belarus and Chai z malinavym varennem, theirs remained more or less stable. This suggests that the audiences that continue to follow these channels remain engaged in them.
Independent news media is growing on Telegram
In contrast to the activist channels, Telegram channels that are administrated by independent media outlets in Belarus continue to expand their audiences, including Tut.by (27.8 percent growth), Onliner.by (18.1 percent), Belsat (27.5 percent), and Nasha Niva (40.4 percent).
In terms of engagement rate by reach, while the overall subscriber base for news outlets’ Telegram channels has increased, their ERR score decreased for all most popular outlets, including a drop of 11 percent for Tut.by, 17 percent for Onliner.by, and 12 percent for Belsat, while Nasha Niva decreased by only three percent. This suggests that fewer subscribers obtained by the media outlets are reading their content as the protests have settled into somewhat of a routine.
Pro-Lukashenka channels keep growing
The number of Telegram users in Belarus who follow pro-Lukashenka channels is significantly smaller than the number of users who follow anti-Lukashenka. For example, the largest of the pro-Lukashenka channels is approximately one-fourth the size of Belarus golovnogo mozga, and just 1/18th the size of Nexta Live.
Nevertheless, the most popular pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels have grown significantly since August 19, 2020, when NEXTA Live reached its peak in number of subscribers. Anonymous Telegram channels that usually smeared protesters while sharing updates about the political crisis tripled their audience, including the channels zhetlye slivy and Sovyetskaya Belorussia. And Pul Pervogo, the Telegram channel that is believed to be administered by Lukashenka’s press secretary, doubled its number of subscribers and the Telegram channel of Belarus Ministry of Interior spokesperson increased its follower base by half.
In August, Pul Pervogo and @pressmvd, a channel run by the spokesperson of the Belarus interior ministry, engaged more readers than their follower count, with their engagement rate by reach at 133 percent and 149 percent respectfully. This might have occurred due to the fact that non-subscribers can also view the content published by public Telegram channels. The anonymous pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels performed worse in engaging their follower base than the government spokespersons’ Telegram channels. At the same time, Sovyetskaya Belorussia performed relatively better than the anti-Lukashenka activism channels.
Finally, it is relevant to compare how many Telegram users read Belarusian Telegram channels. Despite a decrease in subscriber count, the activist anti-Lukashenka Telegram channels reached more users on average with each post in comparison with Telegram channels run by independent media outlets in Belarus and pro-Lukashenka channels, with the activist channel Nexta Live garnering a post reach nearly four times larger than the second-highest channel.
Despite decline in subscriber base, activist Telegram channels that oppose Lukashenka’s regime continue to reach the highest numbers of Telegram users in Belarus. At the same time, pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels show significantly better relative growth and engagement rates, despite their relatively modest audience sizes. And while small, the audiences of these pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels seem to be of a higher quality in terms of engagement than the audience that subscribed to anti-Lukashenka Telegram channels in Belarus.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Research Associate, Baltics, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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