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Crypto-politics today: Belarus, Telegram and the digitisation of social conflicts

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On 24 May 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in history. The contents, which were delivered from Washington to Baltimore, were comprised of a biblical quote from the Hebrew Book of Numbers: “What hath God wrought!”. Today, over a century and a half later, people are talking about a new kind of Telegram: a messaging app and social network which enables users to send private messages and access news. In Belarus activists are using this app to challenge a regime they vehemently oppose. Across the world, though, this growing link between technology and social movements raises major questions about where espionage ends, and the right to information begins.

For months now, Belarusian citizens have been gathering in Minsk and other parts of the country to demand that Aleksander Lukashenko steps down from his position as President. In fact, the country has been shaken by protests since 9 August 2020, when Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, won the national elections once again. According to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the currently-exiled head of the opposition, and a large proportion of the population, the vote was rigged.

Ana is 21 years old and she's a member of the Belarusian Students' Association: “I witnessed the events of the 9-10 August with my own eyes. My mother told me to be careful and that I shouldn't go. But how could I not? That election night I saw grenades, gas and other weapons for the first time in my life. This dictatorship is taking away our youth,” she says. Due to her participation in the protests, Ana has been forced to leave not only her flat but the country itself. The same thing has happened to many of her friends and colleagues, who are now in prison or 'self-exiled' in Lithuania, Poland and Estonia. "We were forced to leave the country, in this emergency manner, to avoid being detained. I've been living in exile for almost two months now, because the authorities consider me a public danger... yet I've never done anything illegal."

Since the start of the protests, over 25,000 Belarusians have been temporarily detained or arrested, and hundreds of people have been injured in clashes with the police. On 15 November, officers in Minsk detained more than 300 people in a single day. This was a hard crack down on what were largely peaceful protests. According to the Washington Post, the squares were filled with 200,000 people.

“I'm in my early twenties now. I've lived under Lukashenko's rule all my life: nursery, high school, the first years of university, my law degree [...] I've never seen real political parties, elections without fraud, democracy without tyranny. In Belarus it has become normal to live without thinking about freedom [...] Belarus is a country free of all freedoms,” says Ana. “I want to go home, and soon," she adds, "the protests are ongoing, but they are changing form. Belarusians won’t let themselves be silenced again. They might lock us in prison for 24 hours, beat us or start criminal trials, but we will keep on fighting."

With limited internet access and police using stun grenades, tear gas and batons, civil society and activists in Belarus are increasingly turning to innovative 'encrypted' methods to coordinate their activities. The most popular of all is Telegram.

Telegram, the app loved by protest movements

Telegram, the so-called 'rebel application' first appeared in Russia in 2013. It was launched by the brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who are the founders of VKontakte, one of the largest and most popular social networks in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. From the offset, Telegram positioned itself as a reliable and secure means of communication, winning trust among users thanks to its encrypted chat system which protected against excessive interference from security forces (a feature that is much in demand in Russia, as well as in neighbouring countries.) At the time Telegram was the only app of its kind which used so-called 'end-to-end-encryption' with self-deleting messages. This, unfortunately, is why, in addition to its use as a resource for progressive activists blocked from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, it has also provided a home for supporters of extremist ideologies, from Covid-19 deniers and other conspiracy theorists, to President Lukashenko himself. This app, in other words, presents a genuine social dilemma.

Over the last five years, Telegram has grown at a remarkable rate, and in January 2021 it reached 500 million users. On average, another 1.5 million people are signing up every day. In Belarus itself, which has a population of just 10 million, Telegram's most popular channels have almost 2 million subscribers. Everyone seems to be using the app: from opposition politicians issuing press releases, to journalists exchanging information, to activists seeking advice on how to move, defend themselves and protest.

Sharing stories of injustice

"Even my parents use Telegram, which is in itself a form of protest," explains Lavon Marozau, a former university professor, now active in a youth organisation called RADA in Belarus. Due to the political situation and state restrictions on freedom of association, RADA was, in theory, liquidated by the Supreme Court in 2006. Since then, however, it has been operating 'underground' like many other activist organisations. In 2014, RADA registered a technical department in Lithuania to provide legal security and to make its work more transparent. "We created a Google Doc, a kind of 'personalised shopping list'… If one of our group members gets arrested, it provides information such as: give my cat some food, bring me those books, cigarettes... anything you think you might need once you're in prison."

Telegram is an obvious tool for sharing sensitive information within organisations and social movements. The so-called newsgroups - themed channels or secret chats with self-destruct timers for messages - are all encrypted. Moreover, in order to access them, one has to be a 'trusted individual' and be invited by someone within the group. For this reason, Telegram is the single common thread that links young activist groups in Belarus. Members of certain organisations, who wish to remain anonymous here, receive up-to-date information every day: which might include urgent news about the release of friends from prison, or the number of political prisoners or young activists locked up by the KGB, Lukashenko's secret service (as of December 2020 the number is 147).

Lavon is constantly sharing stories of injustice and violence, but also of hope and innovation. The messages are often accompanied by images, testimonies and proposed strategies. Some people post notes and comments, but fundamentally this is a form independent documentary making in a context where propaganda reigns supreme: "It's not a revolution, it's about our right to protest. The right to say 'we don't agree', week after week. How can you help us from across the border? Just explain to your friends what is happening here in Belarus."

From Telegram to artificial intelligence

While Telegram is the key tool in Belarus, activists around the world are increasingly turning towards other technologies to assist in social struggles. A new study by Forus, which was conducted in collaboration with the University of Lisbon, demonstrates more generally how civil society action is taking new forms today, and is placing a greater focus on innovation. According to Ana Luisa Silva, the author of the study, "adapting to the digital revolution is one of the biggest concerns and challenges for civil society networks. Not surprisingly, many of the innovations identified by the participants are in some way related to the use of digital tools such as online learning platforms, social media for awareness-raising campaigns, and virtual forums. The Covid-19 pandemic has only accentuated this tendency to make the most of digital tools to enable collective action when traditional forms of protest and mobilisation are not possible."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, this has also been happening in democratic countries. In Lithuania, for example, new spaces for online discussion are emerging. In Uganda, a Citizens' Manifesto has been created to increase and sustain democratic participation. In Brazil, the 'Pacto pela Democracia' uses "technology as an ally to bring citizens closer to politics" in an attempt to counter the polarisation that many of these digital tools have also created. In Portugal, the Academy of Development brings together different entities - including civil society, businesses and universities - to create opportunities for collaboration and co-learning. Finally, Nigeria and Finland, two very different countries, are both considering artificial intelligence as a means of solving problems related to land conflict, climate change and sexual assault.

With these and other examples in mind, it's clear that social networks, social movements and citizens are increasingly mobilising to fight the growing trend of creating 'filter-bubbles', a term the activist Eli Pariser has coined to refer to the intellectual isolation that results from the algorithms that currently determine what we encounter online. Whether through Telegram or the old Morse code, it doesn't matter. There is a real need, and a growing desire, to generate new spaces for discussion.

This article is part of a collaboration with Forus International, a global network of civil society organisations working for equality and justice. Thanks to: ABONG, Coordinadora, NNNGO, FINGO, the Lithuanian NGDO platform, Plataforma ONGD, RADA, the Belarus Student Association, Ana Luísa Silva, Lisbon School of Economics and Management for their collaboration.

Some of the names in this piece have been changed to ensure the safety of the interviewees.

Translated from Criptopolitica: Telegram, la Bielorussia e le lotte sociali digitali