Living in the matrix

8 November 2013
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In Belarus, the digital dissident generation born in 2006 came of age during the political and economic crisis of 2011, writes Iryna Vidanava. However, bridging the gap between virtual and real-life activism remains one of the most serious challenges facing Belarus' democratic movement.

When I’m travelling abroad, Belarus often seems to be a backward place. With its command economy, collective farms and communist monuments, my country feels stuck in another era. Twenty years of dictatorship sometimes leave me thinking that nothing changes. But in Minsk, it’s clear that Belarus has entered the twenty-first century. While there has been no democratic transition, the country is in the midst of a digital revolution. Downtown, students walk past Lenin’s statue with headphones in their ears and eyes glued to smartphone screens. In my neighbourhood, hi-tech office buildings share space with socialist realist relics. Young professionals type on tablets and read e-books on Kindles while riding the Soviet-built subway.

In the matrix

Source: kwankwan/Flickr

It is a perplexing contrast worthy of a film by The Wachowskis. In a country that Reporters Without Borders has labelled an “Enemy of the Internet”, Belarusian programmers are in heavy demand around the world. A recent poll of these very programmers, who are paid well to develop what has been called “liberation technology”, found that they don’t actually believe in e-democracy or European values. Viber, an application that allows people to people to talk and text via mobile phone for free, was developed in a country that appears near the bottom of most international rankings on freedom of speech. And Belarus’ state-run economy has produced a leading global software firm that is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Belarus, where government control is omnipresent, has become the world’s top source of spam. According to Businessweek, Europe’s last dictatorship is also a “hi-tech hothouse”.

This digital revolution is impacting Belarus in many ways. The government touts its economic fruits. Since 2011, exports of hi-tech products have increased three-fold. Last year, Belarus became one of the top 30 countries in the world providing offshore software development services for foreign customers. Technology is assisting the country’s development in other ways. In 2012, Belarus rose 20 places in the World Bank’s information and communications technologies index and 11 places in the knowledge economy index. But what is more interesting to me as a democratic activist specializing in new media is the question as to whether all this new technology and information is producing any more freedom.

Recent events, especially the Arab Spring, indicate that the Internet and new media technologies can be effective tools for democratic change. Like Neo’s hacking in The Matrix, this process, as played out in Belarus, has been driven by state repression. Before the 2006 presidential election, the regime moved to restrict and close down independent print newspapers, forcing them to launch online versions. Blogs, Internet forums, online communities, and news and information websites became more prominent during and after the flawed election and protests. The same dynamic applied to the 2010 presidential election, during which it was even more pronounced. Another rigged process on 19 December culminated the same day in “Bloody Sunday”, a targeted police crackdown on civil society, including independent media. This caused still more citizens to turn to online news sources, to the extent that these could then compete for the first time with state-controlled newspapers, radio and television. Facebook, Vkontakte and Twitter began playing a role in educating citizens, turning out voters and mobilizing those protesting electoral irregularities.

The virtual breakthrough came during the political and economic crisis of 2011, when online audiences rocketed. Effectively countering state propaganda, independent Internet news sources were sought out by half-a-million readers a day. For the first time, the public began trusting independent media more than state media. Despite two decades of closing independent media outlets and repressing journalists, the regime effectively lost control of the information space. For the last two years, independent and opposition news and information websites have dominated the mass media category of the Akavita national Internet rating service. Nowadays, as a colleague pointed out, “when something happens in Belarus, people turn on their computers, not a TV.”

The Internet, with its interactivity and anonymity (or at least the illusion of these), has dramatically increased the number of Belarusians who are getting objective information and has significantly broadened the space for public debate. Independent public opinion polls indicate that more Belarusians are questioning the precepts of state propaganda. Since the December 2010 crackdown and 2011 economic meltdown, public trust in the state media has fallen from 53 to 28 percent. Despite its rosy projections and optimistic pronouncements, fewer Belarusians believe this government can solve the country’s problems. Independent online media has played a key role in showing our emperor has no clothes.

Moreover, the Internet is helping to connect those dissatisfied with the regime. This is especially crucial in a country where a gathering of more than three people is considered to be an unsanctioned mass action and can be dispersed by the police. For our digital dissident generation, Internet forums, blogs and social networks have become a big “cyber kitchen”, where we can connect, find like-minded people, poke fun at the authorities, ask questions, share opinions, discuss the news, plan civic actions and even self-organize.

This became clear following the response to the economic downturn during the summer of 2011, when a strike against an increase in gasoline prices and a series of “silent protests” on the streets were organized through Facebook and Vkontakte communities. But the euphoria over this burst of online activism didn’t last long, as the regime responded with another brutal, old-style crackdown. The clashes of riot police with peaceful crowds of clapping youngsters in the streets, night raids on the apartments of the young administrators of the social network communities, and KGB agents’ long chats with student activists about what they wrote in their personal blogs made Belarus seem like The Matrix come to life.

For the time being, it seems that rubber batons have beaten the virtual “likes”. The wave of protests was stopped cold, some Internet activists emigrated, the number of followers of opposition communities in social networks decreased, and hopes that new media could be the catalyst of a “Belarusian Spring” vanished. There is a growing gap between “finger” and offline activism: although the number of Internet users and social network subscribers has been growing, as well as the quantity of “likes” and “shares” under posts advocating civic participation, the number of actual participants in demonstrations and other opposition events has remained the same or even fallen. On social networks, for example, over 20,000 people said that they planned to join the opposition’s annual Chernobyl March in April, but less than 1,500 actually showed up. Despite widespread dissemination and discussion over the Internet, the event drew mostly the same crowd of dedicated supporters who had been participating in this and other demonstrations for the last 10-15 years.

Given that street demonstrations, even those allowed by the authorities, usually end up with detentions and fines, such a low turnout can be explained by the fear factor. But similar behaviour patterns can be observed in other, less political situations. Some time ago, a popular Belarusian writer, editor and media expert shared his own Facebook case study, which made him re-think the potential of social networks to mobilize even his own circle of virtual friends. He happened to find a kitten on the street, took him home and fed him. But since he already had a cat who wouldn’t tolerate a newcomer, he posted a photo of the cute kitten and an appeal for help on his Facebook page. In less than a day, the post generated some 3,000 views, 30 “likes”, 20 “shares”, dozens of comments and … not a single offer of adoption. His conclusion was that those who plan to launch civic campaigns with the help of social networks should consider that the latter might actually be an empty bubble, swelling with “likes” and comments, but having no real substance.

A well-known Belarusian blogger suggested that social media also plays the role of a safety valve, an outlet for public frustration. It allows dissenters to let off steam online without it leading to any real political action. By declaring their virtual support, Internet citizens also might feel that they are fulfilling their civic duty without ever leaving their homes. The founder of Belarus’ largest Internet portal offered an explanation much closer to the simulated world of The Matrix. He speculated that the regime has allowed the BYnet to remain relatively uncontrolled because it gives people the perception that they are free by disconnecting them from the reality of everyday life in a dictatorship. In the end, many Belarusians are satisfied by an online freedom that allows them to read opposition websites, express dissenting opinions, sign virtual petitions and even vote freely. Bridging virtual and real-life activism, as well as taking advantage of online protest moods, is among the most serious challenges facing Belarus’ democratic movement, especially with another economic downturn and presidential election looming.

As frustrating as the Internet can be these days, it remains the freest, most vibrant and creative public space in Belarus. For better or for worse, it offers an unlimited flow of information, unmatched diversity of opinions, numerous possibilities for self-expression and the chance for almost anyone to make their mark. In July, Ruslan Mirzoeu, an ordinary worker from Minsk with a somewhat difficult past (a former drug abuser on parole), became a BYnet celebrity after shooting a series of clips about daily life at his factory and posting them on YouTube. Full of black humour and inconvenient insights about one of Belarus’ flagship industries, his “Chronicles of the Plant” were re-posted by leading independent websites and viewed by hundreds of thousands of online viewers. One political commentator noted: “These home-video reports did more than all opposition activities over the past year to open the public’s eyes to what is really happening behind the walls of our illusionary stability.”

It didn’t take the authorities long to recognize the new Internet star: a few days later Mirzoeu was fired from the plant. But in August, he released a new film showing the underbelly of urban life in one of Minsk’s suburbs, including poverty, street fights, drunks and drug addicts. This time, the trouble-maker was arrested, tried for allegedly cursing in public and sentenced to seven days in prison for hooliganism. With state TV cameras covering the court hearing, an official commented on the evening news that the case was not about using bad language in public but punishing someone for becoming popular by “manipulating social problems”.

Around the same time, the personal computer of a blogger in Svetlagorsk was confiscated after he posted a video online showing the luxury home of the head of the local administration. Also this summer, a playwright at one of Minsk’s theatres was fined and consequently fired for a critical comment he wrote on his Facebook page about the inappropriate actions of the police. What was particularly interesting about the three cases was that each targeted officials of the regime.

This series of events prompted some experts to talk of a new type of repression linked to the Internet. Rather than blocking individual sites, the regime is punishing citizen journalists operating online. To me, it looks more like the regime is applying the same strategy of targeted repression that has proved to be quite effective in suppressing dissent in other, more traditional fields. But it doesn’t seem to work as well when it comes to the Internet, with its millions of users and multiplicity of tools. It is only a question of time before a banned video reappears on some other platform or censored information is shared using new technology. In this virtual battle, the regime is on the defensive; virtually none of the efforts it has made to upgrade its online presence have proved to be effective.

I know from firsthand experience that new technologies can promote democracy when they are filled with and driven by ideas. When my print youth magazine was closed down by the government in 2005, we created 34, Belarus’ first multimedia magazine published on compact disc and online. When the regime closed down independent print newspapers and excluded others from the state-run distribution system, these outlets launched websites and helped prepare the virtual breakthrough that took place a few years later. As democratic and media activists, we must constantly be one step ahead if we want to effectively take on the police state. While the regime has power and force, we have courage and creativity, which are only enhanced by new technologies. Like Neo, they help me to believe in a world where anything is possible.

Published 8 November 2013

Original in English
First published in Res Publica Nowa 23 (2013, forthcoming Polish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa
© Iryna Vidanava / Res Publica Nowa / Eurozine

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