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How governments abuse social media and tech: fake apps and SMS threats


Social media and technology might work as a catalyst for an uprising like the one in Belarus or a revolution like that of Ukraine. But it is also used to scare people from speaking up and exercising other civil liberties.

Social media and technologies empower and inspire people to speak up. Because of the Belarus internet shutdown during the presidential elections almost a month ago, a number of Telegram users in the country grew from 400,000 to more than 2 million. Telegram managed to provide service during those days when there was no internet connection in the country.

In 2014, we saw the rise of online media during Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution. It gained popularity by streaming the events, which meant providing an information source that was alternative to state media which was silent about the revolution.

However, authoritarian regimes deploy the same technologies as the protestors do, and manage to fool people into believing hoaxes or scaring them off joining the anti-government movements. There are numerous examples.

Belarus faked an app

With Aleksandr Lukashenko holding power in Belarus for 26 years, why only now did people burst into protests? Maksimas Milta, Head of Communication and Development Unit at European Humanities University, said that 10 years ago, not many Belarusians had smartphones, and while the internet was widespread, there was no possibility to stream anything live. Now, as technology has become more accessible, and people more tech savvy, it’s much harder to withhold important information from them, and much easier to connect. Even when there’s no internet.

“The crack down on the internet was instrumental in making a huge step forward to most people here in Belarus in learning about VPN, what it means to use proxy connection, and it has given a huge influence for the Telegram messenger,” Maksimas Milta said in a panel discussion during a GovTech Week_.

The Nexta channel on Telegram is now the main source of information about the protests and the wrongdoings of OMON for Belarusians.

So it comes as no surprise that someone sympathizing with the regime mimicked the Nexta channel and created an app to collect data about the protestors who downloaded the app. Nexta founders warned not to install the app under any circumstances, and Google removed the app from its Play Store.

What is more, by shutting down the internet, the Belarus government made it hard for people to download VPNs. But it seems, at least from what Maksimas Milta told, that people managed to outsmart the government.

Maksimas Milta
Maksimas Milta

“It’s also about low tech. In the place I stay right now in Minsk, in this typical panel house with 9 floors, in August 9-12 when essentially there was no internet connection without VPN, what people living in this apartment building did, they have placed USB sticks with installation files at the entrance to the elevator for people to use them and install VPN clients on their laptops,” he said.

At the moment, VPNs are illegal in Belarus.

Now, every time a big protest is under way, people in Belarus experience the slowdown of mobile internet. Mobile network companies try to warn the users beforehand, and can’t do anything about this because they are afraid to lose their licence, Maksimas Milta explained.

Government threats via SMS in Ukraine

6 years ago, a bloody revolution in Ukraine made president Viktor Janukovych seek shelter in Russia. Social media and technology played an important role in fueling the Euromaidan protests, and it also served as a tool for the government to discourage the uprising.

“Digital space is only empowering speech and calling people to action. Likes do not count. Thousands of likes will not influence any politician to roll back any political decision, and especially now when both political regimes and people know how to make thousands of paid likes,” Research Assistant at Digital Forensic Research Lab Roman Osadchuk said in a panel discussion.

During the Euromaidan revolution, the main source of information in Ukraine was the TV. And state media often was silent about the events, or was trying to portray them as a protest of homeless people. Ukrainians didn’t have access to smartphones with speedy internet.

Not even half the country had the internet connection overall. Anyway, it worked, and 29% used Facebook on a daily basis, a lot of people used VK. Now it’s blocked. Huge communities emerged that were dedicated to the news and announcements of huge gatherings that took place every Sunday. They also posted news about missing people, missing journalists,” explained Roman Osadchuk.

Digital space is only empowering speech and calling people to action. Likes do not count. Thousands of likes will not influence any politician to roll back any political decision, and especially now when both political regimes and people know how to make thousands of paid likes,

said Roman Osadchuk.

Then, online media emerged and gained popularity at once. Streams were live almost 24/7. “Many people were not physically at the Euromaidan, but they felt a part of it just by watching what was happening. It showed what actually happened. When people see how police detain innocent people, it gives them motivation to mobilize and to protest,” explained Roman Osadchuk.

Government at the time also tried to harness social media for its purposes. For example, as people used the hashtag #Euromaidan, pro-government people tried to override it and post hoaxes with this hashtag in order to scare people into staying at home instead of joining the revolution.

According to Roman Osadchuk, the government also used SMS jamming - people in particular areas of Kyiv received SMS messages saying that they were registered as participants of some anti-government protests.

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