(U//FOUO) U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Belarus

The following report is part of a series of Social Media Landscape guides produced by the U.S. Department of State for its U.S.- European Media Hub which is described as connecting “European audiences with U.S. policymakers and perspectives.” The Media Hub, which is located in Brussels, Belgium, is part of the International Media Engagement Office of the U.S. Department of State. The report was produced in January 2010. See also:

U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Hungary
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: France
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Latvia
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Spain
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Belgium
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Italy
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Romania
U.S. State Department Social Media Landscape: Norway

For USG Official Use Only

Social Media Landscape: Belarus

I.               Belarus at a glance

  • Social media adoption is very nascent and limited to major cities (especially Minsk)
  • Mass media censorship makes social media an increasingly more credible source of information
  • Use of social media in government is limited largely to opposition parties
  • Lack of infrastructure and the dominant Russian language means Belarusian social media are subsumed within the Russian Internet community

II.              Executive Summary

The Internet and social media are in early stages of development in Belarus. The lack of infrastructure and the cost of access mean that the online community is characterized by affluent, educated middle classes from the metropolitan areas of the country (especially Minsk). Internet in Belarus has not yet achieved the penetration necessary to be socially representative.

Despite the accessibility challenges, social media are still proving popular, particularly amongst younger demographics. Online information sources and especially social media, promise an impartiality that is often lacking in Belarusian mass media channels, which many consider to be overly influenced by the national government. From a political point of view, this has meant that opposition parties have been swifter to experiment with online engagement to gain public support, although their use of social media as strategic tool for campaigning is still relatively experimental.

A significant challenge for social media communities in Belarus will be in establishing their own identity, separate to the Russian Internet space. The lack of dedicated Belarusian platforms and infrastructure means that to some extent Belarus online culture is being subsumed by Russia. Online at least, the boundaries are blurred.

III.            Access

  • Internet access rates in Belarus are low compared to the rest of Europe, with the vast majority of activity concentrated in Minsk
  • The dominant online group is men, aged between 15-34, well educated and living the capital
  • Taxes levied on Belarusian Internet domains are a significant factor in slowing the development of the country’s online economy

Relationship between Internet access and family profile

Relationships:

Married: 44.69%

Not married: 42.84%

Unregistered married: 5.65%

Divorced or widowed: 6.8%

Family size:

Living alone: 6.56%

Living in a family of two: 17.04%

Living in a family of three: 35.84%

Living in a family of four: 31.09%

Living in a family of five +: 9.47%

Internet access in Belarus is available to 32.5% of the population, while mobile phone penetration stands at 76%. Smartphone penetration rates are very low and so the vast majority of people access online content via PCs or laptops. Internet activity is concentrated in the capital, Minsk, and the surrounding region, where 45.7% of the online population are active. The remainder of people is distributed across the country’s major urban centers: 16% in the Brest region, 7.3% in the Vitebsk region, 12.8% in the Gomel region, 9.9% in the Grodno region and 8.3% in the Mogilev region.

The majority of Internet users are male (53%) and below the age of 24 (15-24 year-olds account for 38% of the online population). 25-34 year-olds form 25% of the community, 35-44 year-olds 22% and those 45 and over are the minority group at 15%. This age profile combined with the demographic distribution make Internet access the luxury of the younger educated, established middle classes. Students, “professionals” and middle to top level managers are the largest three groups active online, while almost half of all Internet users are married (44.7%). Only 9.5% of Internet users live in families of over five members, another sign that currently in Belarus the online population is almost exclusively defined by affluent, urban, educated and professional classes.

Professional distribution of Internet users

Students: 18.48%

Professionals: 18.18%

Middle & senior managers: 11.27%

Engineers/manual workers: 11.04%

Entrepreneurs (SME): 4.93%

Administrative workers: 4.83%

Unemployment: 1.91%

Others: 17.42%.

Meanwhile, from an infrastructure perspective, there are currently around 180 telecommunications companies involved in providing Internet access, another signal that maturity and consolidation is yet to be achieved in the Belarus market.

14.9% of Internet users have access to broadband (4.8% of the population overall), a low figure compared to the majority of other European countries. The major broadband service provider is Beltelecom.

A significant factor slowing the development of the Internet economy in Belarus is the registration process necessary to secure a .by domain.

Applicants must register their domain via a private company; “Otrkytyj kontakt”, and a dedicated government body; The State Center for Security of Information. The cost of registration and support is approximately USD50, compared to USD2.49 for the same service to support a .ru (Russian) domain. Particularly in the non-commercial sector, this additional cost is a significant barrier to development.

IV.             Activity

  • Livejournal is the most popular platform for online activity in Belarus and blogging in general is proving a popular activity
  • Russian platforms are also highly influential, especially the social network VKontakte. In terms of social media activity, the boundaries between Belarus and Russia are distinctly blurred
  • Despite the access issues, social media are proving popular because they offer an alternative source of information to the mass media, perceived by many as lacking in credibility due to state influence

Blogging is gaining popularity in Belarus and the age range of bloggers is broadening. In 2007, an international social media awards event named a Belarusian project, Fotografomanstvo (produced by Livejournal user ak-bara http://ak-bara.livejournal.com), best blog. Belarusian bloggers are a committed community overall; while 50% maintain one blog, 46% write two to three blogs and 4% four or more blogs.

The overwhelming majority of Belarusian bloggers are male (75%) and in their mid twenties (average age 25). 46% are students or have achieved a university degree and most (79%) live in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. As is the case in neighboring Russia, the most popular technology platform for blogging is Livejournal, with WordPress also well-used.

Local blogging platforms are also now emerging. The first of these, blog.inf.by, launched in 2005. It now hosts around 2,200 blogs, including the popular “Library blog”, which focuses on libraries and information in Belarus and beyond and has won several Belarusian media awards. ByJournal is also proving popular and now hosts networking events to which high profile Belarusian bloggers are invited. Another popular, local platform is blog.tut.by, which positions itself as the destination for celebrity and show business blogs.

When it comes to social networking, the majority of Belarusians use Russian platforms. VKontakte.ru (a Russian Facebook clone), Livejournal, Liveinternet and Diary.ru are all popular hubs of activity. Face.by, launched as the first Belarusian social network, now has just over 17,000 members. The other main networks used in the country are Belarusy.by (25,229 members) Vsevmeste.net and Parta.by (a network created specifically to reunite former school classmates, on which activity levels are relatively low). In terms of multimedia, a local photosharing platform, Photoclub.by, is also popular. For social networking overall, however, membership volume and activity rates are low compared to those of the Russian-owned networks.

Immigrant groups have adopted social media as a means to maintain contact within the community. Belarusians who have moved abroad also make use of social media in order to network with fellow expatriates. Livejournal communities are the most popular channel for such activity. Particularly significant communities include by_mf, by politics, by_warszawa, belarus_france, by_maskva, by_praha, by_warszawa, catholic_by, great_litva, and ua_by.

Although Internet penetration rates are relatively low in Belarus, amongst those with access, social media is proving popular and an opportunity to network. A number of grassroots events have taken place to unite the Belarusian Internet community, including BarCamp-style gatherings called ByCamp and meetings of the small but growing podcast community (active on the Russian podcasting platform rpod.ru at bel.rpod.ru and podminsk09.rpod.ru). Since 1999 a number of formal conferences geared towards stimulating the Belarus Internet economy have also taken place. These include the Belarusian Internet Forum (took place annually between 1999 and 2005), regional conferences in Grodno, Vitebsk and Brest and, in 2006, the first conference dedicated to online business. Overall, however, organized conference activity is relatively sporadic.

Traditional media participation in social media

Some experimentation with social media is taking place amongst the news outlets, although it is currently limited in scope. The newspaper Nasha niva (Наша ніва) hosts blogs by popular columnists including Alexander Klasnovsky, Lelik Ushkin, orthodox minister Alexander Shamko, and photographers Andrey Lenkevich and Yulia Doroshkevich. However, their content and style of presentation differs little from that published in the newspaper print edition.

The social media projects http://www.hvost.org and http://www.pozirk.org offer an alternative model for news distribution. HvosT is one of the most visited private blogs in Belarus, while Pozirk has an editorial board comprising of previous writers for the Belarusian magazine, Transitions Online.

V.             Organizational use

  • In Belarus, social media are largely viewed as a communications channel for the opposition, rather than the party of government
  • Grassroots groups have taken advantage of social media to gather support for political initiatives
  • Use of social media by private sector organizations is limited
  • Government, political parties and NGOs

Corporate blogging

Onliner.by – a Belarusian company that sells gadgets online – publishes a corporate blog. The blog is easy to find online and the design is simple and clear. Content is varied, ranging from news of company events to reviews and tests on various gadgets, and the tone is open and conversational. The blog provides a simple way for Onliner to stay in contact with its customers, by their nature, a technologically adept audience.

In Belarus, the Internet is largely perceived as a tool for use by the opposition, rather than the party of government. The ruling government Communist Party and The Republican Party of Labor and Justice do have websites (http://comparty.by/ and http://rpts.by/, respectively), but make no obvious use of social media. In contrast, the opposition party, The Belarusian People’s Front, features blogs by its leaders on the official party website: http://www.pbnf.org/blog.html.

In a study of online representation, The Center for Belarusian Internet Research (CBIR) compared the online profile of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) http://www.brsm.by/ and the pan-European, New Europe project. (http://n-europe.eu). In the CBIR’s view, the comparison revealed significant limitations in the BRYU’s grasp of the Internet and the possibilities presented by social media. BRYU’s online presence lacked opportunities for visitors to interact and engage with the organization, compared to New Europe’s. According to the study, BRYU appeared to be applying a “broadcast” model to an interactive medium, although this lack of openness may be due in some part to concerns over possible censorship. Precedents do exist; Internet projects including http://worvik.com/news/, http://www.nmnby.org/, http://n-europe.eu, http://www.3dway.org and http://belintellectuals.eu/ have all experienced some level of government intrusion.

However, the opportunity the Internet offers for grassroots groups to convene appears not to have been lost in Belarus. In October 2008, according to decision #22 of The Department of Justice, Minsk City Executive Committee, a group originating on the VKontakte.ru Russian social network (http://vkontakte.ru/ club1750030), was registered as an official, political organization, under the name “Movement of the Future”, with over 100,000 members. For the first time in Belarus, an Internet community had transcended its virtual boundaries and gained real-world legitimacy.

Wasted opportunity

Internet service provider Atlant Telecom started a corporate blog, but created an immediate barrier and defeated a central tenet of blogging – openness – by limiting access to clients only.

The content consisted of reposts of company press announcements and technical support information, and lacked any of the character, originality or quality content that would persuade readers to return.

The blog failed to communicate the personality of the organization and offered little incentive for readers to engage. Roundly considered a wasted opportunity.

In terms of political analysis, there are two Belarusian bloggers of particular note. One of the most prominent and influential political blogs in the country is http://guralyuk.livejournal.com (also published at http://guralyuk.blogspot.com/), written by Yuri Shevtsov, a well known Belarusian publicist and political analyst, and director of the Center of European Integration in Minsk. Another popular political analysis blog is http://nescerka.livejournal.com, written by Vitaly Silitsky, director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Research.

There is no evidence to suggest that regional or international political organizations, such as the EU or UN are engaging in a coordinated, strategic way in Belarus. However, Belarusian journalist Maryna Rakhlei, is a prolific blogger about EU affairs and the involvement of the EU in Belarusian politics and society http://blogs.euobserver.com/rakhlei/.

Although Belarusians are clearly engaging, and are being engaged online in a political context, the influence of social media should not be overstated. Its reach is currently limited to an exclusive minority and activity taking place is relatively unsophisticated. Experimentation by opposition parties, the growth of grassroots movements and the example set by political parties in other countries and programs with a pan-regional outlook, such as New Europe, all suggest potential for future growth.

Business in social media

The use of social media by Belarusian companies is very limited. The first Russian-language corporate blog was created by a Belarusian business, Red Graphic Systems. It existed successfully for approximately five years before being suspended by the company. Currently, around 50 Belarusian businesses actively maintain blogs. Aside from this, there is no evidence of Belarusian businesses actively investing in social media to support a marketing or communications campaign. Online activity is currently limited to more conventional search engine marketing and website advertising.

VI.          Legal & ethical

  • The Belarusian government does not currently differentiate digital media from other forms of media and apparently has no plans to develop specific legislation
  • The government asserts the right to monitor and regulate digital as it does all other forms of media in the country
  • It is public concern over this power to scrutinize user-generated content (e.g. blog posts, social networks etc) that speculators believe is limiting the growth of social media

Belarusian law does not differentiate between digital media from other forms of media and, according to an announcement made on February 6 2009 by Lilia Ananich, first deputy minister of information, there are no plans to develop specific legislation for the online space. Nevertheless, the government still asserts the right to monitor and regulate digital as it does all other forms of media in the country. It is public concern over this power to scrutinize user-generated content (e.g. blog posts, social networks etc) that speculators believe is limiting the growth of social media, with people suspicious of the government’s behavior and motives and therefore less willing to participate freely and openly.

This distrust of state control means that social media are considered more credible and reliable than in many other European countries where their use is more widespread. According to a recent study by the Center for Research of the Belarusian Internet, people are more willing to trust information from blogs than official news.

Although the government has not yet developed a specific package of legislation to regulate digital content, four articles of Belarusian media law do have significant implications for social media:

-       Article three: Defines that Mass Media Law provisions are applicable to Internet versions of conventional media (e.g. national newspapers, broadcast media stations)

-       Articles 11 & 17: State that the registration procedure for Internet media is established by the Council of Ministers.

-       Regulations on Computer Clubs and Internet Cafes (adopted February 10, 2007): According to the regulations, Internet cafe owners or their authorized agents must keep an electronic registry of the domain names of the sites accessed by users. The electronic log should contain at least a 12-month history of all connections. State Security agents, police or state control inspectors are authorized to review the log in the cases as listed by legislation.  In cases of suspicion of violations, Internet café management should inform law enforcement bodies about the cases.

VII.       Local factors affecting digital content

  • Many people – especially members of opposition political parties – have turned to blogging as a means of self-expression in reaction to the mass media’s lack of editorial independence
  • The lack of a dedicated infrastructure and technology platforms means that Belarusian social media users are subsumed within the much larger and more established Runet (Russian Internet)
  • Another factor slowing the growth of social media is the lower than average level of base technical knowledge within the user community, limiting grassroots innovation

In a national survey, Belarusian Internet activists and academics agreed that many people – especially members of opposition political parties – have turned to blogging as a means of self-expression in reaction to the mass media’s lack of editorial independence.

Although blogging is a minority activity, and most people gather around a common cultural interest (e.g. music, theatre) on national issues it has assumed a very distinct role in Belarusian society.

Especially compared to neighboring Russia, the Belarusian Internet economy is considered underdeveloped. The lack of a dedicated infrastructure and technology platforms means that Belarusian social media users are subsumed within the much larger and more established Runet (Russian Internet). That most Belarusian Internet users communicate in Russian, and many do not identify themselves as Belarusian in online profiles compounds this. A Belarusian-language blog community exists, but operates as a closed circle. Online at least, the borders between Russia and Belarus are distinctly blurred.

Five popular Belarusian blogs

1.           Девушка, живущая в Сети (Girl who lives in the net)

2.           Больше чем деньги (More than money)

3.           Ландшафтный блог (Landscape blog)

4.           Мобильный Мандарин (Mobile tangerine)

5.           Путешествия по стране (Travel around the country)

Top 10 news media websites in Belarus

1.           Новости Беларуси от Хартии`97

2.           Газета Комсомольская Правда в Белоруссии

3.           БЕЛОРУССКИЕ НОВОСТИ – Беларусь, Минск, факты, комментарии

4.           БЕЛТА – новости, сообщения, факты, комментарии

5.           Газета Беларусь Сегодня

6.           Радыё Свабода

7.           Интернет-газета Салiдарнасць

8.           Белорусская газета

9.           Народная газета

10.       Газета Рэспублiка

Another factor slowing the growth of social media is the lower than average level of base technical knowledge within the user community. Grassroots innovation and experimentation in social media spurs mass adoption. The “earlier adopter” community currently lacks the critical mass in Belarus to drive significant growth, although the popularity of social media is nevertheless increasing. The vast majority of Internet users live in Minsk, which points to where we can expect innovation to emerge from and where marketing and communications campaigns should be focused.

Topics commonly discussed online by Belarusians include:

-       Private life

-       Work

-       Hobby/Leisure

-       Politics

-       Self-analysis

Overall, the Belarusian Internet is consumer-oriented, as the top three most popular websites by traffic demonstrate:

-       Belarusian portal tut.by: 44.5%,

-       Avtomalinovka (av.by) automobiles for sale in Belarus 5.8%,

-       Online news “Avtobusiness weekly”-4%,

However, conversation about politics is popular and is one of the most talked about subjects in the forums at tut.by. The most prominent themes of conversation over the last 12 months have been the relationships between Russia and Belarus, the Belarusian language and cultural identity, and the Russian-Georgian conflict. Also very popular was debate about Law 760, clause 1.1, a business regulation that many believed would harm rather than help the Belarusian entrepreneur and small business economy. The place of Belarus in Europe and relations between Belarus and Russia are both a focus for steady, ongoing discussion.

In terms of broader social issues (albeit, with a political dimension), the security of personal information is a subject of great interest for the online community, as is the market monopoly of local Internet service provider Belnet. Plans to construct a Belarusian nuclear power station have also provoked a great deal of debate online. Opposition groups have used social media as a means to influence public opinion and coordinate offline meetings and protests.

Belarusian lawyer and economist, Sergey Balykin, writes a popular blog at http://svbalykin.blog.tut.by, as does the well-known political scientist Alexander Feduta at http://feduta.blog.tut.by.

Two significant cultural communities of note are http://community.livejournal.com/by_theatre, which is concerned with drama and theatre in Belarus, and http://kilgor-trautt.livejournal.com, which focuses on theatre in Minsk.

Guidelines based on local factors

Important considerations when engaging via social media in Belarus are as follows:

-       Minsk is the focus for the vast majority of social media activity in Belarus. The majority of bloggers and Internet users live here and so the city hosts the vast majority of social media-related events

-       Although the majority of people in Belarus speak Russian and most Internet resources are in Russian, consider using Belarusian to engage and build a relationship with niche communities, especially activist groups concerned with issues of national identity or politics

-       The close integration between Russian and Belarusian social media makes the major Russian social networks (e.g. Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte) a primary venue to search for Belarusian communities online

-       The use of social media in politics is still in its infancy. Currently only the opposition parties make any significant use of online channels to engage the electorate. As public access and awareness grows, we can expect this to change, especially as online channels are perceived as the only route possible to achieve the free expression of public opinion.

VIII.     Primary data sources

-       Belarusian Center of Business Technologies SATIO http://www.satio.by

-       Gemius http://www.gemius.com

-       Yandex http://www.yandex.com

-       The Center of Internet Research in Belarus (National Academy of Sciences) http://www.ac.by

-       Belstat http://www.belstat.com

-       Livejournal http://www.livejournal.com

-       Vkontakte http://vkontakte.ru/

-       Universal McCann: http://www.universalmccann.com/

-       Nielsen Online: http://en-us.nielsen.com/

-       Alexa: http://www.alexa.com/

-       International Telecommunications Union: http://www.itu.int/en/pages/default.aspx

-       Google: http://www.google.com

-       GfK Group: http://www.gfk.com/

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