1 Introduction

Belarusian mass protests in 2020–2021, including their scale, features of management, and structure, have become the subject of many scientific studies. According to sociologists, every fifth Belarusian took part in the prolonged protests against the results of the presidential elections [1]. Large-scale mobilization became possible thanks to the modern digital infrastructure, represented by a network of opposition communities localized mainly on the Telegram platform. The effective organization of Belarusian protests was largely associated with the transition of the role of protest moderators from politicians and public opinion leaders to social networks [2].

At the same time, the protest actions attracted the attention of Russian citizens, most of whom were not only aware, but also actively followed the political situation in Belarus through digital platforms [3]. A wave of related protests in Russia and Belarus in 2020–2021 can be considered as a source of protest attitudes of Russian Internet users. The riskiness of this situation lies in the fact that the decrease in the dynamics of information flows in social media does not lead to the limitation of the protest potential of citizens. The risks of repeating the “Belarusian scenario” in the Russian Federation remain in the context of the proximity of political regimes and cycles, the intersection of information spaces, and the maintenance of a high level of social tension [4]. This fact requires the identification of the features of the social media support of the Belarusian protests: the triggers used, the actors involved, the management technologies used, and the specifics of the audience’s reaction.

2 Theoretical Overview

The theoretical basis of the study includes the works of foreign and Russian authors. Among the concepts and ideas that formed the language of this study, it is necessary to single out the theory of network interaction (Castells [5]; Luckman [6]); the theory of collective behavior (Lebon [7]; Ortega y Gasset [8]); and the agenda concept (McCombs and Shaw [9]) and the smart crowd concept (Jenkins [10]; Reingold [11]).

Relevant Russian research can be divided into several groups. The first group is represented by works that focus on the features of political protest (Sokolov [12]; Korotaev [13]). The second group is research related to the study of the Internet environment as a space for political protest (Malkevich [14]; Volodenkov [15]; Bronnikov [16]; Parma [17]). The third group is represented by applied research on the protest situation in the Republic of Belarus (Kurylev [18]; Mironenko [19]). The fourth group is represented by studies related to the use of big data for the analysis of political protest in social media (Brodovskaya et al. [20]; Akhremenko [21]). The fifth group of works is represented by studies of technologies for mobilizing protest activity in the social media (Shomova [22]; Akhremenko and Stukal [23]).

Foreign researchers pay attention to the following aspects of the influence of digital communications on protest activity: organizational factors in the protest movement and the mutual influence of online and offline environments [24]; psychological and emotional characteristics of collective action in the context of digitalization [25]; and protest coordination mechanisms through modern media platforms and fundamental differences in the activity of individual services and users [26]. Based on the results of cross-national studies of mass protest movements, experts conclude that despite the specifics of national segments of the Internet and serious differences in the strategies for using digital services, there are a few common characteristics of social media support of protests associated with the commonality of personal qualities and characteristics of collective protest behavior [27].

3 Methodology, Methods, and Tools

The research methodology is based on a combination of the network approach and the modern interdisciplinary approach Predictor Mining. In the conditions of large-scale digitalization of the political sphere, the main attention of researchers is focused on the phenomenon of network activism and the influence of modern network communications on the dynamics, nature, mobilization effects, and social risks of online protest. In the digital age, civic activity is provided by a complex and spontaneous system of network interaction, which is a consequence of the formation of network social movements based on the use of various web services [28]. Supporters of the network approach are convinced that digital platforms provide users with a wide range of opportunities for coordinating joint activities [29]. A change in the dominant form of organizing collective actions requires researchers to change established strategies and form new explanatory models [30]. The methodology of the network approach determined the use of a hybrid strategy, as well as the application of social media analysis. In addition, the principles of the network approach were used to form a sample at the stage of cognitive mapping.

As a promising direction in the study of new forms of civic activity, the use of Predictor Mining is proposed, which contributes to the development of an up-to-date methodology and tools for a comprehensive analysis of protest behavior. The core of such an analysis is the intellectual search for markers of political activity in the open digital footprints of Internet users, as well as their further processing using modern big data tools [31]. The main principles of the Predictor Mining methodology justified the use of a hybrid strategy that combines automated content collection and processing, as well as the preceding stages of event analysis and cognitive mapping of digital publications.

Analysis of the transformation of Belarussian protest activity in social media involves the use of a hybrid strategy of empirical research. At the first stage, an event analysis was carried out using the Google Trends web search analytics tool.

The event analysis was implemented on the basis of an analysis of information flows around political events in the Republic of Belarus (2020–2021). The peaks of information activity were determined by the search queries “Protests in Belarus,” “Protests in the Republic of Belarus,” “Belarussian Protest,” etc. The schedule included the following variables: date, event, actors, presence, or absence of calls to action, and type of action. The implementation of the event analysis made it possible to identify key events within the main stage of protest activity (August–October 2020) associated with the presidential elections, as well as the further development of protest activity in January–April 2021. In addition, the triggers used to form a protest information flow in social media were identified. Cognitive mapping of digital content of protest communities in social media Vkontakte, Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook (the data set included 600 publications) was implemented at the next stage of the study [32]. The research schedule included the following variables: the content of the message, the presence of instructions, the use of mobilizing techniques, the degree of conventionality, the reception of value impact, and the technologies used to influence the formation of discourse. The implementation of the presented procedure allowed to establish the characteristics of publication, key discourses, and manipulative technologies. At the third stage, social media analysis was implemented using the Popsters automated analytics service for digital communities. The use of this tool made it possible to determine the characteristics of the information flow and user involvement in the most popular protest digital platforms on the social networks VKontakte and Telegram.

4 Results

First, it is necessary to consider the main triggers that were used for the protest mobilization of citizens in August 2020. During the period of the main wave of protests, the following events can be attributed to the main protest triggers: the results of the presidential elections (August 9–10, 2020) and subsequent mass actions of citizens, launched mainly by the electoral process. These events become the primary trigger for protest activity, which made it possible to ensure the transfer of online user activity to the real environment, as well as to involve key political actors in Belarus, foreign states, and popular opinion leaders in the protest agenda. Secondary protest mobilization is carried out based on a victim trigger – the death of a protester during one of the peaceful protest actions. The further scaling of the protest movement in the country takes place on the basis of several trigger events: after the public speech of the President in front of the workers of the largest industrial enterprise “BelAZ,” who joined the protests; the use of forceful methods by law enforcement agencies to demobilize protests; inclusion in the protest activity of the female part of the population; and departure from the country of the “symbol of the opposition” politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. After that, in September–October 2020, trigger events are reinforced by mass actions and marches of certain social groups – pensioners and students, which restart the Belarusian protest activity. Starting from November, the protests in the Republic of Belarus are coming to naught.

The opposition is making attempts to restart the protest activity in the period from January to April 2021: in early January, Belarusians went to local courtyard marches, about 40 participants in such actions were detained (10.01); numerous sanctions were applied against Belarusian leaders of public opinion (25.01); traditional Sunday actions were held, accompanied by periodic arrests of citizens in various forms involved in the protest (26.02); protests were initiated within the framework of special events, for example, Freedom Day (25.03); and a series of arrests of human rights defenders was implemented (06.04).

The results of the event analysis demonstrate that the moderators of the protest information flows used a diverse set of triggers to ensure the involvement of representatives of various sociodemographic groups, which justifies the many targeted actions aimed at ensuring the involvement of specific sections of the Belarusian society – women’s marches, actions of pensioners, student strikes, etc. At the same time, the first prolonged stage of mass actions, being initiated in connection with disagreement with the election results, could become the basis for mass mobilization and activation of the use of triggers from related areas of public life. It should be noted that an attempt to re-mobilize citizens in January became unsuccessful due to the lack of a large-scale trigger relevant for the mass Belarusian society, as well as large-scale preventive activities by law enforcement agencies.

It is necessary to consider the key actors of protest activity in August–October 2020 and January–April 2021. The main actors of the protests at the first stage were citizens, law enforcement agencies, public authorities, the opposition, foreign actors (representatives of other states), and public opinion leaders. Citizens were the main resource of the largest protest actions. Massive support from the population confirmed the relevance of the social and political problems put forward by the Belarusian opposition. Law enforcement agencies represented by the police and riot police ensured control over the protests, and their use of force became a trigger for secondary mobilization. In August–September, President Alexander Lukashenko made attempts to form his own discourses to demobilize the protests. The opposition as an actor was represented, first, by the team of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Foreign actors were also actively involved in the protest events in the Republic of Belarus. Several foreign states recognized Tikhanovskaya as a legitimate president, held meetings with her, and put forward sanctions against representatives of state authorities. In general, the Belarusian protest space is characterized by a weak involvement of leaders and micro-leaders of public opinion (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
A bar graph. The labels and their values are as follows. Citizens, 36%. Law enforcement agencies, 31%. State authorities, 15%. Opposition, 12%. Foreign actors, 5%. Leaders of public opinion, 1%.

Types of actors involved in protest activity in the Republic of Belarus in August–September 2020

The sharp decline in protest activity in the Republic of Belarus in 2021 contributed to the exclusion from this agenda of a significant part of the opposition, foreign actors, and public opinion leaders. Separate segments of citizens continued spontaneous protest actions, the prevention of which became the main task of representatives of law and order (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
A bar graph. The labels and their values are as follows. Citizens, 43%. Law enforcement agencies, 29%. State authorities, 21%. Opposition, 7%. Foreign actors, 0%. Leaders of public opinion, 0%.

Types of actors involved in protest activity in the Republic of Belarus in January–April 2021

At the next stage of the study, cognitive mapping of digital content posted in the largest Belarusian protest communities in social media was carried out. The implementation of this method made it possible to establish the internal characteristics of the content in the studied periods. Considering the informational support of protest activity in 2020, it can be noted that most of the publications contained specific instructions. In fact, they included an algorithm, according to which users received a clear and understandable picture of actions, which made it possible to ensure the mobilization and a fairly high level of organization of street actions. At the same time, the publications of the most massive protest communities, including the main moderator of the protests the Nexta Telegram channel, did not give direct instructions for action. In most publications, there were no direct instructions on participation in mass actions. The opposition carried out protest campaigning indirectly through rational arguments and triggers, as well as technologies for gently pushing the audience to protest agenda.

Most of the publications were characterized by a high degree of conventionality since they did not call for violent actions or the overthrow of the political regime of President Lukashenko. At the same time, the largest number of unconventional messages was published on election day, as well as in situations where law enforcement agencies used violent actions against protesters.

Affective techniques of value impact were mainly used to convert user online activity into real space. Special trigger topics became the basis for affective techniques, including the illegitimacy of elections, the use of force by law enforcement agencies, the policy of state authorities toward protesters and the opposition, mass detentions, and the active protest activities of such groups as students, pensioners, and women. A few publications were formed through mixed methods of value impact, which is typical for publications with instructions and action algorithms.

The formation of the mentioned discourses took place through the use of various manipulative technologies: appealing to generally accepted human values (primarily those relating to human rights and freedoms), which allow launching a specific model of perception of what is happening; dehumanization based on the deprivation of representatives of law enforcement agencies and authorities of human qualities; and emotional stereotyping, which forms a disdainful attitude toward public authorities and the political system as a whole (Table 1).

Table 1 Characteristics of protest publications in the social media of Belarus in August–September 2020

The activity of popular political platforms in social media supporting mass actions was characterized by a peaceful and non-radical character, pursuing the goal of mobilizing and effectively managing the most massive actions. It is determining the high degree of conventionality, the low level of use of mobilizing techniques, and the high proportion of publications and messages with instructions on the program of action for the protesters.

The specificity of the first prolonged stage of information support of protests was the dominant use of affective techniques in the publication. This is due to the formed set of triggers and discourses, where the key was the actions of law enforcement agencies, which attracted significant attention on the Internet.

Turning to the characteristics of publications in 2021, the following trends can be noted. About half of the publications contain specific instructions and (or) direct instructions for action. Protest community moderators actively urged users to participate in protests in major cities. Most of the publications are conventional, as an attitude toward peaceful events is being formed. The protest information flow in 2021 is filled with the active use of affective methods of influence aimed at maintaining the maximum interest of the population in protests by creating the necessary information background (Table 2). At the same time, the formation of discourses continues to be carried out through the technology of subordinating users to generally accepted norms and values. It can be noted that against the background of a significant transformation of the general political situation in 2021, there were no significant changes in the moderation and content of protest information flows.

Table 2 Characteristics of protest publications in the social media of Belarus in January–April 2021

Turning to the characteristics of publications in 2021, the following trends can be noted. About half of the publications contain specific instructions and direct instructions for action. Moderators of protest communities actively encouraged to participate in protest actions. Most of the publications are conventional, as the mindset for peaceful protest actions is being formed. The protest information flow in 2021 was characterized by the active use of effective methods of influence aimed at maintaining interest in protests (Table 2). At the same time, the formation of discourses continues to be carried out through the technology of value subordination. Against the backdrop of a significant transformation of the general political situation in 2021, the study did not record significant changes in the moderation and content of protest information flows.

The second stage of social media support is characterized by an increase in the number of messages using mobilizing techniques. The study shows the transformation in the contexts and state of the protest movement in Belarus. The decrease in the protest activity of citizens, which is initiated by the opposition, determines the growth in the use of various methods of mobilizing users, the dominance of affective methods of value impact. On the part of the administrators of the protest information flows, extremely unsuccessful attempts are being made to introduce the protest movement to the new conditions for the existence of the Belarusian society. This is expressed in attempts to artificially worsen the socioeconomic situation associated with the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The final part of the study was to analyze the information flows generated by opposition communities that carry out protest moderation in Belarus based on the results of automated processing of the activity of digital accounts and communities. The dynamics of views of publications in August–October 2020 and January–April 2021 were characterized by significant unevenness. At the same time, the number of views in 2020 is several times higher than in 2021. On average, views during the active period of protests covered from 10 to 90 million users; in January–April: from 5 to 30 million. These data confirm the thesis about a decrease in interest in the protest agenda both offline and online (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
2 line graphs of the number of views versus months August and September and January to April in 2021. Left, the highest peak is in September. Right, the highest peak is in January, followed by March.

Dynamics of views of the Telegram channel “Nexta” in August–September 2020 and January–April 2021

Quantitative indicators of the audience and activity of the largest protest platforms in social media show a negative trend. For example, the rapid growth in the number of subscriptions of the Nexta channel in Telegram (almost reaching one million users) was stopped already in October 2020. Further, one can observe the massive unsubscribing of Internet users, also accompanied by a purge of bots. A similar trend has continued in 2021. The total number of subscribers of the largest opposition community has decreased to 620,000 users (Fig. 4). The reduction in the audience is due to several factors: the lack of relevant, interesting and engaging content, fatigue with protest topics against the backdrop of new events and phenomena entering the information agenda, and poor administration of the channel. If at the initial stage of the protest actions, the activity of the Nexta digital platform aroused unprecedented interest on the part of Belarusian Internet users, experts, and journalists as an independent political actor, then later the role of the community in organizing and coordinating protest actions was adjusted.

Fig. 4
2 line graphs of number of subscribers versus months from September to March, 2021, and March and April, 2021. Left, the line peaks in October and then decreases gradually. Right, the line follows a declining slope.

Dynamics of the number of subscribers of the Telegram channel “Nexta” in August–September 2020 and January–April 2021

Some trends were identified based on the results of processing the publication activity of protest digital platforms. First, the volume of publications in January–April decreased by almost two times compared to the main period of protests in August–September. This fact is a consequence of the lack of a sufficient number of informational reasons, bright triggers, and activity on the part of citizens as actors of protest activity (Fig. 5). At the same time, the information flow in January–April looks more even than the flow of the initial stage of the protests, which allows us to speak of a high degree of controllability of information flows in 2021. The digital flows in August–September were formed exclusively in the context of ongoing events and had the effect of an “information bomb.”

Fig. 5
2 line graphs of number of publications versus months August and September in 2020, and January to April in 2021. Left, the highest peak is in September. Right, the highest peak is in January, followed by March.

Dynamics of the number of publications of the Telegram channel “Nexta” in August–September 2020 and January–April 2021

5 Conclusion

This study provides a comprehensive assessment of the digital management of mass protest actions that took place in the Republic of Belarus in 2020–2021. The research results revealed the following trends.

First, the technologies and tools for mobilizing mass protests, which proved to be effective in the first stage of mass protests in Belarus, did not prove their effectiveness over a longer period. Changes in protest triggers and discourses, as well as the use of new demobilization methods by law enforcement agencies, have led to the exclusion of a significant part of the Belarusian audience from the protest information agenda on social media. The obtained data suggest the decrease in the interest of the mass Internet audience in this area is due to the changed political conditions and the lack of real results of the Belarusian opposition.

Second, the Belarusian opposition demonstrated a strategy of prompt mobilization of mass protests in the presence of a major offline event (e.g., summarizing the results of an electoral campaign). A special role in these processes is played by regular updating of the political agenda and the use of a variety of psychological triggers that allow the involvement of social groups of users with different interests.

Third, the study shows that mass protest mobilization with subsequent transfer from online to offline activity traditionally occurs under conditions of a large-scale external trigger. The implementation of such an operational scenario is impossible in the situation of using diffuse reasons for the intensification of public discontent, which was demonstrated by a series of attempts by the Belarusian opposition to intensify the political protest in 2021.

According to the results of the study, it can be argued that the Belarusian opposition movement has implemented an attempt to quickly mobilize civil protests and their enhanced moderation with the help of large digital platforms in popular social media. A prerequisite for the implementation of such a protest scenario is the onset of a bright trigger event for many citizens. Under subsequent conditions, the introduction of such a protest scenario is ineffective and leads to a decline in the information agenda and a decrease in user interest in protest topics in social media.

In Russia, an attempt to implement a similar Belarusian scenario was noticed during political protests in January–February 2021 [33]. In the context of the difficult political and socioeconomic situation in Russia, caused by the intensification of the global information confrontation and the ongoing external information pressure on Russian users, the threat of using such technologies to mobilize protest movements in Russia remains. Electoral processes can also become the basis for protest mobilization: both the upcoming regional elections and the federal presidential campaign in 2024. In this regard, the need to analyze the experience of law enforcement agencies in nonviolent prevention of protest activity and effective work with digital information flows becomes relevant.

One of the promising areas is the development of a model for countering mass protest mobilization based on preventing the spread of radical political discourses in the digital space.