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Belarusian Social-Media Pages Get A Suspiciously Russian Makeover

VK was founded as VKontakte in 2006 by entrepreneur Pavel Durov, who left the company in 2014 and then the country after conflict with the Russian government over the network, which was then taken over by
VK was founded as VKontakte in 2006 by entrepreneur Pavel Durov, who left the company in 2014 and then the country after conflict with the Russian government over the network, which was then taken over by

With some 136,000 members, the This Is Homel, Baby! group on the social-media site VK is the most popular online community serving the southwestern Belarusian city, about 40 kilometers from the border with Ukraine and 110 kilometers north of the major Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.

During the national wave of unrest that followed the disputed 2020 presidential election and prompted an often-brutal crackdown by the government of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka, This Is Homel, Baby! published material backing the protesters and criticizing the police and the state.

After the protests died down and opposition leaders were either driven from the country or imprisoned, the Homel group took on a more neutral tone, focusing on local issues like the poor condition of the roads and broken streetlights. Occasionally, a pro-government post appeared as well.

But in the middle of March, subscribers logged on to discover that the page had been rebranded as Homel -- The Main Thing!

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"The page had an owner and he sold it," a former administrator of the group told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on condition of anonymity. "The new owner fired all the editors and administrators. Now he is either doing everything himself or has brought in his own people."

Similar stories have been developing in many of Belarus's largest cities. Popular local-news groups in Vitsebsk, Mahilyou, Zhlobin, Orsha, and other cities have similarly been relaunched under the banner of The Main Thing! Their online histories show they were created in various years dating back to 2012, but all of them took their new names around the middle of March.

Russia-based VK, the third-most-visited site in Belarus, does not publicly release information about the owners of the groups it hosts, and RFE/RL has been unable to determine who the new owner or owners might be or even whether the new groups share common ownership.

However, some in Belarus see Russia's hand in the takeover of their local social-media communities. In 2021, a VK group called Moscow -- The Main Thing! was created, and it has since accumulated more than 550,000 subscribers. In January, a popular community in St. Petersburg was rebranded as St. Petersburg -- The Main Thing! as well.

Warsaw-based media analyst Paulyuk Bykouski says the takeover of such groups could be a stealthy way of shaping public opinion in Belarus.

"Certain narratives are better promoted through social networks than through traditional media," Bykouski said. "If a certain task is set, it can be easier to do the necessary 'seeding' on the platforms of active communities and bloggers."

Typically, he adds, the initial changes to such communities are small and seem innocuous. "Little by little, administrators and bloggers add what they want into the conversation," Bykouski explained. "This is a common tactic in marketing, both commercial and political."

In addition, he says, it's relatively easy to control and manipulate such groups without attracting much attention.

'Have A Conscience'

All of the new The Main Thing! pages in Belarus follow the pattern that has been mapped out by their doppelgangers in Russia. Every morning a post appears reading, "Good morning, Homel!" or "Good morning, Orsha!" It then presents a handful of interesting facts about that date, such as that on April 25, 1901, the first automobile license plate was issued in New York, or that April 25 was World Penguin Day.

Other posts throughout the day focus on local news, with occasional posts from state-controlled national media reporting, for instance, that Lukashenka attended Easter Mass.

An April 25 post on the Vitsebsk page gave interesting "facts" about Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's supposedly prodigious memory. "He easily read two or three books a day and could reproduce their contents years later," the advertisement claims before trying to sell a self-proclaimed memory-training course.

On the Zhlobin page, an April 4 post about recent flooding received an accusation of plagiarism from the local newspaper Novy dzen: "Guys, if you take a text from the site of Novy dzen, at least say where you got it from. Have a conscience."

The paper also commented that the photograph accompanying the post didn't even show Zhlobin (see below).

Other commentators on the page were dismayed by the large quantities of reports from other cities, particularly Homel.

"Don't you have anything else to write about?" one disgruntled subscriber wrote.

'A Serious Player Has Entered Our Midst'

An administrator of a rival local-news page on VK in Homel told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity he believes a "serious player" has entered the Belarusian media space.

"It is interesting that the new owners have removed all the content that previously appeared on the pages," the source said. "[In Homel], it dates back to 2012. It gives the impression this is a whole new group, but it really isn't."

"The VK rules don't make it easy to legally change the names of groups," he added. "In this case, it is clear a serious player has entered our midst. And his actions were likely assisted by VK. Usually, violations of their rules are harshly punished."

The source also said the price of a community-oriented VK page is normally about $1,000 per 20,000 subscribers, while a community of 50,000 subscribers can earn around $500 a month in advertising.

"That is why it is surprising for me that the owners of these pages all sold them," he said. "I think that maybe they didn't sell willingly. Maybe they were just pushed away."

He says investors are usually wary of such pages because of the possible consequences of political missteps. "If you write something 'extremist,' [the authorities] come immediately," he said. "So why bother?"

In February, the administrator of a VK community called For A Single State Language In Belarus, Uladzimer Butskavets, was sentenced by a Homel court to three years in prison after his group was deemed "extremist" by the government.

'Intentional, Coordinated Work'

Media analyst Bykouski says Russia has a history of suspected manipulation in Belarus's social-media communities.

"In 2019 and early 2020, when relations between Minsk and Moscow were relatively bad, we counted about 40 websites in Minsk and other cities that could have connections to the Russian Embassy or Rossotrudnichestvo," he said, referring to Russia's state agency for international aid and humanitarian cooperation, which has long been dogged by accusations of meddling and espionage. "It was a whole network run from one location."

"Groups and communities on social networks are more difficult to track," he continued. "But when you examine what is expressed in some groups or by some bloggers, it appears to be not just their opinions but some intentional, coordinated work. The pro-Russian presence in Belarus is now working on the ideological justification of Russia's war against Ukraine."

VK was founded as VKontakte in 2006 by entrepreneur Pavel Durov. In April 2014, amid conflict with the Russian government over his refusal to disclose private information about pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine or to block the activity of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, Durov quit the company, claiming publicly it had come under the control of people connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Durov left Russia, and VK came under the control of

Earlier this year, at the request of the Belarusian government, VK blocked the pages of RFE/RL's Belarus Service and a number of other independent Belarusian media outlets, human rights organizations, and public initiatives on the territory of Belarus.

Adapted by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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