Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya holding a photo of her husband Sergei, who is imprisoned in Belarus
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya holding a photo of her husband Sergei, who is imprisoned in Belarus. Image: MCSC

Belarus opposition leader on working with big tech and countering propaganda under dictatorship

MUNICH, GERMANY — Three years ago, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, an activist from Belarus, decided to run for president against the country’s long-standing leader, Alexander Lukashenko. The elections were believed to be rigged; Lukashenko declared himself the winner, and Tsikhanouskaya had to flee the country, as any “treason” to the regime is severely punished — sometimes by death penalty.

Since then, Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile, like almost half a million other Belarusians, trying to fight “Europe’s last dictator” in the digital space.

Tsikhanouskaya has become the face of the Belarusian democratic movement, meeting with global leaders including Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau, and urging them to take action against the dictatorship in Belarus.

Her forced exile after the election inspired peaceful protests in Belarus, with thousands of people calling for the overthrow of Lukashenko’s regime. Unable to return to Belarus, Tsihanouskaya has made significant efforts to maintain visibility online — she has hundreds of thousands of followers across social media platforms like X, YouTube and Telegram.

“We have an information war and it may be our main battlefield,” she told Recorded Future News during the Munich Cyber Security Conference (MCSC) on Thursday.

It is almost impossible to do anything “visible” inside Belarus, since people are afraid of retribution, even for small acts of sabotage. There are already almost 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, and this number is growing every day, Tsikhanouskaya said.

Similar to Russia, independent media in Belarus is labeled as "extremist," and journalists face prosecution. Opposition activists like Tsikhanouskaya, are trying to break through Lukashenko’s censorship wall using digital tools. But there's one caveat — they need global tech companies to help.

Countering propaganda

Countering propaganda in a democratic country is different from countering it in a dictatorship, Tsikhanouskaya said in a talk on the MCSC main stage.

Fact checking and critical thinking are not encouraged by the Belarus regime. In fact, if the country's main security agency, the KGB, discovers that Belarusians follow or support the opposition movement or independent media online, they can be sentenced to up to six years in prison, Tsikhanouskaya said.

For this reason, many Belarussians use two phones — one for KGB checks, and another to read real news rather than state-sponsored propaganda.

Opposition activists are also trying to use all the platforms that are not banned in Belarus, including TikTok and YouTube. “They were once used for entertainment but now it's a political tool,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

The hardships encourage people to become “more creative” when it comes to data access, she added.

But while those opposing the regime attempt to reach an audience inside the country, the dictatorship also learns and uses cyberspace for its benefit, such as attacking the media and spreading fake news.

Lukashenko's propaganda mostly repeats Russian narratives, such as portraying Ukrainians as enemies of Belarus, claiming the West is rotten, and asserting that the future of the Belarusian people lies in Russian hands, according to Tsikhanouskaya.

Most Belarusian-speaking people don't believe this propaganda, she said. Many of them, for example, weren't convinced in 2020 that Lukashenko won the election and flocked to the streets to protest against him.

People in Belarus are actively seeking information, and this is important, Tsikhanouskaya said. They don't merely rely on what state television broadcasts. Instead, they use virtual private networks (VPNs) or burner phones to access authentic news sources.

Working with big tech

Connecting with this proactive audience in Belarus poses no big issue, but influencing opponents and individuals close to Lukashenko, including his apparatus and the military is very difficult, Tsikhanouskaya said.

“We lack assistance and capacity in the media space, and Lukashenko knows that," she added. "He is trying to destroy the media and imprison journalists, so people are afraid to access alternative information."

Belarusian law enforcement is also trying to spread its own propaganda on social media. For example, when the KGB detains people, they coerce them to confess on camera to crimes they haven't committed and then promote these videos online.

Tsikhanouskaya said that her team is in talks with major tech companies like Google, Meta, and TikTok in an effort to limit access to such videos and take other actions against the dictatorship.

Another way big tech can help the opposition is by promoting original Belarusian content in the country's native language instead of Russian.

Because the Belarusian language is not widely popular on the internet, it's difficult for local content to gain traction outside of Belarus since social networks predominantly feature Russian-language content, Tsikhanouskaya said.

“How can we strengthen our language and our national identity if we can’t use them properly on the internet?”

In a digital fight for democracy, “tech companies can be even more powerful than politicians,” according to Tsikhanouskaya.

“The internet is a battlefield, and we have to win there and make all the tech companies be more responsible and carefully watch whom they help,” she said.

READ MORE: Munich Cyber Security Conference 2024 Live Updates

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Daryna Antoniuk

Daryna Antoniuk

is a reporter for Recorded Future News based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyberwar between Ukraine and Russia. She previously was a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published at Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.