Peaceful protesters who poured onto the streets of the capital, Minsk, and other cities were met with stun grenades, rubber bullets and beatings from police. The opposition candidate, schoolteacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, left for Lithuania — under duress, her campaign said — and authorities shut off the internet, leaving Belarusians with almost no access to independent online news outlets or social media and protesters seemingly without a leader. That’s where Telegram — which often remains available despite internet outages, touts the security of messages shared in the app and has been used in other protest movements — came in. Some of its channels helped unconnected, scattered rallies mature into well-coordinated action.
The people who run the channels, which used to offer political news, now post updates, videos and photos of the turmoil sent in from users, locations of heavy police presence, contacts of human rights activists and calls for new demonstrations — something Belarusian opposition leaders have refrained from doing publicly themselves. Tens of thousands of people all across the country have responded to those calls. In a matter of days, the channels — NEXTA, NEXTA Live and Belarus of the Brain are the most popular — have become the main method for facilitating the protests, said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian analyst and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The fate of the country has never depended so much on one [piece] of technology,” Viacorka said.