In this year of revolutions, there has been much debate about what role social networks have played in marshalling and coordinating discontent and protests. In Belarus, where I spent last week reporting on the growing protest mood inside "Europe's last dictatorship", it's clear that Twitter and other social networks are playing a huge role. I found this out for myself, when I discovered that people had made a clone of my own Twitter account and were using it to spew out nonsense about Belarus.
On Sunday I was at one of the regular "clapping" protests in Minsk, where people unhappy at dictator Alexander Lukashenko's regime mobilise online and arrange to meet in a particular location and simply clap their hands. The protest was crushed by plain-clothed thugs, who waded in and threw people at random into military trucks. Most of those arrested were given a fine, some were given 15 days in prison.
As the events unfolded on the square, the ruthlessness of the police shocked me, and as there were few international journalists present, I started tweeting what I was seeing. Clearly, this was noticed. On Wednesday evening, while the latest protests in Belarus ended up with another 400 people detained, a certain Shaun Walker was tweeting like crazy. Someone had stolen the photograph of me from my real Twitter account, @shaunwalker7, and set up a clone account, @shaunnwalker. The fake "me" spent the two-hour protest period on Wednesday evening spewing out nonsense tweets and false information in Russian, at a rate of about one per minute. "The police have been allowed to use rubber bullets," my clone account informed people at one point. "Everyone should go home, most of the coordinators have been arrested," the account said a little later.
There were other fake accounts, too. One that imitated a leading news agency informed the world that the police were behaving excellently, and that the protests were tiny and insignificant. As well as simply spreading false information, the rapid tweeting seemed designed to flummox protesters. Each tweet contained the "hashtags" that Belarusian activists were using to search for information about the protests. So when protesters typed in #6julby or #minsk, to find out where they should go and what was happening, instead of receiving reliable information from other protesters, their phone screens were full of unhelpful nonsense from "Shaun Walker" and the other fake tweeters.
Yesterday I spoke on the telephone to Vyacheslav Diyanov, one of the main co-ordinators of the protests, who is in hiding in Poland. The group he set up on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, has more than 200,000 members, and was temporarily blocked by the site administrators after pressure from the Belarusian authorities. "The KGB [Belarusian security services] know exactly what they're doing," he said. "They have stolen people's passwords using phishing, to post false messages; they've created hundreds of fake accounts, and they've spammed all of our groups."
Those organisers remaining in Minsk have received visits from KGB agents, said Diyanov. Some have been threatened with being kicked out of university and prison sentences. For me, the appearance of the fake Shaun Walker Twitter account is a rather amusing, even flattering episode. But for those activists remaining in Belarus, the internet interference is an altogether more serious matter.Reuse content