Essays Self-Censorship among political bloggers in Belarus and Russia To make yourself heard, with minimal risk to yourself and your loved ones, that is the challenge

Awareness of potential political sanctions can stop social media users from expressing critical and open political views for the sake of personal security. This essay focuses on political bloggers in Belarus and Russia as political opinion leaders who have become more frequent targets of these regimes in recent years. The essay presents the results of a survey on perception and practices of self-censorship conducted among 61 well-known political bloggers in Russia and Belarus and discusses them in relation to the theory of the spiral of silence.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:125-130
Published on on October 8, 2020

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Awareness of potential political sanctions can stop social media users from expressing critical and open political views for the sake of personal security. This essay focuses on political bloggers in Belarus and Russia as political opinion leaders who have become more frequent targets of these regimes in recent years. The essay presents the results of a survey on perception and practices of self-censorship conducted among 61 well-known political bloggers in Russia and Belarus and discusses them in relation to the theory of the spiral of silence. 

KEYWORDS: Bloggers, spiral of silence, censorship, autocratic regimes.

Belarus and Russia are electoral autocracies that have been governed by the non-democratic leaders, Lukashenka and Putin, respectively, for more than 20 years. Both regimes practice election fraud, human rights violations, limit freedom of expression and prevent political opponents from gaining popularity and influencing their political agendas.

Censorship of the printed media and propaganda distributed through official media channels allowed social media to gain particular significance during political and social protests in Russia from 2011 to 2012, 2019, and in Belarus in 2010, 2017 and 2020. During the protests, social media impacted the mobilization of people and also raised the awareness of political and civil rights violations, corruption and foreign policy. The growing popularity of political blogs rapidly led to the increased attention from the Belarusian and Russian authorities. Thus, surveillance tactics and Internet controls such as filtering, blocking of websites and crackdowns on independent media and individual political bloggers have been increasingly present in Belarus and Russia in recent years.

To illustrate this, 875 court cases related to social media publications, comments and reposts were recorded in Russia by the Black Screen Report in the period 2014—2019. In turn, the Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked more than 500 informational sources over a period of three years.

Openly criticizing authorities causes certain individuals to escape from a country, as in the case of Russian political blogger, Thumso Abdurakhmanov, or Belarusian social media celebrity, Stsiapan Sviatlou, known as NEXTA. Other individuals face administrative or criminal persecution, such as the Russian, Yegor Zhukov,  or the Belarusian, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who, being a famous political vlogger, expressed an interest in running for president in May 2020.

On the one hand, political bloggers in an autocracy enjoy more freedom than oppositional or independent journalists as they do not fall directly under the jurisdiction of media legislation. On the other hand, autocracies continuously develop their repressive tactics and succeed in preventing certain political publishers on social media from continuing to blog. Awareness of a regime’s control is rising with an increasing number of reported cases of political bloggers being threatened or detained. It would be interesting to establish whether political bloggers a) are aware of the potential threats related to their activism; b) practice self-censorship in order to avoid political sanctions; c) continue blogging without practicing self-censorship, although they are aware of the political pressure and the consequences they might face.

Political bloggers: who are they?

Political bloggers combine the roles of individual social media users, political activists and journalists. They make publishing decisions themselves and often work individually without editorial revisions. They also have significantly more subscribers and viewers compared to ordinary social media users. They operate online, interacting with their audience, and are not necessarily aiming to achieve political goals.

Political bloggers have been described as citizen journalists, new journalists, online intellectuals, microcelebrity activists. They rely on an audience that is more politically engaged than the readers of traditional media and are willing to take on  the following functions: information providers, watchdogs of conventional media, political advocacy, charity promotion. In autocracies, political blogs serve as an alternative source of information since trust in state-controlled media is low.

The audience of political bloggers in Belarus and Russia is mainly reached via Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and YouTube, although Vkontakte is the most popular social media network in both countries. Telegram gained particular popularity after it refused to provide the Russian secret services with its users’ encrypted data. In the report “Media in Belarus 2020”  (“Медиа в Беларуси 2020”), Telegram was described as “Platform of the Year”.

The political bloggers in my study are referred to as “individuals or groups of individuals who facilitate online political discussion by a) informing their audience, sharing political opinions and/or b) serving as watchdogs of the ruling elites and pro-governmental media, and/or c) advocating political issues and/or d) political charity promotion”.

A textual analysis of 99 posts in Telegram and Facebook over a period of two weeks demonstrated that political bloggers provided readers with either first-hand information, personal opinion on political issues, or encouraged readers to engage in charitable or political issues. Also, political bloggers made critical observations about presidents Lukashenka and Putin, human rights violations, lack of justice, and the repression of dissidents. At the same time, topics such as the environment, church and gender were less covered.

What regulates the blogosphere?

For autocracies, legal prosecution is an effective method

of hard censorship. In countries such as Belarus and Russia, political dissidents are often charged with actions that are not related to their activism but are instead triggered by it. For example, Ivan Golunov (charged with drug possession based on false evidence), Stsiapan Sviatlou (defamation of the president), Siarhei Piatruhin (abusing police officers). Political bloggers and independent journalists, however, have more often been prosecuted under media laws, laws on counter-extremism, as well as criminal codes.

Since an amendment to the Belarusian media law in 2018, Belarusian “network editions” can register as media channels. On the one hand, registration as a media channel guarantees a media license and an easier accreditation procedure for attending press conferences or official meetings. On the other hand, online media, including blogs, risk having their working rights violated or being charged with illegal media content production.

According to the SOVA center, 96% of prosecutions under article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code are related to individual or group publishers rather than the media. An amendment to the Law on Information, Information Technology and Protection of Information requires “communication platforms” to share data on identified readers with the Federal Security Service. Further, the law (art. 15.3) allows state bodies to require immediate blocking of websites if they contain information on drugs, suicides, extremism and calls to unsanctioned manifestations.

The formulation of laws in Belarus is generally vague, allowing responsible bodies to make a broader interpretation. Even though the laws describe the obligations of those who publish in “network editions,” they barely specify the rights and freedoms guaranteed by such laws. Moreover, political bloggers are often treated as media channels that face the same obligations, even though the laws do not place bloggers in the category of media channels. Several human rights initiatives have strongly criticized these laws as being restrictive and impacting freedom of speech. Media laws in Belarus and Russia place bloggers under the potential risk of either being subjected to administrative charges for producing content as unregistered media, or being prosecuted under the extremism articles of the Criminal Code.

Self-censorship as an individual decision

Noelle-Neumann suggested that individuals tend to assess the social environment and decide on whether they are ready to express their opinions. They weigh this against the fear of being socially isolated if they express unpopular views and risk being stigmatized as radical if they dare to speak out. This results in a spiral of silence that unfolds when more and more individuals stay quiet because of their fear of social isolation. Although the author didn’t discuss the notion of self-censorship, it became one of the first theories to introduce the process of self-censorship from a societal perspective.

Chen followed Noelle-Neumann and utilized a spiral of silence theory to examine self-censorship trends in social media during the election in Hong Kong. The author defined self-censorship as “decreasing and limiting expressive behaviors” and demonstrating “withdrawal behaviors (deleting, editing, untagging).” Chen concluded that when social media users discuss politics, they tend to practice one of the forms of self-censorship, taking into account the publicness of their opinions.

In autocracies, self-censorship is not only caused by fear of social isolation but also by a political regime. Schimpfossl and Yablokov conducted a study among Russian journalists and highlighted that they are aware of potential sanctions for expressing critical opinions and often practice self-censorship, for example, by avoiding to mention specific topics or events.

When studying self-censorship, it is vital to distinguish it from censorship as the latter refers to decisions made by publishers, editors or statutory regulations, while the former is motivated by an individual choice to resist expressing an opinion. This choice can be made based on the cultural or political environment and the fear of social isolation. Parks and Mukhrjee make another essential observation claiming that self-censorship is often an unconscious act.

Thus, self-censorship is a complicated phenomenon, both challenging to operationalize and challenging to measure. In the survey presented in this essay, the respondents were asked several questions related to expressive behaviors (such as whether they avoided particular topics or names when writing a social media post, or whether they used less critical language), as well as withdrawal behaviors (such as whether they edit political content by deleting, untagging, etc.).

Self-censorship and political bloggers: survey results

The web survey was directed at political bloggers in Belarus and Russia with more than 1000 subscribers who published political content on their personal pages/blogs/channels in social media. The questionnaire was conducted from March to May 2020. 61 political bloggers from Belarus and Russia responded to the survey (47.6% response rate).

Many bloggers described their self-censorship as being the result of the political situation in their country. Some bloggers stated that political correctness and unspoken rules or social media culture often increased their motivation to self-censor.

I am quite a calm and gentle person, Thus, my posts usually have a calm and sustained tone with no extremist and foul language. At the same time, I clearly understand that I will never write anything about Ramzan Kadyrov, for example <…>. Also, it would be pointless if I fought with him for the sake of a few words. This of course relates to the political situation in the country.

Awareness of sanctions following political posts in social media is relatively high. Thus, 44.3% of bloggers are certain that their social media activities could lead to increased attention from the secret services, while 42.6% associate the publishing of political content with potential sentences.

When asked whether they had any experience of being sanctioned because of their political content in social media, the bloggers in Belarus and Russia described such punishments as criminal charges, administrative charges, online threats, attention from the secret services, as well as the forceful blocking of publications (see Figure 1). Also, according to the survey, the experience of being sanctioned even with criminal charges had a weak association with the desire to self-censor.

Different forms of self-censorship were addressed and analyzed by the respondents. For example, only 13.1% reported that they toned down their language and avoided naming events and people. Only one respondent out of 61 indicated an unwillingness to criticize a president, while other respondents were ready to discuss Putin and Lukashenka relatively openly. However, when analyzing political blogs, I noted that bloggers tended to replace the names of presidents with synonyms or nicknames, such as “tsar” or “them up there”. This could be regarded as another form of self-censorship.

Post-publishing self-censorship did not often occur among respondents with regard to editing publications because of safety concerns. The analysis showed there was no particular association between the number of followers and self-censorship practices.

44% of the respondents were not certain whether their political posts on social media might attract the attention of the secret services. In the case of Russia, legislation explicitly specifies the role of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in managing political content online. At the same time, the formal absence of the KGB from Belarusian law complicates the application of the law as the secret services act as invisible agents but actively contribute to exposing, communicating with and threatening political dissidents.

Three stages of self-censorship

Based on the study results, three main factors influenced the motivation to self-censor — legislation and its application, community ethics/social media culture/fear of social isolation, as well as fear of political sanctions. At the same time, self-censorship can be caused by other factors that are better addressed through interviews with political bloggers and are highly recommended for future research.

Based on the survey of political bloggers in Belarus and Russia and the definition of self-censorship proposed by Chen, I suggest a three-stage model of self-censorship. The first stage involves an assessment of whether it is safe to discuss specific topics or people. Secondly, language is selected and the level of criticism is determined. In the last stage, post-publication, the content producer edits the publication by rereading, toning down the language, deleting names, or replacing them with synonyms.

The highest degree of self-censorship was demonstrated at the pre-publishing stage when political bloggers assessed whether it was safe to discuss specific people or topics. According to the survey, fewer incentives to self-censor emerged during the post-publishing stage, as concerns about personal safety barely influenced decisions to adjust political content on social media.

As previously mentioned, it was noteworthy that experience of political sanctions had no association with a willingness to self-censor, either regarding expressive behaviors or withdrawal behaviors.

Can bloggers crack down on the spiral of silence?

The spiral of silence described by Noelle-Neumann can be adapted in order to explain self-censorship in autocratic regimes, as suggested in the model below (see Figure 3). An autocratic political system leads to the emergence of prohibited topics that many bloggers will be too afraid to cover. As a result, increasingly fewer individuals express their genuine opinions because of the fear of political sanctions. The more that people face political pressure from a regime for critically speaking out, the more the spiral of silence unfolds, affecting more groups of society.

Political bloggers in autocracies stand out as those who aim to crack down on the spiral of silence. Due to the factors mentioned above, thus far, they enjoy relative freedom of expression online. Despite attempts by regimes to minimize the influence of political bloggers by imprisoning some of them or blocking their content, the number of bloggers is rising, as well as the number of political topics that regimes tolerate. The more that political bloggers emerge, the greater the opportunities to eliminate the spiral of silence because of a) the limited control resources of modern autocracies; b) the impracticality of arresting every dissident. The mobilization potential of political bloggers has been regarded as relatively low due to the weak culture of political protests in Belarus and Russia. Thus, autocracies may end up underestimating the effect of political blogs in offline protests. Demonstrations and rallies during summer 2020 in Belarus, coordinated through social media, including numerous political blogs, prove that political bloggers have the chance to use a window of opportunity to inform and educate society and broaden forms of political discussion in autocracies.

Note: This article is based on findings from the study conducted for the thesis, “Why do bloggers keep silent? Self-censorship in social media: cases of Belarus and Russia” in 2020 at Södertörn University. The figures and tables are from the same source.


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  2. Yegor Zhukov “Wants to Be Russia’s President One Day”. The Moscow Times, Accessed June 17, 2020, to-be-russias-president-one-day-a68597.
  3. Chris Atton, “Alternative and citizen journalism,” in The Handbook of Journalism Studies, ed. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch (New York: Routledge, 2009): 265—278.
  4. Zeynep Tufekci, “‘Not This One’: Social Movements, the Attention Economy, and Microcelebrity Networked Activism”. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(7), (2013): 848—870.
  5. Barbie Zelizer “Journalism and the Academy”, in The Handbook of Journalism Studies, ed. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch (New York: Routledge, 2009): 29—41.
  6. Laura McKenna and Antoinette Pole, “What do bloggers do: an average day on an average political blog”. Public Choice, 134(1), (2008): 97—108.
  7. Andrey Aleksandrov and Andrey Bastunets, “Media v Belarusi 2020,” Belarusian Association of Journalists.Accessed June 17, 2020, files/2020/report_media2020_rus.pdf.
  8. Alesia Rudnik, “Why do bloggers keep silent? Self-censorship in social media: cases of Belarus and Russia” (MA thesis, University of Södertörn, 2020). Accessed June 20, 2020, from, 11.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Walid Al-Saqaf, “Internet Censorship Circumvention Tools: Escaping the Control of the Syrian Regime.” Media and Communication, 4(1), (2016): 39—50.
  11. “O Sredstvah Massovoj Informacii (No128.3, 2008, 2018)”. Accessed June 16, 2020, http://Mininform.Gov.By/Upload/Iblock/8dc/ 8dca9553743c798b828f2f980aa15248.Pdf.; “Popravki V Zakon O Smi: Registratsija Internet-izdanij, Identifikatsiya Komentatorov, Blokirovka Setej”, Belarusian Association of Journalists. Accessed June 16, 2020, Https://Baj.By/Be/Content/Popravki-v-zakon-o-smi-registraciya-internet-izdaniy-identi- fikaciya-kommentatorov-blokirovka.
  12. ”Narushenije Zakonodatelstva o Sredstvah massovoj informatsii”, Kodeks Respubliki Belarus ob administrative nyhpravona rushenijah vol. 22, no. 9:193—194. Accessed June 16, 2020,
  13. The Criminal Code of the Russian Federation: Article 281.1– Article 282.2, (1996), 144—145.

  14. “Federlnij Zakon ‘Ob Infromacii, Informacionnih Technologijah I Zashchite
    Informacii’ (31— F3)”. Accessed June 16, 2020,
  15. Ibid.
  16. Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, “The Spiral of Silence a Theory of Public Opinion”, Journal of Communication. Vol. 24, no. 2, (1974): 43—51.
  17. Hsuan-Ting Chen, “Spiral of silence on social media and the moderating role of disagreement and publicness in the network: Analyzing expressive and withdrawal behaviors,” New Media & Society, 20:10, (2018), 3917—3936.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Elisabeth Schimpfossl and Ilya Yablokov, “Coercion of conformism? Censorship and self-censorship among Russian media personalities and reporters in the 2010s”. Demokratizatsiya, vol. 22, no. 2, (2014): 295—311.
  20. Lisa Parks and Rahul Mukherjee, “From platform jumping to self-censorship: internet freedom, social media, and circumvention practices in Zambia”, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, (2017): 221—237.
  • by Alesia Rudnik

    PhD-candidate in Political Science at Karlstad University, and a research fellow at the Belarusian think-tank in exile Center for New Ideas.

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