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22. 11. 2021

Facebook’s Role in Sustaining Lukashenko’s Migration Offensive

As the migration emergency on Belarus’ borders with Poland and Lithuania continues to intensify, and with the European Union accusing Alexander Lukashenko of purposely engineering the crisis in retaliation against EU sanctions, questions have arisen as to the means of mobilization. How has one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships managed to lure thousands of predominantly Iraqi and Syrian migrants to the country, on false assurances of passage into Europe?

Previous reporting has traced the process by which migrants have traveled to Belarus from the Middle East and alluded to the role of social media in the organization of these efforts (including the migrants’ fateful march from Minsk to the Polish border on November 8). Largely absent from this coverage, however, has been the key role of social media — and especially Facebook — in facilitating the coordination of human smuggling from Belarus to the European Union.

New social media research by Semantic Visions fills this gap, illustrating in vivid detail how human smugglers, often in connection with travel agencies in the Middle East that work with Belarusian authorities to procure visas for migrants, are using social media to perpetuate and profit from this crisis. Since the end of July, Facebook in particular has become a key coordination hub for this activity. Yet despite months of mounting evidence of this abuse of its platform, Facebook (now rebranded “Meta”) has failed to intervene. It is yet another example of the company’s long standing track record of passive complicity in international humanitarian abuses by failing to monitor its service and uphold safety standards in non-English languages, which enables the exploitation of its platform by pernicious actors.

The following summary of findings is based on extensive real-time monitoring of Arabic-language social media activity pertaining to the Belarus-EU migration route since July 2021, focusing on Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, TikTok, and WhatsApp.

  • Facebook is the leading social media platform for public information-sharing about the Belarus-EU migration route, including smuggling.Over the last several months, tens of Facebook groups have popped up — some of them gaining thousands of new members every week — that are explicitly set up for this purpose. Smugglers regularly advertise their services in these groups, sometimes even posting “thank you” video testimonials from migrants they claim to have successfully brought to Germany (the widely preferred EU destination). For instance, a private group titled “Migration of the powerful from Belarus to Europe” exploded from 13,600 members in early September to 30,600 currently. Another group, “Belarus Online,” grew from 7,700 members to 26,500 during the same period. While there is similar activity on Telegram as well, it does not compare to Facebook in terms of the quantity of this content and user numbers.

  • Furthermore, the quality of information being shared on Facebook about the Belarus-EU route has been growing increasingly detailed and sophisticated, particularly since October. As more people have made the journey to Belarus and attempted to cross the border, the specificity of their information has increased and their knowledge-sharing has become more collaborative. For example, this includes detailed explanations and instructions of how to obtain Belarusian visas through travel agencies in the Middle East, arrange travel and accommodation in Minsk, “book” smugglers for passage to Germany, prepare for the border crossing (including the best places to cross), and evade police detection while navigating the forest to reach the designated smuggling pickup points. Contact information for smugglers and advertisements for Belarusian travel visas continue to be widely shared in the monitored groups. Smugglers openly provide their phone numbers and promote their services to bring people from Belarus to Western Europe (namely Germany).

  • EU migration-oriented Arabic-language groups and channels on Facebook and Telegram continued to gain hundreds or even thousands of members on a weekly basis. A handful of the most prominent Facebook groups has have now been deactivated in what looks like an attempt by the company to crack down on this activity following greater media scrutiny over the last couple of weeks. However, this is a drop in the bucket compared to what remains available.

  • The evidence from Semantic Visions’ monitoring supports official assessments that Belarusian troops are actively provoking border breaches by helping migrants cross into Poland and Lithuania, for instance by bringing them to areas of the border that have fewer patrols by EU forces, equipping them with tools to break through barbed-wire fences, and forcing them into the forest to cross the border illegally, even in cases when migrants themselves have wanted to appeal for asylum at official border crossings. Moreover, as Poland became the preferred target for migrants to enter the EU due to easier access and smuggling into Germany, there are testimonials confirming that Belarusian forces purposely transferred migrants from the Polish border to the Lithuanian border, thus maintaining broader pressure on its EU neighbors. 

  • At the time of publication, online activity and interest surrounding migration to the EU via Belarus had not diminished in significant measure across the spectrum of monitored social media. Despite the scenes of chaos and tragedy at the Belarusian-Polish border, offers for Belarusian visas and smuggling continue to circulate. As long as the Lukashenko regime continues to allow migrants into the country, we should anticipate that they will continue arriving with misplaced hopes of making it to the EU and receiving asylum. In many cases, they will turn to smugglers for help. There is therefore a risk that the Belarus-EU migration route may become “normalized” in the coming months, as happened with Greece in the aftermath of the 2015 migration crisis. The extent to which this happens will depend in the first place on Lukashenko, but social media platforms will also be liable. European authorities, including the EU Commission, should take this into account in their preparation of digital regulatory legislation. 

For a detailed summary of these findings, read the full report.

Read The New York Times story featuring this research, here.

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