New sociology for the new Belarus: how not to get trapped in an echo chamber

New sociology for the new Belarus: how not to get trapped in an echo chamber

Is there a place in sociology for online panels and why “poll” was needed before the All-Belarusian people’s Assembly

On February 24, 2021, Belarus in Focus weekly analytical monitoring, in partnership with the Press Club, the “Our Opinion” expert community of Belarus and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), held an international online meeting to discuss the role of sociology in understanding what is happening in Belarus.

The main speakers were sociologists and researchers:

  • Andrei Vardomatsky is a doctor of sociology and the founder and director of the NOVAK laboratory;
  • Oksana Shelest is a PhD candidate in sociology, senior analyst at the Center for European Transformation, and head of the “Voice of the Street” project;
  • Hienadz Korshunau is a PhD candidate in sociology, former director of the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, and a researcher in the Department of Social Sciences of the EHU;
  • Wojciech Konończuk is deputy director of the Center for Oriental Studies (OSW), Warsaw.

Representatives of international organisations and diplomatic corps, analysts and journalists: Filip Bikanau, Yury Drakakhrust and others also participated in the expert-analytical club meeting.

Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club) moderated the discussion.

Soundbites from the discussion

  • “We decided to work with sociology, it didn’t work out, but it’s still better than truncheons” (Andrei Vardomatsky);
  • “The forms of protest are changing, but people have not given up on achieving change” (Oxana Shelest);
  • “A sociological special operation; an attempt to appease the power vertical” (Hienadz Korshunau);
  • “A society that is in the process of such rapid changes is challenging to investigate” ( Wojciech Konończuk ).

Most important things we learned about the changes in Belarusian society thanks to sociology

A radical change in media behaviour

Andrei Vardomatsky draws attention to the change in the hierarchy of media trust in Belarus. If earlier they trusted the Russian media most of all, then the state media and least of all the non-state media, now it is the other way around. There has been an increase in trust in non-state media, and state outlets are viewed with suspicion. Besides, the transition to and mobilisation of online chat has radically altered the flow of information. Horizontal ties have dramatically strengthened with people’s active contacts increasing from 8-10 on average to 30-40.

Crucial transformations in perception of ethics

Hienadz Korshunau draws attention to the World Values Survey data, which records long-term changes in values perception. If it were not for these processes, there would be no nomination of independent electoral candidates. Earlier, Piotr Rudkouski described the Belarusian data of the 7th edition of the World Values Survey: “The most significant change was growth in self-confidence. Learned helplessness giving way to autonomous action.”

No leaders, focus on positive

If after December 19, 2010, Minsk had already given up and moved on, Andrei Vardomatsky draws attention to the fact that in 2020 up to 80% of the protesters were committed to long-term action. Instead of asking for a well-known leader to hand – like Lenin on an armoured car or Walesa at the barricades – the Belarusian protesters organised themselves. In the autumn, new leaders appeared every day, and instead of looking for reasons to do nothing, they went out to protest for positive charge. Oksana Shelest believes that the essence of the protests has not changed: “the forms of action are changing, but people have not lost their appetite for change.”

Both old and young

Andrei Vardomatsky notices an interesting symmetry in the demographics of protesters in Belarus: young (18-29) and older (56+) citizens are both represented at a frequency of about 20%, and the educational level of the protesters averages one third higher than the national average.

 Wojciech Konończuk draws attention to the effects of generational change: since 2010, more than a million Belarusians have joined the electoral roll, and a similar number have left; these are generations with very different values.

Development revolution

Oksana Shelest noted that in the “Voice of the Streets” poll, one of the main factors motivating protesters was the obstacles to their ambitions created by the state system’s delays. This concerned both IT professionals, kindergarten teachers, and general workers – in all fields, barriers were encountered.

Russia’s image: occupier or migration destination?

A change in perception regarding Russia is slowly but consistently occurring in Belarus, says  Wojciech Konończuk. Although Russia is still perceived as a friendly country, 40% of Belarusians consider it the main threat to Belarus’ territorial integrity. Only 20% harbour such suspicions regarding Poland and Lithuania, despite strident state propaganda regarding the threat from these countries. Wojciech Konończuk attributes this to a change in migration flows: since the Soviet Union, Russia has been the primary destination for Belarusians to travel to earn money, but now more than 40% are focused on Poland, then Western Europe in general, with Russia relegates to third place.

However, Oksana Shelest notes that geopolitics is still not a significant factor in the protest movement, and this is unaffected by the geopolitics of the Kremlin.

Online polls: to be or not to be

Due to the coronavirus and the political crisis, more and more social studies in Belarus are conducted through online panels, giving rise to conflicting results.

Andrei Vardomatsky draws attention to inherent distortions in age and education present in online demographics. Even if an online panel is an accurate sample in terms of socio-demographic parameters, with the Internet, it is impossible to create a balance of “introverts and extroverts who want and do not want to express their opinion.” Additionally, panel members change their media consumption habits because they know that they will be interviewed. As a result, Vardomatsky believes that “the situation is dramatic: we are witnessing the formation of cocoons, which destroys general sociological picture.”

He is opposed by Filip Bikanau, who was recently doing SATIO research via an online panel. He recognises some of the limitations of online surveys but also draws attention to the benefits. For example, a sample of 1,000 people does not appear from anywhere but is selected from a panel of 90,000 participants, who represent the general urban population. As for the fact that not all personality types are prepared to take part in a study, Philip believes that the same is true for in-person surveys, and even more so via telephone.

The benefits of online panels include people’s greater willingness to answer sensitive questions, citing Gallup assessments and the American Association for public opinion research (AAPOR). As a result, Bikanau considers online surveys for Belarus to be an essential method for obtaining figures, not just trends and especially highlights their advantage in surveys of the urban population.

Oksana Shelest agrees with the criticism of Internet research, but not with the drama. She acknowledges the problems as objective, methodical limitations: “Sadly, there’s no way to create perfect polls, but we have to accept this fact, especially when there’s little physical access to field research.”

She considers telephone surveys even worse: in an in-person interview, lack of anonymity is symmetrical (both see each other), on the Internet, anonymity is symmetrical (no one sees), then when interviewed by telephone, there is asymmetry (the researcher knows who they are calling, but the recipient does not personally identify the source), which creates distrust regarding the caller.

Hienadz Korshunau adds that there are various tools, and the important thing is to know what their limitations are. There are distortions in any method of research: “Who in practice records the number of failures in personal surveys?…”   Wojciech Konończuk, looking from the outside, draws attention to the fact that it is difficult in principle to directly study society amid such rapid change. Belarus is experiencing the largest protests in many years on the European continent.

All-Belarusian sociological survey

From a sociological perspective, the discussion participants were sceptical about the “poll” presented before the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly[by the ruling regime]. Hienadz Korshunau responds that it is difficult to understand the study’s systematic basis from the selectively published data and why it was conducted face-to-face if it was developed as a telephone survey. There is also the enormous scale of data collection – a total of 10,000 people allegedly participated in the ‘poll’. As Andrei Vardomatsky notes, although all interviewers were familiar with each other, “there was no indication from the field that something was going on[I.e. that the poll was actually taking place].” It is not clear why such excessive samples were collected; combining two different sampling strategies (territorial and occupational) in one study remains peculiar sociological practice. Oksana Shelest noted that, in the context of an information war, the symmetrical poll by Anton Matolka looked like a good move: “You [the state] have 10,000 unknown to anyone, and we [Matolka] have 100,000 unknown people.”

According to Andrei Vardomatsky, such a survey indicates a search for new technologies to influence society: “We decided to work with sociology, it did not work. Well, it’s better than truncheons.” However, Oksana Shelest points out that it is not the first time that the authorities are trying to present their own point of view as that of the people: “ECOOM comes awake for every election for exactly this reason”. In her opinion, the current situation causes the authorities to feel their lack of legitimacy so acutely that they wanted to support it with a poll in addition to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly.

However, the effect of this government activity turned out to be purely internal. Hienadz Korshunau calls this poll “a sociological special operation – an attempt to buttress the complacency of the power vertical by gathering information reinforcement for itself.” Oksana Shelest draws attention to the fact that according to the stated results, “we can ourselves assess the level of the regime’s confidence in itself”, and even here, they did not dare to claim above 66%, which is a record low ambition.

Text by Vadim Mojeiko


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