In a recent YouTube video ad, a man named Sergei Dalivelia sits on a wooden chair, his hands tied behind his back. He looks straight to camera and, in a shaky voice, apologizes for criticizing the government of Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko. “I posted offensive comments online,” he said. “I very much regret this. I regret that I wrote this without thinking.” Clicking on the ad took the viewer to a pro-government Telegram channel titled Zheltye Slivy. 

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has referred to himself as “Europe’s last dictator.” However, over the past 18 months, historic demonstrations have rocked the country. Beginning in the lead-up to the August 2020 presidential election, the protest movement reached a peak when Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with a landslide 80% of the vote. Numerous countries and international bodies, including the United States and the European Union, refused to accept the result, alleging widespread fraud and repression.

The Belarusian regime launched a swift crackdown on opposition voices. Over the past year, more than 35,000 people have been arbitrarily detained. Similar filmed confessions have provided a chilling illustration of the state’s zero-tolerance policy on dissent.

This is not the first time such footage has appeared as a YouTube ad. On May 23, a plane carrying the Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Minsk after a report of explosives on board. Protasevich was promptly arrested and, the next day, filmed stating that he instigated anti-government protests. The video, in which the 26-year-old appeared dazed and distressed, was broadcast on Belarusian state TV. 

Immediately, the footage appeared on YouTube as an ad. A similar video of his girlfriend Sofia Sapega was also promoted on the platform. According to screenshots, both appear to direct viewers to the Zheltye Slivy Telegram channel. The online news organization Rest of World reported that the ads appeared to have been paid for by a pro-government YouTube channel.

YouTube promptly removed the ads of Protasevich and Sapega, but in the months since, similar footage of other young Belarusians has appeared on the platform, repurposed as advertisements, a number of times. So, why does this keep happening and what does YouTube plan to do about it? 

From to rare free space to tool for oppression 

According the Belarusian journalist and Atlantic Council fellow Hanna Liubakova, YouTube ads provide Lukashenko’s government with a powerful tool to control the narrative surrounding the protests. 

“All media in Belarus is either banned or pushed out. YouTube is one of those services where media is actually able to publish, and that’s how many people in the regions may get access to independent information,” she said.  

The ads can also be viewed as an attempt to intimidate opposition voices and a show of strength by the regime. By allowing them to be shown on the platform, YouTube is “legitimizing the regime’s actions,” Liubakova added. 

How does this keep happening?

It is not clear how content of this nature continues to make it through YouTube’s approval process. The review system, which is run by Google, the platform’s parent company, should flag material that violates its terms of service, including  “bullying or intimidation of an individual or group.”

“I think that there was just a lack of moderation,”Liubakova said. “Or they just closed their eyes and ignored the fact that these ads are related to the regime and security forces.” 

According to Anastasiya Zhyrmont of the global digital rights organization Access Now, YouTube needs to be much more transparent and consistent as to what does and does not violate its policies. If Protasevich’s purported confession video was determined to violate the platform’s guidelines, she said, “others should be considered the same.”

What does YouTube have to say?

“YouTube has always had strict policies around the type of content that is allowed to serve as ads on our platform. We quickly remove any ads that violate these policies,” said a company spokesperson in response to questions for this story. According to Google, YouTube has taken action against the ad featuring Dalivelia, according to its inappropriate content policies.