In recent days, thousands of people have been taking to the streets in Belarus to protest the results of presidential elections that gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide victory amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging. Authorities have responded with police violence, internet blackouts, and mass detentions of  journalists and protesters.

Meanwhile, Belarusian state-controlled TV channels reported mere “disorders” (беспорядки) in the streets orchestrated by “foreign organisers,” along with reports about the start of the mushroom season.

The unprecedented unrest in Belarus is compounded by a complex disinformation landscape, with domestic and external sources active in the run-up and the aftermath the vote.

 

The Kremlin’s headache

Belarusian media is heavily controlled by the state and roughly half of the prime-time content on Belarusian TV is produced in Russia. Pro-Kremlin disinformation has a strong foothold, relying on an extensive coordinated network of regional websites that exploits people’s trust in local news.

This network has been hard at work ahead of the presidential election. It attacked Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kalesnikava, and Veranika Tsepkala who dared to challenge Lukashenko, claiming that they were tools of European feminists seeking to destroy Belarusian values and implying that arresting their supporters means defending Belarus. The network accused various European countries of trying to crush Belarusian statehood  and claimed that Polish Catholics were seeking to incite riots in Belarus.

However, even with this loyal network of websites and wide access to TV audiences, pro-Kremlin disinformers stumbled on Belarusian complexities. A few weeks ahead of the election, Belarusian state media  announced that 33 Russian citizens, allegedly members of the Wagner group, were detained on suspicions of having traveled to Belarus to “destabilise the situation during the election campaign.”

The move presented a conundrum for pro-Kremlin media, which has supported the regime for years. Commentators on Russian state-controlled TV carefully mused about a “misunderstanding” and spoke about “Belarusian radicals” allegedly trained in clandestine camps  – ironically, only later to complain that this particular segment of disinformation was censored from Belarusian airwaves.

However, soon enough pro-Kremlin media found a way around this thorny issue by focusing on a more convenient culprit: Ukraine.

“Ukrainian provocation”

“The detention of Russians in Belarus was a Ukrainian provocation”, multiple pro-Kremlin media outlets claimed, following questionable reporting by the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, which was swiftly debunked by independent Russian media.* This did not deter pro-Kremlin sources, which continued to blame Ukrainians and claim that Ukrainian secret services were controlled by the West and/or the CIA and were planning terror attacks in Belarus.

Once the pro-Kremlin media settled on the delicate matter of the detention of Wagner mercenaries, the floodgates of pro-Kremlin disinformation opened wide: the protests in Belarus were a colour revolution and the evil West was behind it. Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti chimed in, saying that the enemies of Lukashenka, namely Poland, wanted a bloody Maidan in Minsk (the article has since been viewed almost 100,000 times). The EU, which stated that the elections in Belarus were neither free nor fair and repeatedly called on Belarusian authorities to stop the unacceptable violence against protesters, was accused of double standards.

Pro-Kremlin commentators were also quick to “reassure” Belarusians that they, together with Ukrainians and Russians, were one nation, disturbed only by “duped” kids who grew up on the liberal ideology of Russophobia and claimed that only 10% of Belarusians were opposed to a Union State with Russia.

If most of this sounds familiar, it should. Pro-Kremlin media have been spreading these disinformation tropes about “colour revolutions” and “Western meddling” in relation to every popular protest for years: in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and even in the US and Hong Kong. Democratic movements, free and fair elections in Russia’s neighbourhood and beyond, remain the Kremlin’s biggest fear. But this time, it seems, Belarusians are not afraid.

 

*Update 21 August 2020: This is a developing story. The text reflects the situation as of the 13 August, when it was first published. On the 20 August, Ukraine’s Secret Service (SBU) officially stated that any rumours of its alleged involvement in the matter were false.

Other notable disinformation cases this week:

 


related disinfo cases

02.08.2020
Rossia 24 - YouTube
Belarus
10.08.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube
Belarus
10.08.2020
Pervyi Kanal - YouTube
Ukraine, Belarus
10.08.2020
Pervyi Kanal - YouTube
Belarus
07.08.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube
Ukraine, Belarus
10.08.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube
EU, Belarus, Poland
07.08.2020
Pervyi Kanal - YouTube
Ukraine, Belarus
23.07.2020
News Front - Spanish
Russia, Poland
07.08.2020
RT English, lenta.ru, izvestia.ru, News Rambler, Sputnik Spain, Sputnik Germany, kp.ru
Russia, Ukraine, Belarus
06.08.2020
fort-russ.com
Lebanon, Israel
10.08.2020
observateurcontinental.fr
EU, Belarus, Germany, France
31.07.2020
vesti.ru
Russia, Germany, Syria
03.08.2020
riafan.ru, newvz.ru, expert.ru, osnmedia.ru
Russia, US
03.08.2020
News Front - Georgian
Germany
16.07.2020
Berestje News
Czech Republic, UK, Latvia, Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, US, Poland
21.07.2020
Vitbich
Belarus
06.08.2020
RT France, RT France - YouTube
Russia, US, France
20.07.2020
RT France, RT France - YouTube
EU, Russia, Ukraine
06.08.2020
politnavigator.net
EU, Ukraine
06.08.2020
asd.news, colonelcassad.livejournal.com
Ukraine, Belarus
03.08.2020
nahnews.org
EU, Ukraine
31.07.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube, Sputnik Lithuania - Russian, novorosinform.org
Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland
23.07.2020
Livenews.am
Armenia, Ukraine, US
04.08.2020
Pervyi kanal
EU, Russia, Belarus, US
04.08.2020
Sputnik Armenia - Russian, Sputnik Uzbekistan - Russian
EU, US, Poland
04.08.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube
Belarus, US
04.08.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube
Lithuania, Belarus, Poland
04.08.2020
Polnyi contact - Radio Vesti
Armenia, Czech Republic, Russia, Baltic states
04.08.2020
Tsargrad TV, Donbass Today
Lebanon, Ukraine
03.08.2020
60 minut @Rossiya 1 - YouTube
Russia, Belarus
29.07.2020
ria.ru
EU, Russia, Ukraine
22.07.2020
Sputnik Italia
UK, Russia
30.07.2020
riafan.ru
Ukraine, Lithuania
01.08.2020
News Front - Russian
Ukraine
02.08.2020
nahnews.org
EU, Ukraine, US
03.08.2020
Sputnik Spain
Latvia, Russia, Estonia, Lithuania
31.07.2020
Sputnik Spain
Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, US
21.07.2020
News Front - Spanish
US
30.07.2020
Sputnik Armenia - Russian
Russia
30.07.2020
riafan.ru
Ukraine
30.07.2020
asd.news
Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, US, Poland
29.07.2020
Pervyi kanal
Russia, US
27.07.2020
ru.golos.ua
Belarus
30.07.2020
novoross.info, Luhansk People’s Republic State Television and Radio Company
Ukraine
29.07.2020
Vesti FM - YouTube
Russia, Ukraine
21.07.2020
Sputnik Arabic, m.akhbarelyom.com, almayadeen, egyptianguardan.com, nabd.com, Khabar One, Khabar Masr, bladipresse.com, yemen.sahafahn.net
UK, Russia, Ukraine, US, Georgia
24.07.2020
Pervyi kanal
Ukraine
27.07.2020
Pervyiy Sevastopolskiy - YouTube
Ukraine
28.07.2020
News Front - Russian
Ukraine
17.07.2020
Sputnik Belarus - Russian
EU, Russia, US, Germany, Poland, France
26.07.2020
News Front - Hungarian
Ukraine
21.07.2020
Sputnik Italia
Ukraine, US
23.07.2020
Solovyov Live - YouTube
Russia
22.07.2020
News Front - Georgian
US
27.07.2020
ren.tv
Ukraine
26.07.2020
asd.news
Ukraine, US
18.07.2020
rusvesna.su
Ukraine, US
23.07.2020
Sputnik Armenia - Russian
UK, Russia, US, Germany, France
21.07.2020
Sputnik Armenia - Russian
UK, Russia
24.07.2020
nk.org.ua
Russia, Ukraine, US
21.07.2020
riafan.ru
Russia, Ukraine
19.07.2020
crimea.ria.ru
Russia, Ukraine