Pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels are spreading disinformation targeting anti-government protesters and the coordination council for power transfer initiated by Belarusian opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya after longtime President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s widely contested declaration of victory.
Telegram has become the central platform for information-sharing amid the internet shutdown initiated by the government on the morning of the elections on August 9, 2020. The sharing of disinformation on the platform suggests that pro-Lukashenka actors are targeting the communications channels used by protesters with narrative manipulation tactics that attempt to discredit the protests.
According to the final election results, Lukashenka received 80.1 percent of the vote to Tsikhanouskaya’s 10.1 percent. The lopsided vote count, the Belarusian people’s distrust in their veracity, and allegations of electoral fraud have led to ongoing protests around the country.
Misrepresenting events at anti-Lukashenka protests
On August 26, 2020, during the daily protest at Independence Square in Minsk, about 40 people were locked in the Saint Simon and Saint Helena Church, also known as the Red Church. Among them was a reporter from Euroradio, an independent radio station in Minsk. He streamed a low-quality live broadcast from within the church, reporting that all three entrances of the church were locked and guarded by law enforcement. A short video shared on the Euroradio Telegram channel showed how OMON security police ushered someone into the church and locked the front door.
The next day, STV, a pro-Lukashenko TV channel, and Belarus 1, a state-owned TV channel, aired explanations of “what really happened” at the Red Church. Both stories featured an interview with an anonymous OMON representative who said:
For the sake of security of [the protesters], the entrance to the Stalica shopping mall was closed, as well as the doors into the Red Church, because there were citizens who did not participate in the mass event. Our activities were aimed to protect the citizens within the church, who did not participate in the protests, and to protect the church itself, as it is the religious heritage of Belarus. After the group of citizens in front of the church was scattered away, the doors of the church were open again. Everyone could enter and exit the building. I want to note that citizens shut the doors of the church themselves for no obvious reason.
This talking point was later amplified by the pro-Lukashenka Telegram channel Zheltye slivi (Желтые сливы), which has more than 56,000 members.
Both videos indeed show a woman who shut the doors from inside the church in front of OMON police. This scene may have taken place, however, once the church was open again, as the footage clearly shows dark sky, but the video by Euroradio shows twilight.
The pro-Lukashenka TV channels portrayed OMON as protectors, while journalists from within the church portrayed OMON as a threat to protestors.
Pul Pervy (Пул Первый), a Telegram channel with more than 75,000 members that is believed to be managed by Lukashenka press secretary Natalya Eismont, published screenshots from the anti-Lukashenka Telegram chat Osipovicy dlya zhizny (Осиповичи для жизни) on August 27, 2020. The screenshots contained anonymous user John Connor writing threatening messages to Lukashenka and calling for violence at the peaceful anti-Lukashenka protests. Any calls for “illegal and violent activities” are forbidden on the Osipovicy dlya zhizny chat, according to the chat rules. While the DFRLab verified that the messages by John Connor were removed, Pul Pervy stated that “administrators of the Telegram chat did not follow their own rules.”
Amplifying pro-Kremlin provocateurs
On August 21, 2020, right after Tsikhanouskaya held a press conference in Lithuania, a man began shouting. The official broadcast did not capture what he said exactly, but on a video shared by pro-Lukashenka Telegram channel Zheltye slivi, it is possible to hear the man saying:
Speak truth, not just guesses. The truth will win. Only people such as Alyaksandr Lukashenka will save our people. Thank you! Here are the facts. You are spreading propaganda. You are lying to the Lithuanian people.
Kremlin-owned outlet Sputnik then posted photos on its Telegram channel of the man being detained by Lithuanian police. The post explained that the man, Yury Subbotin, a pro-Kremlin activist had asked Tsikhanouskaya “how she would comment on the fact that only 13 percent of the 8,000 people surveyed by Lietuvos Rytas support her.” Sputnik’s Telegram post also stated, “In response, other ‘liberal’ media outlets started to call him a provocateur, and police then took him out of the building and put him in a police vehicle.” Other pro-Lukashenka Telegram channels such as Telekanal ONT, the Belarus state-owned TV channel, and Mirby, a pro-Lukashenka radio channel, amplified Sputnik’s post. Later, in a summary post of events for the day, the Telegram channel Zheltye slivi wrote about Subbotin’s detention and added, “We would not be surprised if somewhere in а police station he’ll get hit in the ribs. What, it is freedom of speech!”
In 2018, Subbotin, the pro-Kremlin activist, was previously found guilty in Lithuania for promoting war crimes conducted by the Soviet regime during the World War II, which is a crime in that country. In 2010, he used a newspaper to lobby in favor of Russian natural gas imports to Lithuania.
As for the survey, Lietuvos Rytas is an independent Lithuanian media outlet that writes only in Lithuanian. The DFRLab’s Lithuanian-speaking staff tried to find the survey that Subbotin mentioned without success. No report in Lithuanian about Tsikhanouskaya’s press conference covered the incident with Subbotin either.
Making false claims
The Coordination Council for lawful power transfer in Belarus was established on August 18, based on the initiative of opposition candidate Tsikhanouskaya. On August 20, the Belarus chief prosecutor launched a criminal case against the Coordination Council, but the council remains active as of August 29, 2020.
The “council” that the linked article in Belarusian referred to was entirely different — a regional initiative in Brest called “Gramadskaya rada” (Грамадская рада) or “public council” in Belarusian. That initiative was launched and closed by Dzedzich, a Brest regional youth NGO. The news story did not mention the presidential election-related Coordination Council at all.
The narrative manipulation tactics employed by pro-government actors in Belarus resemble the tactics used by pro-Yanukovytch and pro-Kremlin actors in Ukraine in 2014 and beyond. The use of Telegram as a medium for influence and to target the opposition is particularly notable, given the messaging platform’s critical importance as a communications channel amid Lukashenka’s broader attempts at information control and suppression.