A leading driver of COVID-19 misinformation in Belarus was its President, Aleksander Lukashenko. He caught the attention of the world and the media by dismissing the virus, referring to the pandemic as mass psychosis, and advising people to fight it off with vodka. In July 2020, there were rumors that Lukashenko had contracted COVID-19, which he eventually confirmed in an interview. Later on, Lukashenko praised the government for its management of the COVID-19 outbreak and stated that Belarus had defeated the virus.
The official recommendations were to observe social distancing, wear masks, and keep the elderly at home. No lockdown measures were enforced and borders remained open. Businesses also remained open. In addition, Lukashenko organized a massive military parade in the heart of Minsk to mark the 75th Anniversary of victory in World War II. In contrast, Russia cancelled the parade and organized a modest no-crowd commemoration in Moscow. The Minsk parade was a show of defiance, challenging Russia’s image as the strong heir of the USSR, and it was criticized by Russian politicians and Russian media.
Russian state media criticized Belarus, pointing at the country’s lack of organization in managing the pandemic and mocking Lukashenko’s remedies against COVID-19. Lukashenko responded by critisizing Russia’s quarantine measures. He also stated that the humanitarian aid from Russia was insufficient and inefficient. In the context of this infowar, some Belarus migrant workers returning from Russia were allegedly placed in isolation in a hospital by Belarusian authorities despite having no symptoms, only to indicate that any coronavirus cases in Belarus were exported from Russia.
Lukashenko focused on consolidating the country’s relation with China. Belarus state media extensively covered events and statements about Chinese humanitarian aid to Belarus and to other states in need.
International organizations, such as the WHO, and other countries, reacted to the mismanagement of the pandemic in Belarus, as did important public figures, such as the Belarus writer Svetlana Alexievich – the laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, she condemned the lack of lockdown measures, adding that it reminded her of Chernobyl in 1986.
Media & Legislation
More than 2/3 of radio stations and all TV channels are state-owned, while independent media is more present online. However, the state began extending its control in the online environment, as well. Content produced in Russia is very popular in Belarus. Even though freedom of the media is stipulated in the Constitution, there are legislative acts that limit this freedom. Recently, the use of anti-extremist legislation against the media and against media activists has intensified. The hybrid war in Ukraine caused considerable concern for Belarus authorities as regards its potential replication in Belarus.
Belarus legislation prohibits dissemination of false information that may harm state or public interests through the internet and social media. There is a also set of regulations that can be enforced to block critical outlets, applied arbitrarily, often to target media promoting pro-Western views.
Generally, state-controlled media react slowly to event, as they are dependent on the hierarchical approvals. In terms of content, it follows the same pattern inspired by Soviet “journalism” praising the country’s leadership. State-owned media receives considerable subsidies from the state budget.
Target Groups & Exposure
Belarus is directly exposed to Russian misinformation and propaganda. Several factors facilitate the spread of Kremlin narratives. First of all, Russian is an language official. Secondly, Russian media has considerable influence and dominance and there is systematic promotion of the “Russian world” and of the Russian-centric views on foreign affairs and politics. In addition, the image of brotherhood between Russians and Belarusians is also widely promoted.
Certain categories of citizens are particularly exposed to pro-Russian propaganda such as the elderly, who are more susceptible to Soviet nostalgia, as it is frequently promoted by Russian media. Belarusian labor migrants working in Russia and military personnel.
Military personnel is extremely vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda, especially with regard to anti-Western narratives, as ideologically, the army still perceives the West as an enemy and believes that Russians and Belarusians are the same nation. According to the Disinformation Resilience Index, Belarus has one of the highest exposure levels to Russian propaganda – 2.9 out of 4.