The virus originated somewhere in the Republic of Belarus, and a few months later it reached Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union. Its next target was Luxembourg, where the European Court of Justice is located. Although, of course, geographic locations don’t matter to any news, including fabricated ones. Information spreads through fiber-optic networks at the speed of light to anywhere in the world where the screen of a monitor or a mobile device is turned on.
A short trailer for those who don’t like reading long texts.
For the past 25 years, Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko. In recent years, his regime has relied on a powerful public security system, special services, the army, as well as fully controlled legislative and judicial systems.
Belarus is an average state by European standards, which will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence this year. By 1991, when the USSR finally collapsed, this former communist republic has inherited several machine-building and chemical plants, a strategic gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, and a powerful army group. But the main “gift” from the Soviets to Belarusians is the first state of its own in the history of the nation with a decision-making center in its own capital, its own system of social lifts, and control of the borders of the territory. Alexander Lukashenko becomes the country’s main “brand” as its president. A former manager of a small state agricultural company and a historian by first education, this man, since the mid-90s, has managed to build a strict vertical of power in the country, the source of which being exclusively he alone. All branches of government are subordinate to him; he makes decisions on the appointment of applicants to all key positions in the public administration system and the public sector; he also has leverage to make important decisions in the private sector of the economy.
A special role in the system of state administration is played by the Security Council, which is headed by Lukashenko and which includes the heads of all power structures.
Despite the dictatorial political regime, the country is developing, with the particular success achieved in the last decade in the IT sector. Belarus has become one of the largest Eastern European hubs for companies creating software in various fields.
In the middle of the 20th century, Soviet computers were produced in Belarus. A training base was created for their production, specialists were trained in several institutes.
After the collapse of the USSR, the well-educated mathematical school survived, its graduates became the founders of the first companies with Belarusian roots, which began to develop the global IT services market, creating software for Western customers, mainly for the United States.
In 2005, Alexander Lukashenko, observing the successes of the new growing sector of the Belarusian economy, created a special economic zone – the High Technologies Park. By 2021, this one of the largest IT clusters in Central and Eastern Europe included more than a thousand companies with a total production volume of $3 billion, or about 4% of Belarusian GDP.
Gradually, Belarusian IT companies, in addition to providing outsourcing services in the field of software, began to create final products for the global market of digital technologies, automated solutions, and entertainment. The pioneer was Wargaming, which became world-famous for a series of computer games – simulators of historical battles.
Another example, the Belarusian mobile application for monitoring women’s health Flo, became the world leader in the number of downloads and active users in the Health and Fitness category by the end of 2020.
In 2017, an IT company headquartered in Minsk called Synesis won a tender for the implementation of solutions for a “smart city” to integrate data from CCTV cameras installed in public places into a unified system of analytics.
Having noticed the global trend in the creation of video control systems in cities in Europe, the USA, and Asian countries, Belarus also began to move in this direction. The decision to create such a national system was made in 2017. A tender was held at the same time; it was won by the Synesis Group with its Kipod technological solution for remote monitoring of the situation at various objects using video monitoring and continuous data processing to identify specified events.
The main idea was to connect as many video surveillance cameras as possible to the system, the data from which would be processed in a single software environment and, in case of alarming events, would send a signal to the appropriate special services for an adequate response in a specific location. This would help to improve the safety of the urban environment.
Due to bureaucratic acrimony associated with lengthy procedures for ratification of rules, regulations, and tariffs, the implementation of the system was delayed. Also, the Belarusian authorities decided not to finance the deployment of the system from budget funds but chose a model which implied that the costs of connection and maintenance should be borne by the owners of objects actively visited by citizens. The owners of the objects were reluctant to connect to the system, minding the economy and unwilling to share data about what is really happening in their zones of control with the authorities. As a result, only about 700 cameras were connected to Kipod by the middle of 2020 throughout Belarus, in which about 9.5 million people live. Moreover, the majority were surveillance cameras installed in the Minsk subway and at the railway station of the Belarusian capital.
Presidential elections were held in Belarus in 2020; there were many signs that they were rigged in favor of President Lukashenko. The elections were followed by street protests, which were brutally suppressed by the security forces. The protesters were arrested, punished with heavy fines and restriction of freedom.
For a long time, Lukashenko has had the support of a significant part of voters, therefore he invariably won the presidential elections, in which he could participate an unlimited number of times. But in 2020, something went wrong. The number of opponents of the incumbent president, who ran for the sixth time as head of state, rose sharply. It’s hard to say how sharp exactly since independent research structures that could measure public opinion with a high degree of trust and reliability are in fact prohibited in Belarus.
The presidential elections in August 2020 were not conducted flawlessly; the public had many reasons to distrust the results of voting both at individual polling stations and the final counts in general. In most European countries, the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections were not recognized. Nevertheless, Aleksander Lukashenko was once again declared the winner by a wide margin from other candidates admitted to the elections. This caused outrage among the opponents of the president, who took to the streets of Belarusian cities demanding to revise the results, inspect the work of election commissions, invalidate the elections and conduct a new campaign. The protest actions became widespread and continued in various forms until late autumn 2020. The protests were predominantly peaceful.
Street protests were harshly suppressed by the Belarusian authorities; apart from policemen, members of the armed forces, and also employees of special units, whose competence does not include work with the civilian population, took part in the suppression. During the suppression, there were mass detentions of protesters, practically regardless of their behavior at the demonstrations. The detainees were taken to prisons, where the administration and staff subjected them to physical measures, which in some cases could be qualified as torture and humiliation. The detainees were punished with monetary fines or several weeks in prison. The punishment of the protesters has become widespread. Some of the detainees were later charged with not only participating in street rallies, for which the authorities hadn’t given official permission but also with organizing mass riots, which implies more serious penalties in the form of high fines or lengthy prison sentences.
As a result of the tough policy of ensuring national security, restrictions on freedom of the media, total control over the national segment of the Internet in Belarus, Telegram channels have become very popular since their authors can remain anonymous.
The prejudiced attitude of the Belarusian authorities towards the opposition and citizens sympathetic to it aroused the indignation of a significant part of the society and split it into two warring camps. Supporters of the political regime of Alexander Lukashenko and his opponents have launched sort of an information civil war in the digital space, trying to destroy the honor and reputation of their opponents by any means – with fibs, falsifications, and fakes.
For a long time, Alexander Lukashenko has controlled the bulk of the national media landscape through traditional media. All TV channels and radio stations broadcasting from the territory of Belarus, except for entertainment ones, are under the full control of his administration; only a few print media published in the country allowed criticism of the authorities, but the main newspapers of the socio-political orientation were controlled by the state authorities and supported the policy of President Lukashenko.
The situation began to change after 2010 when online media outlets aimed at the Belarusian audience began to actively develop. Moreover, their editorial offices could be located abroad, which helped these outlets to take a more critical position concerning the current regime without fear of persecution on political grounds.
By this time, the satellite TV channel “Belsat” also began to gain popularity; its signals could be received on the territory of Belarus, and the editorial office is located in Polish Warsaw and is supported by the Polish authorities.
By the 2020 elections, online media critical of the Lukashenko regime were in serious competition with state-controlled media that used traditional content distribution channels.
A decisive role in changing the balance of power in the national information ecosystem was played by the growing popularity of opposition bloggers who broadcast on social platforms not controlled by the Belarusian authorities – YouTube, Facebook, as well as through the Telegram messenger, which has become very popular in Belarus. The peculiarity of Telegram is that it pays increased attention to ensuring the protection of user data and allows users to create anonymous channels open for subscription for publications of any nature and slant. By 2020, the opposition Telegram channel Nexta gained the most popularity. At the peak of interest in the protest movement, it had more than 2 million subscribers, which is about every third adult resident of Belarus. Later this channel was recognized as extremist by the Belarusian authorities.
An anonymous Telegram channel owned by Belarusian anarchists accused the company that developed software for CCTV cameras of aiding the regime in suppressing the protests. The accusations were based on the fact that the Belarusian security forces had access to the system and could use its potential to identify demonstrators.
The development of digital information technologies breathed new life into various political movements that opposed the existing regime in Belarus. The center of political activity has shifted from meetings or rallies, permission for which is very difficult to obtain in Belarus, to various media channels filled with their activists. Some of these movements saw the presidential elections as a chance to reassert themselves, and they prepared intensively for the elections, including preparations for street confrontations with the police.
A special role in this was played by the Belarusian anarchists, who reject the state authority in all its manifestations. After the presidential elections and the harsh suppression of protest actions by the security forces, the Telegram channel of one of the anarchist groups published a selection of facts gleaned from the website of the operator of the Kipod system, which was developed by the Synesis IT company. The article focused on the ability of the system to recognize the faces of people in the crowd. The anonymous author suggested that the security forces could have used data from external video surveillance cameras to find and detain one of the participants in the riots in the center of Minsk. The anarchists also called on their comrades-in-arms to observe disguise so that they would not be identified and arrested for participating in the riots in the future. As a matter of fact, some representatives of the anarchist movement took part in the most acute phase of the confrontation between the demonstrators and the police in the center of Minsk right after the elections, when the protesters were building barricades in the streets and blocking traffic.
The information circulated for almost 2 months in the closed media landscape of the Belarusian anarchists, and then it was unexpectedly picked up by large Telegram channels, becoming the subject of discussions in social networks and the media. Meanwhile, the arguments of the developer company that the system has never had the technical capabilities of identifying unknown people in the crowd were not heard. The fake news turned out to be more attractive to the emotionally minded public compared to its contradiction.
The anarchist Telegram channel devoted several more publications to the Synesis company, which were of an even more explicit accusatory nature. The logic of the accusation boiled down to the fact that Synesis had developed software used by the Belarusian security forces to detect participants in the riots, and, therefore, the company is an accomplice to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
Publications about Synesis began to appear regularly on this relatively small channel (less than 10 thousand subscribers), using various coverage opportunities, such as gaining access to the personal data of the company’s employees, conversations with its allegedly former employees, calls for dismissals for political reasons, historical parallels between Belarus with the Lukashenko regime and Germany with the Hitler regime on the use of technologies relevant for their time for criminal purposes, etc. Moreover, as the number of anarchists’ publications increased, the name of the IT company, as a matter of course, was labeled “sad famous” or something like that.
Fuel was added to the fire by the actions of the Belarusian security forces, who began to send text messages to the protesters with warnings that they’ve been identified and could subsequently be punished. The identification methods, of course, were not specified, but anonymous authors began to associate this with the Kipod system. Such text messages, letters, and summons were often sent to those who have never been even close to the action zones, or who had even died or had been living on another continent for a long time.
In mid-October, the company issued an official press release, in which it explained that the technical capabilities of the software it developed did not allow identifying unknown persons caught in the lenses of cameras installed in the country at that time. And that the system could only recognize those participants in the events, whose photos and personal data have been loaded into it in advance. Besides, active cameras operated by Synesis software are located in specific places – the subway and the railway station, where political protests have never taken place after the 2020 elections.
Following the anarchists, bloggers and journalists began to conduct their own investigations against Synesis. And they found new “evidence” of the company’s complicity with the Lukashenko regime in old media interviews and Facebook posts of the company’s founder, Alexander Shatrov.
The publication of an official refutation on the use of smart city technologies to search and punish participants in unauthorized protest actions in Belarus has become a new information element in creating fake news. Journalists and bloggers started looking for additional compromising materials concerning Synesis. Old interviews with one of the founders of the company, Alexander Shatrov, and his post on his personal Facebook page became the source.
The fact that the father of Alexander Shatrov, one of the founders of the business, used to serve in the KGB, and that Shatrov himself has Russian roots, was put forward as the circumstances compromising the company. (Shatrov’s father died when he was 16 years old, and there was no question of any help from the “influential father in the KGB” – such details were omitted).
Shatrov’s negative attitude towards the Belarusian language as a language of communication in his company was presented as a claim against him. At the same time, Shatrov never opposed the Belarusian language, but only urged his colleagues to use those languages that employees, clients, and partners would understand unambiguously.
It should be noted that the Belarusian language, despite its status as one of the state languages in Belarus, is used less often than Russian. It is mainly used in everyday communication, culture, and media. At the same time, the staff in the Belarusian IT sector, as a rule, are required to speak English along with Russian.
Also, in a post made on the Facebook page regarding the events of 2017 (more than three years before the 2020 presidential elections), Shatrov, as it seemed to the interpreters, spoke negatively about the protesters. Although in reality, these were just reflections on the law, protests, their participants, and those who should maintain public order.
In December 2020, the EU introduced another package of sanctions against Belarusian persons and companies whose activities were associated with the infringement of democratic rights and freedoms in Belarus and aiding the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. The IT developer Synesis was also included in the sanctions list.
The inclusion of Synesis in the sanctions list was justified by fake news initiated by Belarusian anarchists and anonymous biased annotations and machine translations of publications in the Belarusian media mentioning the company and its management.
On this basis, the Council of Europe accused Synesis and its leader of the following:
— Kipod is used to identify protesters. Fake news!
— Company employees are prohibited from communicating in Belarusian. Fake news!
— The company benefits from cooperation with the state. It is doubtful, given that the business model for the implementation of a video analytics system in Belarus is based not on budget funding, but on the return of investments by charging a subscription fee from system users. Any company that has received a permit to work in Belarus can be just as well blamed for the fact that it benefits from cooperation with the state.
— Alexander Shatrov publicly criticized people protesting against the government. Meanwhile, the post on the social network was not even about whether anyone was against or for Lukashenko. The post on Facebook was claiming that participants in unauthorized protest rallies should be aware that they are participating in illegal, from the point of view of the authorities, events. And by the way, is it forbidden to express opinions in modern Europe?
A small company from Belarus has gained worldwide fame and has now filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice to defend its right to reputation. The proceedings, taking into account all preliminary procedures, will last at least six months.
The company had known in advance about the plans of the European Union to include it in the sanctions lists. And it applied to the structures of the European Union in advance with a proposal to provide all the necessary information or to conduct an independent audit. However, EU officials ignored these appeals and were guided by some other motives.
If we follow the sequence of events, then using the example of the Belarusian IT company Synesis we will see how fake news are born, how they gain strength first in local communities, then begin to circulate in national media markets, and then become the basis for decision-making by European politicians. The paradox is that at the final stage of the life of fake news, namely, when it comes to court, interest in them disappears both from those who initiated them and those who used them to their advantage. Moreover, the result of the trial is no longer of particular importance for the defendant. The fake news has already done its job, having worked in the minds and in time. And the interest of the public, bloggers, and editors in reporting a mistake, insufficient evidence, and erroneous interpretations is much lower than a false story skillfully thrown into a heated media landscape.
The case of the Belarusian IT company Synesis, which has become a victim of fake news, may not be as catchy as other stories related, for example, to rumors around chipping people with vaccinations, communities supporting the idea of flat Earth, or opponents to allegedly lethal emissions from 5G communication towers. But this case is interesting as a story, by the example of which one can trace the entire path of the circulation of lies in the modern media landscape. And this story is still waiting to be continued.
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