Why people create fake newsbreaks: we puzzle out the Synesis-Euroradio case
Oftentimes mass media helps us form a viewpoint on news agendas. But the information that mass media convey to their audience is not absolutely true: sometimes it is beneficial for editors’ offices to cover the opinion of only one party, increase the emotional intensity, and spread fake news.
When Synesis was landed on the sanctions list without evidence of guilt, the outlet named Euroradio chose to make Synesis the main news hero of its stories and launch a real bullying campaign. The presumption of innocence, the openness of Synesis to dialogue, and the full analysis of the “evidence” indicating the faulty judgment were not taken into account. Let’s analyze the Synesis-Euroradio case to see how the fake news phenomenon works.
- Belarus has been in the focus of the European information agenda for about a year, due to the 2020 presidential election and the political crisis that followed the authorities’ harsh crackdown on street protests.
- For readers interested in what is happening in Belarus, there is a very limited number of mass media that non-judgmentally cover what is happening in the country. This is due to a serious split in the Belarusian society and in the info field: there is a clear division between opponents and supporters of the current government. This process leads to the state and independent mass media presenting information about the events that take place in the country in different ways.
- This situation necessarily leads to a distortion of reality, as in the Synesis-Euroradio case. Synesis is a large IT company in Belarusian terms, engaged in software development for various fields. One of the focus area is intelligent video analytics, which is used in public security systems. Under this pretext, Synesis was landed on the list of Belarusian companies that were sanctioned by the EU after the presidential elections in Belarus in 2020. Euroradio is a non-profit Polish information and entertainment mass media that broadcasts to the Belarusian audience with a focus on the youth segment. Funding for the broadcaster’s work is provided by a number of European and American political foundations that promote the spread of liberal democratic values in Belarus. Since August 2020, the editorial policy of the outlet has been focused on covering protest actions, the actions of the opposition, and the Belarusian authorities. After the aggravation of the political situation following the results of the presidential elections, the Belarusian authorities blocked direct access to the Euroradio website for Belarusian readers, classifying it as undesirable.
- Before the presidential election and the sanctions, Euroradio showed little interest in Synesis and its products. Before the political situation escalated, Euroradio devoted only one publication to Synesis in two years: about the slow pace of connecting surveillance cameras to the national public security system. There was also one mention: in the story about testing in Belarus a similar software product in this area of Russian development.
- However, as soon as Synesis was landed on the EU sanctions list, information about the company turned out to be one of the constant topics on the Euroradio information agenda. After Synesis was landed on the sanctions list, there were nineteen such publications in the period December 2020 – June 2021. Of course, if the mass media consider it important to convey some information to the audience, then no one can prohibit them from publishing stories about specific people, companies, or organizations. But in the Synesis-Euroradio case, such a set of publications turns into a targeted campaign that pursues specific goals and objectives.
- The circumstances of the inclusion of Synesis in the sanctions list seem strange. EU Council experts accused the company based on the fact that the Belarusian authorities had access to a video surveillance system and could use its possibility to identify peaceful protesters. The main evidence in the case of inclusion in the list is screenshots of publications from some Belarusian Internet resources and their machine translations into English. These publications provide separate technical characteristics of the system of facial recognition of passers-by using surveillance cameras deployed in Belarus. These characteristics do not represent industrial or commercial secrets and are taken from open sources of information. The video surveillance system, which the law enforcement agencies of Belarus actually have access to, has been in operation since 2019. There is no actual evidence of the software developer’s involvement in the political processes in Belarus.
- Euroradio’s publications became systematic after Synesis was landed on the sanctions list and the company’s statement of its intention to appeal this decision of the EU in court. The purpose of the stories is to create a new negative information background around the IT company, which could be used by lawyers representing the interests of the EU as another “proof” of the legality of the sanctions prosecution of Synesis.
Also noteworthy is the unexpected consistency in the translation into English of publications that are dedicated to Synesis. Euroradio has an English version, but judging by its content, few stories carefully selected by the editors are there. Synesis became, perhaps, the only Belarusian company that Euroradio told its Western readers about to such an extent. It is possible that they would not later resort to machine translation when compiling “evidence” based on screenshots of publications in Russian, as was the case when Synesis was initially landed on the European sanctions list.
- These publications indicate, if not the fulfillment of a direct order for the formation of the editorial policy of Euroradio, then, at least, the desire to justify the erroneous decision of European politicians in order to continue to apply for grants and subsidies from funds of a certain political orientation.
- The editorial board of Euroradio selects information occasions that are not related to the sanctions against Synesis, but create the illusion of interaction between the government and the IT company. For example, the rational desire of the Belarusian regulators to connect night bars to the RSMSS system is interpreted by Euroradio as the development of a totalitarian state in Belarus. At the same time, Synesis is called “Big Brother”, although it is obvious that ensuring security and reducing the level of street crime are among the priorities of any modern European country and are not related to the current political processes.
In this case, the same newsbreak is used to create several publications on a given topic at once. For example, Euroradio addressed the topic of interaction between restaurateurs and local authorities to introduce the public surveillance system three times, and the “news” was used, among other things, information that was officially published a few years ago – during the system preparation for launch. For a number of reasons, the launch was delayed for almost 5 years, and this also has nothing to do with the current political situation in Belarus following the results of the 2021 presidential elections. By the way, of the three publications on this topic, the public noticed only the last article, and only after reposts in other information distribution channels, the editorial board stopped developing the “Big Brother” topic in this direction.
- Euroradio publishes the charges in respect of Synesis but does not place on the website refute these accusations, such as, for example, it happened in the case of a former employee of the Belarusian law enforcement, who said the use of the protesters appropriate identification, but the Synesis public inquiry is not able to explain to the public how he did it (which is logical – Synesis systems are not able to work the way it was charged a former employee).
- In addition to speculative techniques, Euroradio uses fake news to keep a negative background around Synesis. For example, the outlet spread the news that the Vitebsk branch of the Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs buys software with a facial recognition system allegedly from Synesis. The company promptly clarified that it is not related to this purchase, as it has no plans to participate in this tender. But this refutation was again ignored and not published on the Euroradio website, which is completely contrary to journalistic ethics.
- Euroradio also develops other “accusatory” topics in relation to Synesis, while alternative points of view and comments of the company itself are not brought to the readers.
In this particular example, we see how “independent” online media can influence not only public opinion but even the sanctions policy of the European Union. Some would call it simply poor-quality journalism: the lack of freedom of speech, a fact-checking system, and other basic principles of journalism can really testify to this fact. However, when this manifests itself as systematic and neglecting the facts about the actions of only one company, new questions arise. Is this the fulfillment of a direct order, the desire to justify the erroneous decision of European politicians (based, among other things, on the Euroradio articles), or a banal tactic for further applying for grants and subsidies? And, perhaps, the main question: is it worth trusting a resource that systematically creates fake newsbreaks? After all, sooner or later the Synesis topic will come to ought, but new orders from Euroradio are unlikely to end. You will not change the main tool for fulfilling these orders – yourself.
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