The Power of Detraction: Belarusian Reporting of Russian Social Problems During "Information War"

Joanna Szostek

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The mass media play a prominent role in contemporary international relations. Foreign policy success is said to depend not on military or economic power alone, but on "whose story wins". Governments therefore construct "strategic narratives" to position, legitimize and characterize themselves in international affairs. In doing so, they tend to project negative characterizations of their rivals and adversaries. There has been less scholarly attention devoted to this "detractive" dimension of state-led efforts to persuade global audiences than to the "attractive" dimension, which is associated with the concept of soft power. However, the former has become increasingly salient, particularly in the post-Soviet region, where acrimonious "information wars" fought between Russia and some of its neighbours via the mass media are regular occurrences. This article contributes to the emerging literature on strategic narratives in international relations through a case study of the Belarusian state media and their reporting of Russian social problems. It focuses on the latter half of 2010, a period of heightened tension between Moscow and Minsk, when the Belarusian leadership was trying to legitimize its actions in the face of harsh criticism from the Kremlin. Empirically, the article is based on qualitative analysis of content from the leading state-controlled media in Belarus (three TV channels and one newspaper), plus interviews with editorial staff from those media outlets. The article demonstrates how reporting of Russian social policy in the Belarusian state-controlled media was carefully orchestrated to serve particular goals. By instructing editors to highlight instances of social neglect in Russia, the Belarusian leadership sought to undermine the public reputation of its critics in Moscow while simultaneously reaffirming close ties with Russia on the basis that bilateral discord was attributable to the Russian elite rather than any rifts with the ever "fraternal" Russian people. The research in this article provides a timely addition to scholarship that focuses exclusively on the positive-sum communication activities of governments in international relations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-112
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Social Policy Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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