Disinformation isn’t always left to state media or shadowy online troll factories. Sometimes world leaders do their own dirty work of spreading disinformation. Polygraph.info looks back on some of the biggest whoppers told by world leaders in 2020.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko
Aleksandr Lukashenko has served as president of Belarus since 1994, and in August, voters signaled they’d had enough. But when Lukashenko claimed victory with 80% of the vote in a highly disputed election, opposition activists took to the streets in what would become a series of ongoing protests, some seeing attendance of over 200,000 people. Meanwhile, Lukashenko looked for help from Moscow and spun multiple stories of imminent NATO military intervention and other international intrigues to justify his crackdown on demonstrators.
- On December 2, Lukashenko claimed Poland was behind the protests against him. He claimed Poland was doing this in an attempt to recover Belarusian land that had been controlled by that country in the past. In fact, Poland was one of the first countries to recognize Belarus’ independence in 1991, and Polish leaders have repeatedly condemned Lukashenko’s assertions that they have territorial claims on Belarus.
- In September, Lukashenko falsely claimed that a squadron of U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets had been scrambled in Berlin for an attack on Belarus. He further made claims about a NATO military build-up on his Western borders that turned out to be false.
- Prior to his post-election woes, Lukashenko was criticized for his lackluster response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He had labeled the concerns a psychosis, and suggested folk remedies such as steam baths, vodka, and fresh air in the countryside to deal with the virus. Later in the year, Lukashenko denied all this when he was taken to task for downplaying the danger. But Polygraph.info had the receipts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
- In March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed at the European Union for allegedly promising 6 billion euros in relief for Syrian refugees and failing to hold to their word. But in reality, the EU never promised the money as a direct transfer to Turkey. It was mainly to be used by relief organizations in Turkey who have been working to help refugees there.
- In July, the Turkish government transformed the UNESCO world heritage site Hagia Sophia from a museum into a functioning mosque. The mosque, originally converted from a cathedral after the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, was later turned into a museum by the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. President Erdogan, a supporter of the conversion back to a mosque, said the religious site would still be open to all, as it was before. While this is somewhat true, like with other historical mosques in Istanbul, visitors will now have to abide by dress code regulations and also schedule their visits around the traditional five daily prayer times. During those times, Christian frescoes and imagery in the mosque are to be covered.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
From invading his neighbors to deploying military-grade nerve agents to wipe out enemies at home and abroad, Russian President Vladimir Putin has helped build up a vast propaganda network to distract from the Kremlin’s alleged crimes. Putin himself has been caught at distorting if not outright lying about the actions of the Russian state in order to maintain his grip on power.
- Prior to an alleged Russian hack of multiple U.S. government agencies that was first reported in December, Putin had in September proposed “a comprehensive program of practical measures to reboot [Russia-U.S.] relations in the field of (cyber) security.” Moscow denied its hand in the latest case of state-backed cyber espionage. “Once again, I can reject these accusations and once again I want to remind you that it was President (Vladimir) Putin who proposed that the American side agree and conclude agreements (with Russia) on cyber security,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
- That claim is misleading. While the forensic investigation into the hack will take time, experts believe the Russian foreign intelligence-linked hacking group “Cozy Bear,” previously implicated in high-profile breaches worldwide, was behind the attack. Officials, experts and security firms around the world have documented numerous Russian hacks believed to have been carried out by state actors.
- On October 19, the U.S. Justice Department indicted six Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers for “Worldwide Deployment of Destructive Malware and Other Disruptive Actions in Cyberspace.” Russia’s aggressive state-backed hacking operations promoted the Pentagon to launch its first cybersecurity operation targeting Russian operatives in October 2018.
- In a March interview with Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency, Putin was asked about the condition of Russia’s army. When asked who the Russian army would fight, Putin responded: “We are not going to fight against anyone. We are going to create conditions so that nobody wants to fight against us.”
- This is misleading. Putin initiated the military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the subsequent aggression by Russian-backed forces Ukraine’s Donbas region. Putin also initiated Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Syria in 2015 and has since increased its activities there. Russia has also intervened in Libya’s civil war. Following a five-day war in August 2008, Russian forces continue to occupy Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
- During his annual year-end news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed recent reports alleging that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny with the military-grade chemical agent Novichok. Putin claimed that if the FSB had wanted to kill Navalny, he would have been dead.
- Putin dismissed the Bellingcat-led investigation into the poisoning as the work of Western intelligence. This is false. The investigative journalists uncovered many links between the August 2020 poisoning of Navalny and Russia’s security services. Bellingcat presented telephone metadata and call records linking the would-be assassins to employees of institutes involved in Russia’s biochemical research and development programs.
- Navalny released a videorecording of his phone call with an individual he identified as one of the FSB agents assigned to clean up traces of poisonous substances on Navalny’s clothes. The alleged FSB agent revealed many previously unknown details and confirmed the poisoning was an FSB operation. He said Navalny’s survival was “an error caused by the professional actions of the pilots and emergency medics.”
- In May, Putin announced the government would ease a six-week lockdown intended to stem the spread of COVID-19. Putin said that period had provided the country’s health system the time it needed to get prepared and stock up on additional equipment and supplies. He said that “[e]very region of the country is ready and has everything necessary to provide specialized [care], including intensive care … to practically everyone who needs it.” That claim is misleading.
- In early March, doctors in Russia complained about shortages of “absolutely everything”, according to reports by independent media. By late April, they were saying they had to treat coronavirus patients without protective equipment as COVID-19 deaths and infections among healthcare workers increased. The government ramped up the production of ventilators, but they proved unreliable. Reports surfaced about two ventilators which had exploded in hospitals in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, killing six.
- On May 13, 83 percent of doctors working with coronavirus patients in Russian hospitals said personal protective equipment was either in short supply or unavailable.
- In February, Putin was asked about incidents in which Russian police had beaten protesters with nightsticks during an interview with the state-owned TASS news agency. Putin claimed that people would not be hit with nightsticks if they acted “within the existing rules and laws.” This is misleading. There have been many documented cases of Russian police using violence, including with nightsticks, to break up opposition protests.
- In October, Putin responded to new U.S. reports about the Russian interference in the November 3 election, claiming “we do not interfere anywhere!” He added that all the relevant investigations had led to nothing, apart from the conclusion “that there is no evidence of interference by Russia.” This is false. The discovery of Russia’s state-sponsored attempts to interfere in the U.S. political and social processes was reported first in a multiagency intelligence statement in October 2016. That conclusion was backed up by a follow-up January 2017 report by the Director of National Intelligence.
- In August, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a final report of its own bipartisan election influence investigation. The top findings included allegations and evidence that Putin ordered the 2016 hacking attacks targeting Democratic Party computers and networks and the release of stolen information. And, looking forward, the report found that the Russian government had continued interfering in U.S. politics at least up to January 2020.
- Apart from government agencies, private companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as U.S. and non-U.S. think tanks also have provided evidence of Russia’s meddling.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Since the 2018 elections, the Brazilian president has heavily benefited from misinformation and mass spread of fake news. One of his sons is at the center of an investigation into the use of false information to threaten and slander Supreme Court justices. During his presidency, one of the most pressing issues he has been criticized for has been the environment – and his administration’s work to dismantle environmental protections – and, more recently, his response to the coronavirus pandemic. But Bolsonaro often deflects criticism by claiming it is all fake news and attacking journalists. He, along with political allies and his sons, has consistently done that this year.
- On June 5, in recognition of World Environment Day, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that, "[W]e are the country that most preserves the environment in the world. Unjustly, the most criticized [one].”
- As of 2015, around 59% of the Brazil’s land was covered by forests (second only to Russia). Bolsonaro’s tweet ignores a record pace of deforestation and increasing environmental rollbacks under his administration.
- Last year, Brazil recorded the world’s biggest loss of tropical primary forests, according to data from the University of Maryland, which developed machine-learning software to analyze satellite imagery for loss of tree cover. Brazil accounted for one-third of the overall global decrease, or 1.36 million hectares, roughly the area of Connecticut. Ninety-five percent of the decline happened in the Amazon rainforest.
- Bolsonaro has played down the dangers of the virus, calling it a "little flu," pressing for the end of isolation policies in states and promoting use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that has not been proven effective against COVID-19. He has also encouraged and taken part in anti-isolation protests.
- Bolsonaro fired his first health minister, Henrique Mandetta, in April, and Mandetta’s successor, Nelson Teich, resigned in May, after only a month in the job. With Bolsonaro’s third health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, a military general, in place, the government changed the time when it releases the daily COVID-19 statistics to 10 p.m. Experts criticized the move, saying it made it harder to inform the population. News agencies also expressed disapproval, noting that the updated numbers wouldn’t be available during prime time. Bolsonaro said the change was meant to "avoid underreporting and inconsistencies."
- On a May 4 post, Bolsonaro told his more than 10 million Facebook followers that he did not see any attacks against members of the media during a Sunday, May 3, political rally he described as having been “spontaneous.” Bolsonaro added that he did not see any attacks, but only “the joy of the people.”
- Multiple news reports said the event actually was pre-planned. Video reports from the rally tell a different story, and the Reuters news agency cited witnesses who said “at least three photographers were attacked by demonstrators,” and noted such incidents are “an increasingly routine occurrence in Brazil, where Bolsonaro routinely calls the work of major newspapers ‘fake news.’”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega
Ortega has made very few public appearances this year, leaving most of the government messaging to his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. But in a speech during the celebration of the 41st anniversary of the Ministry of the Interior, the president denied torture claims in his country. Since protests broke out in 2018, mounting evidence has surfaced of his government’s violent response against those opposing Ortega, in order to maintain his grip in power.
- On October 15, the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) publicly denounced persistent human rights violations in Nicaragua and urged the government to release political prisoners, restore fundamental freedoms and respect the separation of powers and rule of law.
- Four days later, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, dismissed allegations that political prisoners made of being tortured, calling them “lies” attempting to taint the country’s image.
- Based on multiple published reports, Ortega’s claim that torture accusations are invented is false. Nicaragua under Ortega has faced extensive international scrutiny for violations of human rights, including targeting civil society, human rights defenders, journalists and students. In 2018, between April, when the protests started, and September, nearly 2,020 people died, 5,000 were injured, 516 were kidnapped and 853 have gone missing, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH). Twenty-two police officers died, as stated by the U.N.
U.S. President Donald Trump
The 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, has been no stranger to controversy, whether taking a tough stand on immigration, attacking “fake news” or calling out his enemies on the other side of the political aisle. Some populist appeals, from promising that Mexico would pay for a new wall along the U.S. Mexico border, to labeling Antifa a terrorist threat, have resounded with his political base. But do such claims always stand up to scrutiny?
- In July, Trump said his administration has built “up to 259 miles right now of great, powerful wall that’s really working because, if you look at the numbers, in addition to the fact that Mexico, for various reasons has 27,000 soldiers on our southern border to keep people out of our country […] And we have great, great numbers.”
- During the 2016 presidential election campaign Trump focused on illegal immigration. Attendants chanted “build that wall” at all of his rallies, during which he promised to stop undocumented immigrants who were coming into the country and, in his words, “stealing our jobs." As a candidate, Trump promised to build a 2,000-mile wall along the southern border with Mexico. The number later shrunk as Trump clarified that some of the wall would consist of natural barriers such as mountains and rivers.
- When Trump took office, 655 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico already had barriers. Most were constructed during the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
- With less than six months left before year’s end, the actual border wall construction had fallen well short of that promise. Trump said in his Rose Garden remarks on July 14, that 259 miles were finished. In a tweet two days earlier, he used the figure of 240 miles. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s (CBP) website, as of July 13, 235 miles had been built. However, the agency said the estimate is approximate, as "construction activities are ongoing.”
- Protests erupted in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25 after the video of the arrest and death of African American George Floyd spread across social platforms and the news media. Peaceful demonstrations in cities across the country sometimes turned violent and destructive, with buildings and vehicles damaged and on fire from Texas to California and even Washington, D.C.
- President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter with a post citing the far-left loosely organized anarchist group “antifa” (short for anti-fascist) as instigators of the violence and pledging to declare the group a terrorist organization.
- While the law allows the United States to designate foreign groups as terrorists, providing the imposition of sanctions, there is no parallel domestic terrorism law to authorize such a designation. Instead, cases of alleged domestic terrorism are typically investigated as criminal matters under other federal and state laws. The Justice Department and FBI also work in conjunction with state and local law enforcement as part of Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei has remained on the frontline of Iran’s anti-U.S. and anti-West propaganda efforts. Using his influence over millions of Shia Muslims, he pushed for tougher civil society restrictions while denying Iran’s mounting record of human rights abuses, promoted conspiracy theories about the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, and white-washed his government’s violations of international treaties.
- After the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo republished controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in early September, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei addressed the nation, accusing the U.S. and “Zionists” of using Charlie Hebdo to “distract the nations and governments of West Asia” from their “sinister plots.” Charlie Hebdo’s actions “revealed the hatred and hostility of the political and cultural institutions of the Western world against Islam and the Muslim community,” Khamenei claimed misleadingly.
- Overlooked by Khamenei: Charlie Hebdo has aimed its satire at other religions, not just Islam. And Western politicians at times have criticized the magazine for going too far.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi
With Egypt’s heavy involvement in several conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, statements of its leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi rarely reach the international audience. But when they do, some of his claims turn out misleading or false. Like leaving out crucial details in his talk with the U.S. President Donald Trump or denying his government’s record of brutal human rights violations.
- In a phone call with the U.S. President Donald Trump in July el-Sisi said that maintaining a ceasefire in Libya and avoiding escalation between the forces fighting for control over the North African country was a key to restoring peace, and any foreign interference will result in further deterioration of Libya’s security situation.
- As el-Sisi spoke with Trump, Egypt’s parliament voted – secretly, according to local media – to authorize the president to send the nation’s military into Libya.
- El-Sisi had requested the parliamentary approval less than week earlier after meeting with the leaders of Libya’s eastern tribes and declaring that Egypt might intervene in that country militarily “to face terrorism” and “protect national security.”
- At a December 7 news conference in Paris, journalists asked el-Sisi and his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, tough questions about human rights violations under the Egyptian president’s rule, and protesters staged a demonstration outside France's National Assembly.
- El-Sisi defended his record. “It is not appropriate for you to present the Egyptian state, and everything it does for its people and the stability of the region as an oppressive regime,” he said.
- According to the local and international watchdogs, the Egyptian government or its agents have been involved in systematic arbitrary arrests, the extra-judicial killing of civilians, torture and forced disappearances. Mass sentencing, such verdicts as life in prison and death have become a common practice under el-Sisi’s rule.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Since 2014, Maduro has presided over a country with increasing economic and humanitarian crises. After the disputed 2018 elections, which were rejected by the opposition and many international leaders (including the U.S.), Maduro and the opposition leader Juan Guaido have been in a political standoff. Maduro’s government has further isolated Venezuela with his attempt to maintain power, as the U.S. increased sanctions on goods like oil. Maduro, however, often boasts his government’s success, even as Venezuelans are suffering from hunger and the COVID-19 pandemic. He often blames the U.S. for his own failures.
- In October, Maduro praised his 7+7 intermittent quarantine system, under which the government alternates between easing restrictions and imposing them. Although Venezuela had seen a recent decline in cases, Maduro’s claims left a misleading impression by ignoring the long, chronic erosion of Venezuelan health care.
- Years of underfunding and mismanagement crippled health care. The latest (2019) Global Health Security Index study of 195 countries ranked Venezuela 146th.
- After nationwide quarantine orders failed to contain the outbreak in Venezuela – in part because people didn’t have access to necessities that would allow them to stay at home – Maduro's government introduced the 7+7 system in June.
- Since August, experts have said infection rates are growing faster than testing capacity. A lawmaker and medical adviser to opposition leader Juan Guaidó told Reuters the disparity creates an “artificial flattening of the contagion curve.”
- Venezuelans returning to their country were called “bioterrorists” by Maduro, and reports show they have been welcomed by security forces and detained in overcrowded and unsanitary quarantine centers.
- In June, Maduro tweeted that "every day we protect the health of our people.” However, in a study released on May 8, the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences concluded that "the tests carried out so far in Venezuela are insufficient to adequately estimate the true size of the COVID-19 epidemic in Venezuela." It also concluded that "underreporting is estimated to be 63 percent at best and at worst 95 percent of symptomatic cases as of April 23, 2020." Following the study's publication, the head of the pro-government Constituent National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, dismissed the study and ordered an investigation into it. The academy said on Twitter that it was being threatened for "doing [its] work.”
- On August 18, Maduro tweeted a video of Norkis Obispo, a member of the pro-government political organization Frente Francisco de Miranda, talking about her experience being treated for COVID-19 at the Dr. Egor Nucete Hospital. The video was used to paint a positive picture of care available in the country and Venezuela’s efforts to combat the pandemic. Just two days after Maduro’s tweet, members of the nursing staff at Dr. Egor Nucete Hospital launched a sit-down strike. They refused to further treat COVID-19 positive patients until they were guaranteed proper biosafety equipment and supplies, along with “decent and optimal working conditions” to treat patients without putting themselves at risk.
- After preliminary results gave Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko a landslide reelection victory against his main political opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maduro put out a statement praising Lukashenko for his “undeniable victory.”
- But many Belarusians and foreign leaders disputed the results, and furious protests began immediately after the polls closed. Lukashenko’s chief opponent – whose husband, a former candidate, is jailed – fled the country. According to CNN, observers reported widespread ballot stuffing.
- Lukashenko had congratulated Maduro after a similarly disputed election in 2018 that triggered a leadership crisis persisting today.
- During a televised briefing on September 1, Maduro claimed that the United States president had ordered him killed.
- In March, the Trump administration indicted Maduro, as well as 14 of his top officials, on drug trafficking charges. A $15 million reward was offered for any information leading to the Venezuelan president’s arrest or conviction, along with a $10 million reward for information on his inner circle members. The reward was not for his assassination.