In the last quarter of 2020, disinformation dynamics in the Baltic countries, especially in Lithuania, were majorly influenced by the post-electoral protests in Belarus, with accusations of interference into Belarusian internal affairs and allegedly enticing a ‘colour revolution’ in the country. The Baltics were also continuously portrayed as Russophobic, along with claims about the revival of fascist ideas, violations of freedom of speech, and discriminatory initiatives against Russian and Russian-language media outlets, triggered by events in Latvia and Estonia.
Throughout October-December 2020, Debunk EU detected 36,327 articles related to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, posted by hostile media sources. Of these, analysts with Debunk EU reviewed 17,047 articles with potentially harmful content. 2,210 articles with false and misleading content from 80 media outlets in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Russian languages were identified.
The 2,210 articles with false and misleading content analysed by Debunk EU had a potential reach of 677.7 million contacts.
There were a couple of trigger stories noticed throughout October-December of 2020 which have shaped the dynamics of false and misleading content targeting the Baltics.
A wild uproar of disinformation arose after December 3, when the Latvian State Security Service (VDD) performed court sanctioned procedural activities on sites connected with seven persons in Riga and its surroundings on the grounds of suspicion of violation of international sanctions. The journalists affiliated with Sputnik and Baltnews were suspected of trying to bypass the EU sanctions set on Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya, for his role in promoting annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. This case echoed throughout December and was further amplified via comments and appeals made by top Russian officials, including the President Vladimir Putin.
It is important to mention that at the turn of 2019/2020, Estonia followed the EU sanctions enforcement and closed the branch of Sputnik news agency in the country. Those two events in Latvia and Estonia were linked and further generalised to claim a systematic persecution of Russian speaking journalists in the Baltics. The event paved the way for allegations that the right to freedom of opinion and expression was violated, especially in Latvia, and allowed for claims of Russophobia and/or Fascism to re-appear again:
'While the Latvian authorities, hoping for a quick vaccination against coronavirus, declared an emergency regime in the country, the special services of this Baltic republic apparently decided to revive the bacilli of ordinary fascism […]. The radical establishment has enough ways to do this, including persecution of other-minded and democratic press. […]. [...] the State Security Service detained several Russian-speaking journalists simultaneously […]. “At this hour, my friend and colleague, journalist Andrei Yakovlev, has not yet returned from the Gestapo,” Berezovskaya wrote on Facebook.' Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 04/12/2020
By using the technique of association, which seeks to direct the audience to experience a simplified, one-sided emotional response to a complex event by using quotes and images that engender strong positive or negative feelings, the article is structured to portray Latvia as a country reviving fascism and using Gestapo methods to achieve its goals. This correlates to the rhetoric of the pro-Kremlin media suggesting that Latvia (and the Baltic countries overall) are undergoing a revival of Nazism/Fascism, which allegedly stems from the interwar traditions and leaves no room for democratic principles the Baltics pretend to value. The message is being redirected from clearly formulated charges to vague and yet emotionally charged claims about the violations of the right to freedom of speech and “radical establishment”. In addition, as noted by the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 'Russia ranks 149th among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2020 compiled by the Reporters Without Borders, while Latvia has traditionally been among the 25 countries around the globe with the highest scores on media independence and journalist security.'
During the last quarter of 2020, many stories targeting Baltic countries, and Lithuania in particular, concerned the political upheaval in Belarus. One of the events which has sparked a wave of disinformation was to do with Belarus demanding for Lithuania to reduce their diplomatic mission in Minsk:
'The Belarusian Foreign Ministry stressed that Lithuania is obliged to reduce the number of its diplomats. […] “In view of the unambiguous destructive activity on the part of these countries, they were offered to bring the composition of their diplomatic missions in Belarus to parity with the Belarusian foreign missions in the respective countries by 9 October," said Glaz. […] "Warsaw and Vilnius will strive to internationalise aspects of the Belarusian crisis, bringing them to the European level, so that Europe deals with each trifling matter separately […]".' RT, 04/10/2020
Since mass have protests erupted in Belarus with citizens of the country demanding fair elections, Lithuania has been targeted by the pro-Kremlin media for its pro-active stance towards the issue. Even though the presidential election of August 9, 2020, was found in violation of international electoral standards and human rights law (as declared by the European Council), it was still alleged that Lithuania, by supporting the Belarusian opposition (which is viewed as illegitimate and extremist), was interfering into Belarusian internal affairs and ‘ignoring the basic rights of sovereignty of Belarus’.
Prevalence of the aforementioned messages, targeting the Balticstates for their stance towards Belarus (Lithuania foremost), as well as alleged violations of human rights in the Baltics (especially in Latvia and Estonia, as showcased by trigger stories) made the Anti-Baltics narrative the leading one in Q4, 2020, both in terms of hits and reach.
Enemising Russia (purveying the image of the Baltics as Russophobic countries, as well as the claims about the pressure and discriminatory initiatives geared against Russian and Russian-language outlets as unwanted media) ranked second as measured by DebunkReach®. It was followed by Failed state (the portrayal of the Baltics as having incompetent governments that make ill-considered decisions, including that of opposing the Astravets NPP), which, ranked second in terms of articles.
Throughout the monitored period, Estonia was mostly presented as implementing Russophobic policies, especially concerning the treatment of journalists (caused by the story about detention of pro-Kremlin media journalists in Latvia) and local Russian speaking population. Moreover, resignation of several ministers from the Estonian Government was among the triggers to amplify the sub-narrative of Governmental failure.
‘[A] number of media sources wrote about the intention of the Estonian authorities to block the passage through the Gulf of Finland to Russian ships. This concerns not only warships and submarines, but also commercial and transport vessels of purely civilian use. Poland is expected to join the blockade as part of NATO's joint action. […] Tallinn wants to get its hands into a new “wallet”, hoping that Russophobic rhetoric will pave way for a "pot of gold" from NATO subsidies.’ RIA FAN, 03/10/2020
This story about the alleged Estonian intentions to close the Gulf of Finland to Russian ships appeared on October 3, 2020. Various points from this case were used to generate the most disinformation articles about Estonia throughout the analysis period.
The reality of the story was that at the end of September, Estonia announced that the defence spending in 2021 would rise to €645.4 million, constituting 2.3% of GDP. With this announcement, the Ministry of Defence made a point that those additional funds will be allocated to purchase a coastal defence system. The news was twisted by the pro-Kremlin media as a plan to close the access to the Gulf of Finland to Russian military vessels, submarines and even civilian [sic] ships.
In Latvia, similarly as in Estonia, Russophobia led as the most pronounced sub-narrative in October – December 2020. It was followed by Human rights are violated in the Baltic states as measured by DebunkReach®, as the two went in combination in two major trigger stories on Latvia in the period of analysis: the Latvian Security Services identifying theRussian citizen and veteran Vladimir Norvind as a threat to the national security and deporting him to Russia, as well as performing investigative activities associated with severalSputnik and Baltnews journalists suspected of breaching EU sanctions. For example:
'[...] The actions of Latvian authorities proved that it would be more profitable for Moscow to rid itself of any potential need to deal with such neighbours. Continuous calls for new sanctions, talking about the "Russian threat" and "aggressive neighbour," inviting NATO troops to the borders of Russia, shutting down Russian schools ... how could Moscow consider the needs and interests of Latvia that implements such policies? [...] Latvia's political elite is organically unable to eliminate its anti-Russian nature and just be silent. Without telling, it is unable to show its eastern neighbour any gesture of goodwill instead of the middle finger gesture.' rubaltic.ru, 27/10/2020
This article repeatedly uses a vague and undefined term of ‘anti-Russian nature’ to describe the official Riga and the country’s political elite. It presents NATO military exercises in Latvia as a threat near the Russian borders and suggests that calling Russia an ‘aggressive neighbour’ is nothing but a fable, slurring over the fact that the Baltic countries have objective reasons for security concerns, namely the illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Through October-December 2020, in Lithuania the top three sub-narratives measured by DebunkReach® concerned Belarus, with West interferes into internal affairs of Belarus taking the lead, although it ranked only fifth in terms of mentions. The leading position of the sub-narrative reflects the importance attributed to it by the pro-Kremlin media outlets serving a wide audience.
‘Protests in Belarus are being coordinated from abroad: according to the country’s President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Western countries directly interfere into Belarusian domestic affairs and the unrest is directed by the United States, with the EU "playing along" with it. Lithuania is among the countries engaged in coordinating the protests from abroad’. RIA Novosti, 10/11/2020
Here an opinion expressed by the Belarusian president is embraced and amplified to spread the recuring narrative of the West interfering into the internal affairs of Belarus and instigating a ‘colour revolution’. The publication denies numerous reports and evidence about massive protests initiated by the Belarusian people themselves against the results of the election, which the EU Council has called ‘neither free nor fair’. The stance of Lithuania towards Belarus has been based on the fact that Minsk was violating international agreements regarding human rights and electoral laws.
The top three sources in terms of the articles with false and misleading data on Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia included Russian state-controlled sputniknews.ru, rubaltic.ru and the local branches of Baltnews media platform.
Measured by DebunkReach®, the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti made the greatest impact regarding false and misleading news about the Baltics. In Latvia and Lithuania, the news agency’s share stood at almost half of the total number of articles. RIA Novosti is a part of Russian state-controlled media group Rossiya Segodnya, headed by DmitryKiselyov.
In the last quarter of 2020, rubaltic.ru and sputniknews.ru topped the list of false/misleading coverage providers in the three countries in terms of social interactions, which was mostly achieved through many articles published by those two sources (225 and 566, respectively). In the meantime, the fringe media outlets in Lithuanian-language laisvaslaikrastis.lt and sarmatas.lt, which are often embracing pro-Kremlin media ideas, ranked third and fourth despite the low number of articles and reach. Vast majority of the hits that came from those two sources concerned COVID-19 and the nation-wide restrictions to control the pandemic.
Disinformation analysis was executed by the Debunk EU team:
Senior analysts in Lithuania Laima Venclauskienė, Balys Liubinavičius and analyst Agnė Eidimaitė,
Senior analyst in Estonia Enel Ehrenhaft,
Senior analyst in Latvia Kristine Skujina-Troksa.
Debunk EU analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:
DebunkEU analysis platform,
CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram, and Reddit.
Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content,
TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.