For their relentless fight against internet trolls, Lithuanian volunteer fact-checkers started calling themselves elves. The community unites professionals from various fields: foreign politics, cybersecurity, IT, economics, environmental protection and other.
The unique phenomenon of the elves was born in Lithuania in 2014, following events on the Maidan Square in Ukraine that included clashes between protesters and pro-government forces of the Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, Russia attacked Ukraine and occupied part of its territory. The armed conflict broke down not only on land, but also in the digital space - events in Ukraine were followed by disinformation attacks and continuous flow of propaganda. Turmoil in a neighboring country inspired a group of 40 like-minded individuals to start confronting toxic pro-Kremlin trolls on online media, particularly in the comments sections, and on social networks. The group developed its own monitoring tool to follow hostile comments on news portals.
Initially the group worked anonymously. Despite that, this grassroots movement started to grow rapidly. As one of the founders of the elven movement told The Independent, that elves are a defensive force, seeking out and countering disinformation, but not carrying out cyberattacks or disseminating counter-propaganda. The founders of the elven movement noticed that there were various groups of Facebook seemingly intended for meditation, fitness, healthy lifestyle - however, after taking a closer look, they saw that those groups were used to disseminate pro-Kremlin propaganda.
Today, the elves is a vast movement bringing together around 5,000 volunteers fighting against Russian disinformation and propaganda in Lithuania. By exposing Russian disinformation, the elves help to strengthen the resilience of Lithuanian society as it stands for freedom and democratic values. There are 50 active elves working with the Debunk.org team.
Depending on the situation, elves may act both proactively or reactively. They operate both individually and as a well-organised community. Elves check suspicious content, publicly debunk false stories, and call out websites and/or accounts spreading disinformation.
The elven ideal is to expose and combat false claims and contested narratives as fast as possible. There are different types of elves — some are debunkers of false information, others run “blame and shame” online campaigns against pro-Kremlin trolls. As the adversaries have become smarter, focusing more and more on finding the weak points in societies in the Baltics, elves work shoulder to shoulder with media outlets.
In order to keep the ecosystem intact and maximize the contribution effect, the Debunk.org team aims to strengthen the volunteer community by organizing training events and workshops. Those events provide elves with all skills and tools necessary for fighting the fight - which at times may seem uneven. However, elven input into fighting disinformation is immeasurable. Volunteers ensure that the process is fool-proof by checking content items which might have been missed by the automated, AI powered system.
Debunk.org, VsI, is an independent technology think tank and non-governmental organisation that researches disinformation and runs educational media literacy campaigns. Debunk.org conducts disinformation analysis in the Baltic states, as well as in the United States and North Macedonia together with the partners.