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‘Non-existent Russian threat’ and suppression of free speech dominate the disinformation landscape

The year of 2021 has started with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland increasingly targeted with allegations of human rights violations, followed by accusations of Russophobia. One of the common points of interest for the official Moscow-linked sources in terms of all four countries was related to NATO: false and misleading articles claimed that ‘Russian threat’ is a made-up concept used to pursue Russophobic policies, simultaneously alleging the dependence of the Baltics on the military alliance and its blind activity favouring the NATO.

In January 2021, Debunk EU detected 25,397 articles related to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland posted by hostile media sources. Of these, the analysts reviewed 7,783 articles with potentially harmful content, identifying 1,396 articles with false and misleading content from 119 media sources in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian languages.

Disinformation dynamics by mentions, @Debunk data
Disinformation dynamics by mentions, @Debunk data

The 1,396 articles with false and misleading content analysed by Debunk EU had a potential reach of 513.3 million contacts.

Disinformation dynamics by reach, @Debunk
Disinformation dynamics by reach, @Debunk
Disinformation dynamics by mentions, @Debunk
Disinformation dynamics by mentions, @Debunk

In the beginning of 2021, the Kremlin-tied media targeted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania both as separate entities and as a single body (the term denoting the three countries as a unit, the Baltic countries, Pribaltika, was used in about every fifth headline of the analysed articles).

Noticeably, the three were targeted in the articles amplifying concerted campaigns claiming that Russia-related media and/or Russian citizens were persecuted in the Baltics (as with the case of Sputnik and Baltnews journalists investigated by the Latvian State Security Service).

The common denominators of interest for the official Moscow-linked sources in terms of all four countries was to do with military (NATO), situation in Belarus and protests against the detention of Alexei Navalny.

Languages by mentions and reach, @Debunk
Languages by mentions and reach, @Debunk

The narrative of human rights being violated in Latvia was escalated by claims that the investigation launched by the state security services regarding the seven journalists affiliated with Sputnik and Baltnews in Latvia back in December were groundless and violated the freedom of expression, as well as discriminated the Russian minority.

Narrative timeline, @Debunk data
Narrative timeline, @Debunk data

The escalation of the issue has also pushed other narratives into the background: just as in the previous month, January presented a remarkable decrease in articles explaining Latvia as a failed state.

The research has also shown reoccurring usage of NATO-related disinformation, for example that the “Russian threat” is a made-up term used to scare the Baltic countries:

Besides, the United States and NATO have been telling Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia for a long time about the "Russian threat", which is more a horror story than reality. All this is done to force the Baltic states, and Lithuania in particular, to act in the interests of the United States, providing them with the territory adjacent to Russia to realize their goals and interests in this region., 25/01/2021

The article describes the Baltic States and NATO's cooperation as a dependence of the Baltics on the military alliance and its blind activity favouring the NATO. The problematic information often describes the mutual strategic cooperation as NATO manipulations to discredit NATO's credibility as a trustworthy organisation and discredit the Baltic States' sovereignty.

In January, the leading narrative concerning Estonia was focused on the country being Russophobic. The speech made by the President of the Estonian Parliament about the Tartu treaty between Soviet Russia and Estonia was amplified by the pro-Kremlin media to a great extent. This caused Estonia to lead among the four countries in terms of reach. The narrative reached 85 million potential contacts, which is out to two-times bigger audience than the whole false and misleading coverage on Estonia in November.

The second most pronounced narrative - Estonia violating human rights - achieved a reach of approximately 45 million and was mostly affected by the alleged prosecution of Russian-speaking journalists in the Baltics.

One of the examples of claims of Estonia being Russophobic and violating the rights of Russian minorities is an article quoting a journalist Priit Hõbemägi out of the context:

Let us remind you that in recent years Estonia has been actively fighting against everything Russian and pursuing a discriminatory policy towards the Russian speaking population. At the same time, the grandchildren of the President of Estonia abroad for some reason go to a Russian kindergarten, although in the country she pursues a tough anti-Russian policy., 30/01/2021

The opinion of the journalist that for the Estonian children it is better to learn other foreign languages than Russian, as the countries are not in a friendly relation and have only few points of contact, has been used to generalise on Estonia’s policies towards Russia and the Russian minority. A matter of preferences in learning languages was turned into a matter of banning the Russian language from the schools in Estonia.

The line-up of narratives concerning Lithuania reflects the importance the pro-Kremlin media attaches to certain messages and shows the target audience of a given narrative. Thus, measured by DebunkReach®, it was the narrative about Lithuania being Russophobic that topped the list, followed by NATO is a threat to a country, suggesting that these were the two issues addressed by the Russian media outlets with the widest reach, in both Russia and abroad.

Noticeably, the high numbers of COVID-19 cases in Lithuania and the strict lockdown measures implemented made it an easy target to claim the country was failing to fight the pandemic. In contrast to Poland, the Baltic states were also targeted fiercely for refusing to buy the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, claiming the refusal was a sign of Russophobia.

30th anniversary of the Freedom Defenders day on January 13th also brought out various interpretations of events from 1991 in the non-systemic Lithuanian media. Freedom Defenders Day commemorates the events of 1991, when Soviet soldiers attacked the Lithuanian National Broadcaster and the Television Tower, and 14 unarmed civilians died while defending these buildings with many more injured.

Protests in Russia fuelled by the detention of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and Lithuania, together with other Baltic countries, pushing for European sanctions for responsible Russian officials, were also touched on in the pro-Kremlin media:

The Baltics are also trying to bite off their piece of the pie from the process of "swinging" Russia, where for many years they have created the infrastructure to support the Russian liberal opposition. The success of the protests for Navalny (expressed in their massiveness and, even better, in the violence and victims that will cause ferment in Russian society) will give hope that money will again flow to the Baltic states to support and develop this infrastructure. Any international activity of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia always boils down to the West giving them money to continue this activity., 21/01/2021

The article accuses the Baltic countries of interfering in the domestic affairs of Russia and trying to destabilize the situation. According to the article, the Baltics continuously receive funds from Western countries to organise the opposition in Russia. Similar accusations prevail in disinformation cases concerning protests in Belarus.

Similar to the Baltic countries, in January Poland was increasingly presented as a Russophobic country, which was mostly caused by calling for sanctions against Russia for detaining Alexei Navalny. The second leading narrative concerning Poland was to do with accusations of the country being a vassal to NATO, EU, and US.

False and misleading content about COVID-19 has also noticed throughout the monitored period:

Two years ago, an American institute PATENTED (!! - for what?) The SARS-2 virus. The coronavirus is SARS-19 maybe someone helped it mutate. And because the Americans really want to destroy their biggest competitor, China - maybe someone wanted to kill two birds with one stone and planted this virus in Wuhan? Najwyższy Czas!, 01/01/2021

The online article by the controversial former MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, the founder of the Polish far-right tabloid Najwyższy Czas! received the largest number of social reactions in January 2021 within the false and misleading content concerning Poland (and the four countries in general). The media outlet is associated with Confederation/Konfederacja political grouping, known for promoting pro-Russian agenda. According to a recent research by a Polish social media expert, over the last few months Konfederacja’s social media channels have become increasingly popular via publishing materials sceptical of the COVID vaccines being developed by pharmaceutical companies, which seems to be a part of their strive towards greater social/electoral capital.

In January, led in terms of false and misleading messages published within the period, with a similar share as that in December (18.6% vs. 16.9%). The Lithuanian branch of Baltnews ranked second (10%), followed by (6.6%).

Measured by reach, again took the first position, though its share declined from 36.3% in December 2020 to 30.9% in January 2021, as entered the top providers of false and misleading content capturing a share of 14.6% via 19 articles posted (73.2 million potential contacts). For impact comparison, it took 259 articles to reach out to 12.5 million potential contacts (a share of 2.4% measured by reach).

Sources by mentions and reach, @Debunk
Sources by mentions and reach, @Debunk

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