On March 11, a public holiday commemorates the day that the newly democratically elected Parliament of Lithuania declared independence in 1990, catalysing the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At midday on Wednesday in the Independence Square of Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius, crowds gathered for the “Freedom” celebration as the three Baltic flags were raised, before marching through the government district.
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Thirty years since independence, Lithuania is still battling for the freedom of information, as civic initiatives and legislation are set out to counter false news stories from Russian state TV and social media.
Russian disinformation is nothing new to Lithuania or its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Estonia.
“It never truly ceased after the end of the Soviet Union. But there was a significant lull leading up to 2004, when all three Baltic states joined NATO,” says Monika Hanley, a researcher at the Strategic Communications Center for Excellence (StratCom), a NATO organisation based in Riga, Latvia that monitors and publishes reports on Russian disinformation.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, false narratives became “much more aggressive,” says Lukas Andriukaitis, an Associate Editor at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council.
Typical narratives portray the Baltics as failed states that have fared worse since leaving the Soviet Union, or as Nazi sympathisers that oppress the Russian population.
Andriukaitis monitors Russian disinformation in the Baltics, particularly about NATO’s presence in the region.
“Every week we see new narratives,” he says, describing a recent story from Russia, which alleges that a large-scale NATO military exercise in Europe, “Defender 2020“, will cause the coronavirus to rapidly spread across Europe.
— Linas Kojala (@LinasKojala) March 11, 2020
Hacking is another concern.
When Russian operatives again broke into online news platform Kas vyksta Kaune, they posted a new story about US plans to move nuclear weapons to Lithuania. They sent fake emails pretending to be from known journalists to Lithuanian officials, looking for an official comment on the fake story, and even a fake tweet from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “congratulating” the Lithuanian president on the news.
Back in Russia, the story was circulated widely across social media channels.
The aim, says Elina Lange-Ionatamishvili, a senior expert at Stratcom, is to create chaos.
“It seeks to create mistrust between citizens and their government, shift the focus away from Russia and portray Russia in a positive light,” she says.
The ‘Elves’ versus the trolls
A rapidly growing counter disinformation initiative in Lithuania is the so-called Elves, a loose network of more than 3,000 anonymous volunteers who spend their free time dismantling the information campaigns of Russian trolls.
“They may be mathematicians, chemistry experts, linguists,” says Vaidas Saldziunas, a defence correspondent at Delfi, a Baltic media outlet that collaborates with the elves.
The group was formed in 2014 following the conflict in eastern Ukraine when the threat of Russian information warfare on the West became a top concern among the international community.
“People thought, what can they do to prevent the same thing happening here,” says Saldziunas.
Another counter-disinformation project is the website Demaskuok.
Also known as Debunk.eu, it is formed by a collaboration of the military, journalists and civil society, funded by Google Digital News Innovation Fund and Delfi.
Using an analytic tool driven by multiple artificial intelligence algorithms, it scans an estimated 30,000 articles a day from more than 1,000 sources against a database of trigger words and narrative.
Elves and fact checkers verify the articles and identify the potential false narratives. Flagged content is then reviewed by journalists from a range of outlets and the elves potential further action, including vigorous debunking.
“If we expose the source of disinformation, there’s a good chance people will realise it can’t be trusted,” says Saldziunas.
Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law and regulation at HEC Paris, says the initiative’s impact is “limited given the scale and nature of disinformation”.
Another consideration, he says, is belief formation. One 2017 study shows that correcting disinformation does not change people’s political perceptions.
The lack of a “clear-cut” criteria used by debunking initiatives across Europe leaves room for error, says Alemanno.
The weakness of official counter-disinformation efforts was highlighted by EU vs Disinfo, the EU’s in-house online anti-disinformation effort. In March 2018, the site retracted articles from Dutch media after falsely labelling it disinformation, sparking criticism in the Netherlands.
One article was mistranslated by non-Dutch speakers at a Ukrainian NGO, while another was satire mistakenly taken at face value.
Alemanno, who complained about the anti-fake news initiative to the EU’s internal watchdog, says: “It was concerning that those individuals or organisations who might have been blacklisted had no chance to ask for a review, despite the risk of major reputational damage. The situation hasn’t really improved.”
Lithuania has an increasing number of legal tools to combat alleged sources of disinformation.
The country’s Radio and Television Commission has intermittently fined and suspended Russian TV channels – such as the Kremlin-backed Planeta RTR and Sputnik – for using fake information to falsely depict historical events or inciting hatred.
Authorities can also order electronic communications providers such as servers to shut down for 48 hours without a court order if they are used to launch a ‘cyber incident’, including a disinformation attack.
Academics and journalists said these measures will not truly address the problem of Russian propaganda. “Any attempt at limiting the outreach can be defied by subtler forms of communication online,” says Alemanno.
While many states have emphasised technical solutions, teaching media literacy – the ability to tell the difference between credible and false information – is more effective, says Hanley.
Finland has had notable success in this regard.
In 2014, the government devised a public school curriculum that gives young children lessons in critical thinking, fact checking, and interpreting information. The Nordic nation tops the list of 35 European countries deemed the most resilient to disinformation, according to the 2019 Media Literacy Index.
Although there have been attempts to highlight the importance of media literacy in Lithuania – which comes in 19th place on the index – the concept is not widespread. Andriukaitis of the Atlantic Council recognises the need for more media literacy education. This week he will teach workshops about verifying sources of information to school children.
“Disinformation can never be fully stopped unless all pieces of information are filtered, which is quite impossible, nor should that happen, in most opinions. The idea of having some sort of overarching truth authority defeats the purpose of a free society,” says Hanley. “Societal resilience is key.”