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Baltics battle Russia in online disinformation war

Benas Gerdziunas Lithuania
October 8, 2017

From the hacking attack on Estonia in 2007 to the fake news targeting the NATO battalions on the alliance's eastern border in 2017 — the Baltic states have been the bull's-eye of Russian-backed digital warfare.

Entrance to Kaspersky building
Image: Getty Images/AFP/K. Kudryavtsev

Ten years ago, Estonians awoke to find the country paralyzed by a mass cyberattack and in the grip of street riots, with Russian protesters traveling across the border to participate against "Nazism" and "blasphemy." The Estonian goverment's decision to relocate a memorial to Soviet soldiers in the capital Tallinn had sparked the biggest crisis since the country's independence.

The events were not unlike those that took place in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, seven years later. Around the same time, Russia's demonstrated ability to weaponize Soviet-era nostalgia and the perpetual fight against fascism came to fruition with its invasion of Crimea.

The emergence of separatism in the Baltic region has added another element of tension into the political situation, yet the three Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — have been amassing experience from decades-long disinformation, fake-news and hacking attacks.

Russian cyberespionage comes to Germany

Traditional disinformation moves online

The focus of Russian disinformation has increasingly moved online. Kremlin-funded Sputnik News started operating in all three Baltic languages in 2016. The office locations remain obscure and feature no publicly available addresses.

Alongside digital trolling, Sputnik is trying to fill the gaps left by traditional broadcast media, which mostly bypass the younger, non-Russian speaking generation in the Baltics.

NATO's StratCom Center of Excellence has reported on the limited effect of social media trolling on Latvia's population. However, the publication, entitled "Internet Trolling as a Tool of Hybrid Warfare: the Case of Latvia," notes the increasing use of "hybrid trolls" — hired trolls that communicate particular messages as determined and directed by a particular state — as opposed to individual social media spammers who merely intended to shock or threaten. 

This has triggered the emergence of Baltic "elves" — volunteer internet users dedicated to tracing trolls and challenging Russian propaganda online.

Ricardas Savukynas started the elves network following events on Maidan Square in Ukraine that included clashes between protestors and pro-government forces of the Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych.

"Russian propaganda works in three stages," Savukynas told DW. It first victimizes the subject, then polarizes him and finally, empowers the person by showing that the "USSR was better, our government is occupational, and so on," he said.

"It happens gradually, over years," added Savukynas. "Our aim is to stop the progression of stages."

The NATO report on concludes that in Latvia, "an important threat is the creation of false perception of hybrid trolls being real Russian people, leading to mutual mistrust between members of the two linguistic groups" in Latvian society — the Russian and non-Russian speaking groups. 

"Now, we see signs of the Kremlin increasingly recruiting Lithuanian speakers abroad to spam indistinguishable comments from bots," said Savukynas. "They receive small amounts of money, we found, when Kremlin recruiters mistakenly contacted some of our 'elves.'"

press room of the Baltic News Service
BNS has also been the target of disinformation attacks allegedly undertaken by RussiaImage: Ben Gerdziunas

Policing information space

In April, the Vilnius bureau of the Baltic News Service (BNS) was hacked, transmitting a fake story alleging that US troops were poisoned by mustard gas in Latvia.

It followed the case of previously fabricated rape stories, fitting a template that had been used in Germany and Ukraine. The false rape stories resurfaced most recently in September 2017 and alleged that Lithuanian military instructors had been beaten up by Ukrainian soldiers in the Luhansk region for raping two underage girls.

"Our Russian-language service concluded that the message was written in Russian first, then badly translated into Lithuanian," said Vaidotas Bensiusis, the editor at BNS.

Even though gaps in cyber defense are routinely patched up, countering moves online remains challenging. Confronting disinformation on TV, however, has taken a clearer line in Lithuania.

Read more: Estonia takes EU's helm with focus on digitalization, cyberdefense

Since 2014, Lithuania's Radio and Television Commission has intermittently suspended Russian TV channels for using fake information to falsely depict historical events or for inciting hatred and war.

However, that approach against TV-disseminated information relies upon a state's ability to transmit its own narrative in return, which can alienate critical voices inside the country.

Only Estonia has a Russian-language program to engage its Russian minority population of roughly 330,000 individuals, particularly the elderly Russian-speakers, who rely on TV as their main source of information.

A kebab shop in the Lithuanian city of Panevezys
TV is the main source of information for many people in the BalticsImage: Ben Gerdziunas

Demonized minorities

Media literacy levels in Latvia and Lithuania are some of the lowest in the EU, which leave an exploitable gap.

"It's best to increase the resistance of people, starting with media literacy education from school-age, so they can't be easily influenced by any news, or opinions," Beniusis told DW.

Read moreEstonia buoys cyber security with world's first data embassy

Yet the real danger of Russian disinformation is when it targets the poorest and most vulnerable elements of the Baltic society who feel abandoned by the state, ridiculed in the media and ignored by the public.

"The most important thing in fighting propaganda is to fight our nation's problems," said Ricardas Savukynas, "When people feel enabled to solve their problems, they can never be victimized."