A year ago, before the term "fake news" became ubiquitous, Germany was reeling from the "Lisa case," a fable fanned by social media in which immigrants reportedly raped a Russian-born teenager. The story was propagated by multiple sources all the way up to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and taken up by street protesters, before it was completely discounted. The falsified incident - widely believed to have been created by the Kremlin - demonstrated perfectly the toxicity of internet-driven disinformation.
Earlier this month, outside influences, again widely believed to be Russian, tried to replicate the success of the "Lisa" faux-scandal in Lithuania. They instigated the affair by planting a report via an email to the speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament claiming German soldiers, who are leading NATO's new battle group there, had raped a teenager.
This time, however, the targets weren't such easy prey and the rumor never really got off the ground. Czech General Petr Pavel, head of NATO's military committee, got out ahead of Lithuanian investigators in blaming the incident on Moscow and saying he expects there will be more. Lithuanian police are thus far just confirming the attack came from "outside the EU."
But whether or not this particular attempt is ultimately traceable to Kremlin-funded propagandists, Vilnius was expecting such provocations. With reinforcements of NATO troops moving in to guard against a ground or air assault, Lithuanian officials presumed that sooner or later, an information attack of this sort would be launched against the "Enhanced Forward Presence" (EFP). Lithuania's Defense Ministry Spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite explains her country's fatalistic anticipation in two words: "history lessons."
"Lithuania has a sad history of being occupied twice without a single shot," she said, "in 1795 by the Russian Empire and in 1940 by Soviet Russia." While central and Eastern Europe may be just starting to comprehend what a threat these faceless adversaries are, Ramanauskaite says such hostilities were detected in Lithuania already a dozen years ago and counter-propaganda measures were put in place. She credits this early awareness with the successful snuffing out of the rumor. The "fake rape" claim was quickly red-flagged in communication channels throughout the armed forces, police and government institutions and within NATO. In addition, she notes, the general public has been sensitized to the dangers of propaganda and information attacks, with 68 percent agreeing in a recent survey that they pose a threat to national security.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg himself rapidly got word of the case, crediting Lithuanian media with not spreading the "fake news."
"One of the important lessons we shall learn from this kind of incident is that it is extremely important to check facts," he said following NATO's defense ministerial meeting on February 16. "That has always been the case but it's perhaps even more important now because we have seen several attempts of disinformation and the spread of stories which are not true."
Weapon of mass distraction
In an exclusive interview with DW, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, Ambassador Sorin Ducaru, was still extremely concerned about the incident, despite its failure to escalate.
"This is a clear example of information manipulation with a sense of weaponization," Ducaru said, "because it really was supposed to affect the perception about the presence of German troops as the [EFP] framework nation in Lithuania. It was supposed to affect morale; it was supposed to affect everything - the operational functioning."
And despite the failure of this particular attempt, says Dr. Stefan Meister with the German Council on Foreign Relations, Russia has seen clearly that disinformation is its most successful weapon to weaken and divide the West.
"It fits much more in line with their goals and it's much cheaper than any military buildup or any modernization of the army," Meister explained. "And in the end it works. We are so insecure about our media system, our politicians and growing populism and so on."
Russia is still winning the propaganda war against NATO and EU countries, Meister believes, and that's their own fault. He says the age-old resistance to sharing data, especially regarding security threats, comes into play here. EU governments are choosing to tackle it by themselves rather than funding and equipping the bloc as a center point of counter-propaganda.
"It's a lack of strategy," Meister says, "and even the lack of will to have a strategy. I think that's a big mistake."
Echoing Lithuania's Ramanauskaite, Meister says the Baltic states, Finland and Sweden have been dealing with the reality of the threat much longer than countries to their South and would have a lot to share with, for example, France and Germany, which are late to the game.
Meister believes Germany will increasingly be a target due to both its role in NATO's deterrence measures in the East and its coming elections, and also because its society is so divided about those issues.
Meanwhile, Russia says it's setting up a new counter-disinformation unit of its own, similar to the EU's, so that it can identify Western mainstream media articles as "fake news."