The 'elves' see themselves on the front line of a battle against pro-Russian propaganda
In the shadow of a linden tree in a peaceful park in Vilnius, 44-year-old Ričardas Savukynas sits in the grass, bending over his laptop. He scrutinizes a new profile on Facebook:
“This profile has been spreading fake news and hate speech about Lithuania and Lithuanian politicians. It must be a troll,” he says and reports the profile to the social media giant.
Ričardas Savukynas works as a business consultant, but he is also a volunteer in a rapidly growing internet resistance movement of more than 5000 Lithuanians, who are on a defence mission in cyberspace. They call themselves “The Lithuanian Elves” – because they fight pro-Russian trolls online.
The Lithuanian Elves patrol social media entries to find and expose fake accounts and pro-Russian trolls. They do fact-checking and help out journalists and coordinate our work via Facebook and Skype and share their disclosures on the internet with fellow elves and other Lithuanians to alert them about sources of misinformation.
The elves started as a grassroots movement 3 years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Ričardas Savukynas and the other elves are concerned that Lithuania could be next in line.
“For many for of us, the threat from Russia is real. As we do not want war here, we are volunteering to protect our country”, he says.
Russian information activities
At the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence in Vilnius, Sergeant Tomas Ceponis from the military’s department of strategic communication explains that his team is monitoring Russian communication activities in Lithuania, both online and in TV broadcasts.
“We see an increasing amount of Russian information activities in Lithuania. Internet news pages, radio programs, newspapers and social media accounts. One of the visible activities is definitely Russian TV channels”, he says.
Over the last decade, Russian TV broadcasts on Lithuanian networks have more than doubled – from 79 hours weekly in 2007 to 198 hours this year. Tomas Ceponis explains that many of the stories broadcast on Russian TV or on social media question Lithuania’s right to exist as an independent country and support claims of Lithuanian territories. For years, several Russian politicians like MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky have talked about a Russian invasion of the Baltic countries on Lithuanian TV networks.
Ceponis explains that the Russian media often addresses Lithuania’s problems with emigration, a demographic crisis, the energy sector and income equality and thus tries to denigrate Lithuania, by implying or even directly stating that independence from Russia – as well as EU membership – only brought depopulation and economic instability.
And since Nato decided on the deployment of troops in response to growing nervousness over the Kremlin’s assertive approach, there has been an increase in fake news about Nato online, for instance, a fake news story alleging that German soldiers had raped a girl in the country.
The Lithuanian authorities try to counter what they see as misinformation using national laws to punish offending TV channels or very open propaganda cases, Tomas Ceponis explains. Often the targets are Russian.
This approach annoys the Russian ambassador in Lithuania Alexander Udaltsov.
“I do not think that sticking a propaganda label on another’s point of view is right. It’s always better to use counterarguments to prove your truth”, he told the American news agency AP in December last year.
But Lithuanian authorities do not regard the Russian misinformation as merely points of view, Tomas Ceponis says. This is why Lithuanians should be educated in the difference between fake and real information.
“And then we have to teach our citizens about real journalism, how to check facts in order to be able to distinguish between fake and real news and not be affected by pro-Russian propaganda,” he says.
According to a recent survey in Lithuania some 26 percent of Lithuanians agreed with the statement that life in the Soviet Union was better than in current Lithuania. The positive view of the Soviet past was strongest among elderly people, people with lower education, the Russian and Polish communities in Lithuania and among those who experienced substantial loss of incomes after 1990. The survey also proved a direct relationship between a positive attitude towards the Soviet past and the exposure to Russian media.
From the Kremlin perspective, accusations of a propaganda war are merely an attempt to distract attention from the internal challenges faced by the EU.
“The ongoing hysteria is clearly aimed at shifting the blame for one’s problems and failures to others,” foreign minister Sergey Lavrov claimed in a speech earlier this summer.
But for many living in Lithuania, the reality is more sinister and the stakes are high.
In front of Vilnius Cathedral lies the magic stone. The small stone commemorates the human chain which was formed in 1989 across the three Baltic states demonstrating their desire for independence from the Soviet Union which Lithuania gained in 1990.
Looking out over the Cathedral square, the 43-year-old mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, explains that many older Lithuanians feel a nostalgia for the Soviet era – and hence are easier targets for propaganda.
“I speak Russian and I grew up with Russian cartoons, culture and values. Hence it’s easier to play with my sentiments and nostalgia for the good old days in the Soviet Union than with the younger generations in Lithuania, who do not have these sentiments,” he explains.
Despite the presence of Nato battalions in their country, many Lithuanians feel a need to do their bit to protect their country. This is why he is also part of the elves resistance movement.
“15 years ago many Lithuanians felt safe under Nato’s shield. Now we understand that we have to contribute ourselves to defend our country – also on the internet,” he says.
By Anne Sofie Schrøder