The end of 2020 witnessed the reach of disinformation targeting the Baltic countries and Poland growing rapidly. The alarming trend was influenced by the news about the charges brought by Latvia against several Kremlin-funded media journalists, suspected of breaching EU sanctions. The same story has also caused a stir in Estonia. In turn, the change of the government in Lithuania, and issues related to the measures taken against the official regime in Minsk, amplified the portrayal of the country as a failed state. Topics associated with COVID-19 dominated false and misleading coverage in Poland, as the country has tightened lockdown measures and launched vaccination program.
Throughout December 1-31, 2020, analysts from Debunk EU reviewed 6,008 articles with potentially harmful content, identifying 1,151 articles with false and misleading content from 96 media outlets in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian languages.
Analysed articles had potential reach of 355.6 million contacts. The figure for Estonia stood at 59.8 million, which was an increase of 45.1% compared to November 2020. The numbers for Latvia and Poland grew as well, with an increase of more than 1,5 times (158%) for the latter and a whopping, almost fourfold (380%) rise concerning false and misleading coverage targeting Latvia. It was only the reach of mis/disinformation focusing on Lithuania to decline, down by 44.7%.
The effect major news groups had on the line-up of the narratives within the four countries analysed was clearly visible in December: COVID-19 led in terms of articles as it was clearly ahead of other topics in Poland, as a response to lockdown measures and the rollout of vaccination. Anti-Baltics and/or Poland had to do with the alleged interference into internal affairs of Belarus and, even more so, was among the leading narratives resulting from the articles claiming human rights were violated in the Baltics (Latvia and Estonia in particular). The latter was also connected with Enemising Russia (the image of the Baltics as Russophobic countries).
One single event shaped the dynamics of mis/disinformation in Latvia and, to alesser extent, Estonia. The detention of seven Baltnews and Sputnik journalists by the Latvian State Security Service sparked a wave of problematic information, echoed during the month via comments and appeals made by Russian officials, including president of the country Vladimir Putin.
On December 3rd, Latvian State Security Service performed court-sanctioned procedural activities on sites connected with seven persons in Riga and its surroundings on the grounds of suspicion of violation of international sanctions. The journalists were charged because of their association with Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads Rossiya Segodnya and has been imposed with EU sanctions for his role in promoting Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Kremlin-related media portrayed the procedural actions as an expression of Latvian Russophobia and desire to eliminate the alternative media. The mis/disinformation pursued the message that the accusations against Sputnik and Baltnews journalists of breaching EU sanctions were false and violated the freedom of speech:
Apparently, in an effort to cleanse the media space from alternative sources of information, here they are ready to go beyond all conceivable limits. Really, this time too, the proper reaction will not follow from Latvia's EU partners and relevant international organizations?” - the statement of the Embassy [Russia’s Embassy in Latvia] says. Russian RT, 04/12/2020
The disinformation related to this case has been debunked by EU vs. Disinfo and the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter noted that “Russia ranks 149th among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for 2020 compiled by the Reporters Without Borders, while Latvia has traditionally been among the 25 countries around the globe with the highest scores on media independence and journalist security.”
Estonia was mostly blamed of implementing Russophobic policies, especially concerning the treatment of journalists. Kremlin-related digital media sources linked the events in Latvia and Estonia and used it to spread disinformation claiming a systematic persecution of Russian journalists in the Baltic states:
The persecution of Russian journalists in the Baltic countries is becoming an unkind tradition that marks the end of the next calendar year. Last year the example was shown in Estonia, this year, it was picked up by Latvia. Baltnews,07/12/2020
Adding on to the Russophobic narrative, the claims that Russian population has no rights in Estonia has been a regular topic (e.g., Russian schools are being closed on the basis of everyday nationalism in Estonia Baltnews.ee, 03/12/2020). With such claims, the pro-Kremlin media focuses on isolated incidents: for example, a school closing in Keila due to low attendance was presented as a trend. In turn, the Minister of Education of Estonia has stated that the government has no program that mandates closures of Russian schools. Russians are encouraged to learn Estonian because it is the official state language, however, nobody is preventing children to receive education in Russian.
False and misleading coverage on Lithuania was foremost generated by two issues. First, disinformation related to Belarus steadily continued throughout the month, varying from claims about interference into Belarusian internal affairs and instigating a colour revolution, to the alleged irrationality of opposing the BelNPP.
One of the stories concerning Belarus was to do with Lithuania and EU imposed sanctions:
They are only planning to discuss restrictive measures, but it is already clear what stupidity this is, says columnist Sergei Perepelitsa. [...] According to him, if Belaruskali withdraws its cargo from Lithuania, then the port of Klaipeda can "hang the lock” and "bury everything.lt.sputniknews.ru, 14/12/2020
In December, Lithuanian authorities discussed the possibilities to put sanctions on the state-owned producer of potash fertilizers Belaruskali, which is said to be a source of hard currency for Lukashenko’s regime. This was presented by the pro-Kremlin media as evidence of irrationality being the main driver behind Lithuanian politics. The government was accused of being ready to sacrifice the country’s economy and harm its citizens in order to reach inadequate foreign policy ambitions.
The second wave of disinformation was focused on the approval of a new Lithuanian government, which has paved the way for an amplified failed state rhetoric, for example an attempt to discredit the Defence Ministry:
Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas announced about an unprecedented hacker attack on websites of [Lithuanian] state institutions. In a strange way, this attack coincided with publishing a new EU Cybersecurity Strategy. The European Commission intends to spend billions of euros on its implementation. sputniknews.ru, 17/12/2020.
The article reacts to the announcement by the Defence Ministry of Lithuania about a massive cyberattack against Lithuanian municipality websites. Sputnik.ru suggests that cyber-attacks were possibly carried out by the government itself in order to attract attention from the EU and get additional funding. The announcement about the attacks came simultaneously with the presentation of a new EU Cybersecurity Strategy. Pro-Kremlin media seeks to portray the Lithuanian government as unfair and dependent on the EU financial support.
Among the four countries, Poland stood out in terms of COVID-19-related false and misleading content, both in terms of mentions and reach. Moreover, the articles classified under the respective narratives and sub-narratives were far ahead of other topics in terms of social interactions.
An increase in COVID-19 related coverage in Poland coincided with the announcement of additional restrictions (December 3-4) and the launch of vaccination program (December 27- 28). Poland was mostly presented as unreasonable country due to the purchase of a ‘dangerous’ vaccine and overestimating the COVID-19 effects by introducing restrictions too tight.
The article presents general conspiracy theory on vaccinations. It is stated that COVID-19 vaccines are causing autism, brain damages and death:
If vaccines prevent infectious diseases, why are all statistical and epidemiological graphs showing that infectious diseases usually had disappeared two or three generations before a given vaccine appeared? Tajne Archiwum Watykańskie, 27/12/2020
On December 27, the first person in Poland got a COVID-19 jab. This event busted a spread of anti-vaccine messages shared widely on social media platforms. The article presented hereby gathered the highest social media reach among the mis/disinformation in Poland in the period of analysis. The coronavirus vaccine is used to spread general misinformation about vaccinations, replicating false information about their dangers to health. Additionally, false information is being reproduced that the Polish government will make immunization mandatory, although the government has repeatedly assured it was to be voluntary.
Compared to the previous month, December also sought a sharp increase in Anti-EU narrative, amounting for a total of 75 mentions and ranking in the third place. The reach of Anti-EU narrative doubled compared to November. The sub-narrative EU limits the sovereignty of the Baltic states and/or Poland seemed to be applied differently than the month before, presenting Poland as a troublemaker and unreasonable state in regarding to veto of the EU budged. In November, the message was positive/neutral for Poland and negative towards EU.
Throughout the monitored period, claims about Poland allegedly planning to take over some Belarusian territories was also prominent:
Military presence is constantly growing near our western and northern borders. Poland and the Baltic states have become a training ground for regular exercises and exercises by NATO troops. We are not just facing new economic sanctions. They have started a real information war against us, they are attacking us with constant political provocations. Aleksandr Lukashenko quoted by Kresy.pl, 30/12/2020
The President of Belarus during several meetings in December, argued that NATO troops in Poland and in the Baltic states pose a threat to Belarus. The countries were presented as a NATO training ground, blindly following orders. The goal of Poland and NATO, according to these false statements, would be to take over the western lands of Belarus.
In December, sputniknews.ru led in terms of false and misleading messages published within the period, with a share very alike to that in November (16.9% vs. 18.3%). Most notably, the share of Polish web portals neon24.pl and nczas.com grew, from 4.7% to 9.3% and from 2.6% to 9.2%, respectively.