NATO drills, COVID-19 rules, alleged interference in Belarus used to target the Baltics and Poland

While the second wave of COVID-19 is raging, the pandemic still is at the core of false/misleading information targeting Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. Accusations of not being able to handle the crisis, spread by the Kremlin related media, doubled down on the ever-present narratives of Baltic countries and Poland serving the West by interfering in Belarus and allowing NATO military exercises on their territory.

In November 2020, Debunk EU analysed 1,175 articles with false and misleading content from 102 media outlets in the Baltic countries and Poland in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian languages. The articles had a potential reach of 226 million contacts.

Throughout the monitored period, the vectors of the volume of false and misleading coverage on the Baltic countries went in different directions. Lithuania saw a steep growth of disinformation (up by 42.7% measured by hits), in turn, Latvia saw a modest decline (down by 9.9%), whilst Estonia showed a moderate increase in the volume (up by 25.9%).

Disinformation dynamics in the Baltic countries and Poland, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

Measured by reach, the coverage targeting Lithuania grew by 14.4%, that of Estonia declined by 4.7%, and the indicator halved in Latvia (down by 50.7%). The trend of the lower average reach per article applicable to all the Baltic countries may be explained by the Kremlin propaganda targeting local audiences in the Baltics more, rather than in October, when such news as expelling a former officer of the soviet armed forces from Latvia was highly usable for a wider auditorium in Russia itself.

Disinformation dynamics in the Baltic countries and Poland, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

Moreover, the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic had its impact on the disinformation/misinformation flow in the Baltics and Poland. In Lithuania, COVID-19 ranked 3rd in terms of hits, yet only 10th measured by reach (keeping the overall reach lower simultaneously). In Poland, COVID-19 was the leading narrative in November measured by the number of articles; those also received the most reaction on Facebook.

Share of false/misleading articles by narratives in the Baltics and Poland, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

The Anti-Baltics and Poland narrative involved misleading criticism directed towards the Baltic countries and Poland for their stance towards the protests in Belarus and expanding the sanctions against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime. The use of this rhetoric has been on decline for several months now, and in November, prompted by the U.S. presidential election and NATO military exercises, the sub-narrative portraying the Baltic states and/or Poland as U.S./NATO vassals was on the rise.

Top 10 sub-narratives in the Baltics and Poland, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

Expanding sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime added the most to the spread of Anti-Baltics narrative in Estonia. On November 20th, following the death of Belarusian protester Roman Bondarenko, Estonia proposed new sanctions against Belarus, which caused a spike in otherwise steady but slow flow of articles.

Disinformation dynamics in Estonia, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

Notably, since the launch of the BelNPP in November, the pro-Kremlin media has intensified their disinformation narratives regarding the stance of the Baltic states towards the BelNPP and their refusal to purchase electricity from Belarus. In November, those narratives singled out Estonia as well, where in previous months, the rhetoric only pertained to Lithuania and Latvia.

The analysis has shown that the failed state narrative was fuelled by the governmental crisis in the country which was sparked by interpretations of the U.S. elections voiced by some officials. The Estonian government crisis started in October, caused by an interview of the Estonian Internal Minister Mart Helme to the Russian service of Deutsche Welle.

In November, after denouncing the U.S. election result as rigged and calling president-elect Joe Biden “corrupt”, Mr. Helme resigned, along with his son the Finance Minister Martin Helme. To add fuel to the fire, Mailis Reps resigned as Education minister following the mounting pressure over her use of a ministerial car for non-official work. The story about Helme was once again used as an opportunity to speak of the U.S. as the “master” and Estonia as the “servant”.

Throughout the monitored period several different topics were discussed by pro-Kremlin media to show anti-Russian policies in Estonia. Estonia was portrayed to falsely accuse Russian media, discriminating individuals just based on what language they spoke, accusing Russia of manipulating history. The disinformation narratives went even as far as claiming that prominent governmental figures were agents of the Kremlin.

According to the Debunk EU analyst in Estonia, Kremlin related media is known for constructing its narrative using malign rhetoric. The technique involves whataboutism, which means twisting criticism back on the initial critic. The tactic has been a part of both Soviet and Russian propaganda, also used by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was clearly visible in a series of articles on the resolution adopted by the 26th Baltic Council on attempts on behalf of Russia to manipulate history, especially concerning the onset of WW2.

In November, the most prevailing disinformation narrative about Latvia was Enemising Russia and its sub-narrative Russophobia. The second most prevailing narrative described Latvia as Failed state.

Disinformation dynamics in Latvia, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

A trend which was observed back in October continued throughout November. “Many articles with false and misleading content focused on Russia as a key pillar of Latvian economy and Latvia as a highly Russophobia-driven state. The two interrelated closely, as Latvia was said to have lost Russia’s support (trade and transit) because of its irrational anti-Russian policies.

Share of false/misleading articles by narratives in Latvia, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

The analysis has shown that this trend was also supported by biggest news stories of the month: a letter sent by a representative of the Latvian Ministry of Transport to a high-level Russian official In it, Uldis Reimanis addressed the Assistant Minister of Transport of the Russian Federation, Yuri Petrov, about the fact that there is a long bureaucratic procedure for cargo clearance and as a result the volume of cargo dropped dramatically. The pro-Kremlin media portrayed this step as Latvia “begging” Russia to save it from the total collapse of transit, proliferating the cliché it had used for many years: the Latvian economy would break down without the aid from Russia.

Latvian celebrations of the Independence Day on November 18 were also used as pretext for accusations of Russophobia. The event, designed to commemorate the declaration of independence in 1918, was used as a means to question the country’s sovereignty, claiming it was not able to survive without the help from western countries/blocs and/or Russia. It was also used to reiterate the claims that Latvia pursues Russophobic policies and is engaged in rewriting history along with the guidelines from superior powers, e.g., the U.S. Notably, the fact of soviet occupation is repeatedly denied in the pro-Kremlin media, by, for instance, putting the word "Soviet occupation" into quotation marks.

Another example of the aforementioned portrayal of Baltic states as “vassals of the U.S. and NATO” could be the speeches by Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the annual Rīga Conference on November 13th. Both of them spoke about Russia remaining a threat, yet the pro-Kremlin media translated Stoltenberg’s words into saying:

“At the same time, Russia remains our biggest neighbour. It is not going anywhere. That is why we maintain dialogue with Russia”.

This quote was used to create an impression of NATO rejecting Russophobic policies of the Baltic countries, which are more afraid of NATO being in dialogue with Russia then an armed conflict on their territories.

Throughout the month of November, Lithuania was mostly presented as a failed state, having incompetent government that is incapable of conducting rational policy, especially concerning the launch of BelNPP. The highest increase of disinformation was identified on November 2nd-3rd and November 11th, mostly triggered by a tense political situation surrounding the launch of BelNPP as well as statements made by Russian and Belarusian official figures regarding the safety of the plant.

Narrative dynamics in Lithuania, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

The analysis has shown that Kremlin-related media outlets and official representatives of Belarus engaged in coordinated attempts to undermine and ridicule Lithuanian position towards the BelNPP. In addition to derisive associations of Lithuania being ‘hysteric’, ‘jealous’, ‘unreasonable’ and ‘irrational’, there were continuous accusations of Lithuanian government being irresponsible and intimidating its citizens with non-existent threats. On the other hand, there was an attempt to present the BelNPP as a ‘success’ story by emphasizing closer integration and ‘unity’ between the Russian Federation and Belarus.

Compared to previous periods, November also sought a sharp increase in COVID-19 narrative. As with the first wave of the pandemic, the increase in COVID-19 related problematic information coincided with the introduction of a lockdown in Lithuania, thus suggesting this narrative to gain more usage as it had in spring. Notably, increase in dissemination of this narrative was also witnessed within non-systemic Lithuanian language media sources, which accumulated for almost two-thirds of all COVID-19 narrative mentions throughout November. This shows a stark contrast to what was observed in October, when such cases constituted less than 1% of all COVID-19 related misleading information.

Share of false/misleading articles by narratives in Lithuania, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

Moreover, NATO military exercises in Lithuania Brilliant Jump 2020 and Iron Wolf 2020 caused an increase of coverage from the Kremlin-related digital media sources. On the one hand, claims about military drills being ‘provocative’ and ‘dangerous’ were used to demonize the Alliance. On the other hand, the Kremlin-related media also sought to assume the role of ‘arbitrator’ and encourage negative reactions as well as general dissatisfaction with the activity of NATO allied forces in the domestic audiences of Lithuania by claiming that military drills are becoming a ‘burden’ for common citizens and that it would eventually cause inconveniences to the country, e.g., damaged roads, car accidents, traffic jams etc.

Additionally, throughout the monitored period Kremlin-related media outlets sought to portray Lithuania along with other Baltic countries as ‘sympathizing with the ideas of Nazism and Fascism’. The desecration of Obeliai Soviet soldiers' cemetery in November was presented as an example of the supposed rehabilitation of Nazism.

Commenting on this incident, Russian Embassy in Lithuania falsely speculated that the desecration is a possible result of “[...] poured streams of Russophobia, and attempts to present Russian, Soviet people and Soviet soldiers in the most negative way in [Lithuania].”

During November, Polish media focused on three main topics: protests about the tightening of abortion law, coronavirus and purchase of vaccine, and Polish veto of the EU budget. Poland was also presented as a Russophobic country in relations to the Katyń massacre, Smoleńsk investigations, and Polish-U.S. relations.

Narrative dynamics in Poland, November 2020, @DebunkEU data

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