False narratives about the surge of migrants used to portray Lithuania as a failed state

In the beginning of September, hostile media sought to deflect the attention by comparing living conditions of the migrants in Lithuania to concentration camps, whilst outlets from the countries of origin echoed the perspective of the EU that the crisis was enticed by Minsk. Meanwhile, analysis of content shared through migrant-linked Facebook pages and groups uncovered a trend of adding new routes of migration from Belarus through Latvia and Poland.


Throughout September 1-15, DebunkEU.org analysed:

  • 144 posts in 45 migrant-linked Facebook pages and public groups.

  • 196 articles in 73 online media outlets of the origin countries of migrants.

  • 323 articles in 61 regional hostile media sources.


Measured by mentions, most of the articles were published in the Arabic language (a share of 50.2%, 333 articles), followed by Russian (37.3%) and Lithuanian (11.5%). The share of Pashto, Persian and Turkish amounted to a combined 1.1%.


Measured by DebunkReach®, it was the Russian language that reached out to the largest number of potential contacts (an almost all-encompassing share of 97.4%, or 237.2 million potential contacts), followed by Arabic, at 2.2%. The share of the hits in

Lithuanian stood at 0.4%.


Daily dynamics

Within the period of analysis, the largest peak within the coverage on the migrant crisis on Belarus-Lithuania border was noted on September 9, 2021. In Arabic language, it was the news of five Afghan migrants returned by Lithuania to Belarus after the European Court of Human Rights earlier saying they should be allowed to stay.


In Russian language, however, the news was overshadowed by the meeting of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, with the latter being vastly cited as saying that if the Western countries concerned with the migrant crisis at Belarusian border want to truly resolve the problem, they should ‘contact Belarusian authorities at any level and resolve the problem together with the neighboring country,’ as Russia was not going to get involved.


The largest number of articles in Arabic alone was spotted on September 2, as within media outlets in the migrant-origin countries, Lithuania was mentioned in a rather passing manner, as being hit by an influx of illegal migration along with Latvia and Poland, in a series of articles reporting on a state of emergency declared at Polish areas bordering Belarus.


On migrant-linked Facebook groups and pages, videos circulated about migrants on Belarus-Lithuanian border. It was a mixture of videos posted by both Lithuanian (materials available on and showing the logo of 15min.lt portal) and Belarusian border guards (signed gpk.gov.by), whilst one of the videos combined filmed materials of both. These either claimed that Belarus border guards would not allow Iraqi migrants back to the country and pressured them to enter the Lithuanian land, whilst others were alleging the Lithuanian side was pushing the migrants out of Lithuania onto the Belarusian land.


Case #1: Lithuanian Border Guards force the migrants to go to Belarus


What was claimed:


According to the post, in a video, shared by the Lithuanian Border Guard Service, officers brought another group of refugees to the border and tried to force them to cross the border with Belarus. It is claimed that the migrants were on the Lithuanian side and refused to move, even in the absence of Belarusian border guards.

To prevent illegal border crossing from Lithuania, Belarus has sent a group of border guards, who, the post says, judging by the video, ‘did not use physical force against the refugees.’






Our verdict:


The video was indeed posted by the State Border Guard Service of Lithuania: on September 2, a more than five minutes long clip was posted on their Facebook account and also made available on mainstream Lithuanian media. However, the video shared in the Facebook group was shortened (it is s less than two minutes) and it excludes audio. And here’s a reason why: the longer version shared by Lithuanian Border Guard shows Belarusian officers shouting at the migrants (‘Go, go, go, forward’) and banging their shields to force the migrants getting up and crossing the border. The Belarusian border guards are also seen physically pushing migrants, men, women, and children, to the Lithuanian side.


What has been presented as a preventive action (the statement, although is in contradiction to the claim in the same post that the migrants refused to go to Belarus, even in the absence of the official Minsk border guards) is in fact a planned-ahead offensive campaign.


Types of information


In the first two weeks of September 2021, the share of false and misleading content, as opposed to factual information and/or opinion pieces, was quite expectedly the largest within hostile media sources, at 50.5%. The share of disinformation was the lowest within the content published by media outlets in the countries of migrant origin (17.9%), which reflects the dominance of EU-centric sources over those aligned with Kremlin in reporting on the issue. With regards to languages, it was Lithuanian to have the largest share of false and misleading content (56.6%): within the analysis, hostile media sources are tracked, whereas the share of sputniknews.lt, the Lithuanian branch of Kremlin-controlled propaganda arm, within the content amounted to almost 70% (29 hits out of 43 were published by the media outlet).

Types of information

Case 2: living conditions of migrants in Lithuanian resemble concentration camps


What was claimed:


The migration crisis on the Belarusian border is aggravating as migrants in Latvian and Lithuanian concentration camps are rioting, projects of strengthening the border with Belarus have led to corruption scandals, refugees from Afghanistan throw themselves under the wheels and try to commit suicide. The nervousness of the situation leads to political destabilisation of the Baltic states: the populations are once again convinced that their rulers are incapacitated and have only been playing with the card of non-existent Russophobia and trying drain as much money as possible from the EU pockets. (RuBaltic.ru, 09/09/2021)


Our verdict:


The article presents expertise on the issue by Aleksandr Nosovich, a self-styled expert on the Baltic countries as well as the author of Europe’s Backyard: Why the Baltic States are Dying Out and The History of the Fall: Why the Baltic States Failed. His claims were in focus of a report by the investigative journalism group Re:Baltica on Kremlin-backed problematic information attacks directed against the three countries. It highlights how the rhetoric pursued by Nosovich matches the Kremlin’s foreign policy messages, portraying the Baltics as failed states instead of the only former Soviet republics to successfully get integrated into Europe.


In the piece, Nosovich further promotes the image of Lithuania as a failed state: it’s been only able to survive with the money coming from the EU, as the authorities have been speculating about Russian threat (such as allegedly groundless fears concerning Zapad military drills) to get the union’s countries invest more in the ‘securitization of the Baltics.’ However, Russia’s policy of denying the sovereign choices of its neighbours is expected to remain one of the most significant security threats in the Baltic Region in the future, according to the latest edition of Lithuanian National Threat Assessment. Moreover, despite the Ukrainian crisis being mentioned in the article, it says nothing about what has been internationally recognized as invasion by Russia to Ukraine and Crimean annexation, which further demonstrates potential threats posed by the proximity to Russia.


It should be noted that fact that RuBaltic (one of the most prominent pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets in the Baltics) is also involved in spreading disinformation about the migrant crisis might signal that a widespread influence operation being a part of coordinated hostile actions against Lithuania.


Media sources


With regards to Facebook, the page which ranks first is called “Migration from Belarus to Latvia and Lithuania for Iraqis”. The group is public and has more than 3000 members. It should be noted that the group is brand new, established at the peak of the migration crisis on July 20 and originally was named "Migration from Belarus Lithuania for Iraqis”. However, on August 8, the name of the group was changed including “migration to Latvia”.


It could be stated that as the protection of the Lithuanian border strengthened and it became more difficult to enter Lithuania illegally, the group included new directions, in this case – Latvia, as another potential route from Belarus to the EU countries. The name of the group "Migration from Belarus to Latvia and Lithuania for the Iraqis" does not include Poland, yet posts about migration there and situation on the border with Belarus outnumbered the posts about Lithuania, which might indicate changing routes.


The statistics of this Facebook group show that 9 new posts are published daily, the most popular sub-narrative found among the posts - Lithuania (and EU members) strengthens border with Belarus. Surprisingly, not many posts were asking for advice on how to migrate. Among those posts asking for tips, Lithuania was not mentioned. A couple of posts asked about traveling through Belarus to Poland, another post asked about traveling roads from Belarus to Germany. It could indicate that Lithuania (and Latvia) become a less attractive as a route for migration to the EU.

Media sources: outlets from the countries of origin of migrants

During the period of September 1-15, 2021, articles mentioning Lithuania at the background of migrant crisis on the border with Belarus were found in 73 media outlets of the origin countries of migrants. The line-up of sources by articles echoes the specifics of Arabic media reporting news: the same news piece is repeated in a wide array of sources with almost no alterations.


The picture is quite different if we take a look at the same chart in terms of affected audiences (as measured by DebunkReach®): two Internet sources, namely RT Arabic and Youm7, considerably outpace the rest of outlets with a combined share of three-quarters of the total content. To compare, 16 articles published by albousla.ps secured it first spot in terms of the number of hits, with a share of 8.2%, whilst for RT, it sufficed three articles to generate a share of almost 40% in terms of reach.


RT (formerly, Russia Today) is a television and internet-based news channel and one of the most important purveyors of Kremlin propaganda. It’s blamed for a series of malign influence operation abroad, whereas its Arabic version has also been in focus of disinformation analyses/reports, agreeing on its role as a soft power tool in promoting Kremlin-backed narratives and targeting youth via the means of social media.


Media sources: hostile outlets

Russia's state-run pseudo news agency of influence and propaganda Sputnik led in terms of the hits published on the migrant crisis on Lithuanian border with Belarus, with a combined share of its Lithuanian branch, at 10.8%, and the Russian-language edition, 4.3%, of around 15%. The high number of articles in Lithuanian may be explained by attempts to leverage the Lithuanian perspective on the migrant crisis, although the audience of Sputnik Lithuania is highly limited.


In terms of DebunkReach®, RIA Novosti, a part of Russia’s state-controlled media group Rossiya Segodnya, took the lead with a share of around 30%. Most of the articles posted by the source cited Belarusian sources, and several of those posted from Lithuanian/Latvian/Polish perspective included a quote by Lukashenko on how as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West on the official Minsk there were ‘neither money, nor strengthens’ to restrain the flow of illegal migrants.


Narratives

Top 5 narratives and subnarratives: migrant-linked Facebook groups and pages

The line-up of top five narratives and subnarratives within the migrant-linked Facebook coverage both as measured by articles and affected audiences was the most diverse among the three types of sources in terms of conditional classification (migrant-linked Facebook groups and pages, media outlets of the origin countries of migrants and (regional, focused on the Baltics and Poland) hostile media. This comes as a result of Facebook posts being generated by several main groups of information sources, namely major news agencies, Lithuanian mainstream media, Belarus State Border Committee, tweets by Polish border guards and inquiries by those seeking for information on the routes to the EU.



Willingness to come to the country was among the top 5 narratives by articles and by reach. This narrative covers only 9.7% of Facebook posts examined. In some of these posts, Germany was mentioned exclusively as a migration destination. Lithuania is mentioned in a neutral way only as a transition point to Europe. Despite one of the groups mentioning Lithuania in the page name, the rise of posts asking for advice on how to migrate through Poland is noticeable.


Among the main public groups where migrants asking for advice are:

  • "Migration from Belarus to Latvia and Lithuania for Iraqis" ( (الهجرهمن بلاروسیا الى لاتیفیاولیتوانیا للعراقیین

  • "Migration through Belarus to Europe" ( (الهجرهعن طریق بیلاروسیا الى اوربا


Top 5 narratives and subnarratives: outlets from the countries of origin of migrants

The narrative Belarus is behind migration crisis took the lead within the coverage of the tracked media outlets of the origin countries of migrants via the subnarrative Belarus uses migrants as a political weapon, the leading position of which was clearly pronounced as compared to any of the subnarratives (29 hits were classified under the closes-ranking subnarrative, A new fence on Belarus border is designed to stop the influx of migrants, vs. 160 hits under the number one). This evidences that the analysed sources were foremost engaged in spreading the EU perspective on the issue (within the analysis, a similar subnarrative, Belarus is using migrants in hybrid attack, usually denotes the Lithuanian formulation of weaponizing the migrants, namely using them as a means in hybrid warfare).


Top 5 narratives and subnarratives: hostile media

The narrative Belarus is behind migration crisis was the most pronounced within the coverage by hostile media, mostly generated by the two of its leading sub-narratives, Belarus is using migrants in hybrid attack and Belarus uses migrants as a political weapon. We can see that opposing narratives, the one claiming that Belarus does not encourage illegal migration as well as the one stating that Lithuania violates human rights, took second and third spots, reflecting the effort by hostile media to present the news about the situation on the border counterbalancing the Lithuanian/EU perspective with that of the Kremlin.

Top spokespeople by mentions (left) and reach (right)

Alexander Lukashenko has topped the list of the people quoted most often with regards to the migrant crisis on Belarus-Lithuania border within the data collected for the period of September 1-15, 2021, both as measured the number of articles (96) and potential contacts (66.3 million). The quote referring to the alleged inability of Minsk to regulate the influx of illegal migrants as a result of sanctions imposed on Lukashenko regime was still the most in use, along with quotes as a result of him commenting the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


The second spot was occupied by Roman Podlinev, Deputy Chairman of Belarusian Border Committee, who was vastly quoted by pro-Kremlin media as saying that the Baltic countries and Poland were using illegal migrants as a human ‘shield’ to receive funding from the EU.

Top 3 Facebook posts by social interactions

Post #1. Many comments under this post write that "There is no power nor strength except in Allah, the Almighty" probably indicating that it is in God's will if a migrant reaches the EU and it is not in the power of the Lithuanian (or other countries) government to prevent and stop the migrants. Many comments support the migrants in their wish to cross the EU border by saying: 'May God make it easy for everyone'.


Post #2. The post states that Lithuania announced that five Afghan immigrants have been returned to Belarus after entering the borders of the country. Among 34 comments below this post, one stated that the Baltic countries are the most racist and nationalistic in the world. Many other comments expressed dissatisfaction with such decision of Lithuania as the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. One comment stated: 'Any country that does not feel sorry for the people of Afghanistan, may God make the situation [in their countries] worse than in Afghanistan.'


Post #3. Here, an interview with Lithuanian expert Vytis Jurkonis on the migrant surge is shared. Some of the comments, similarly to the first post, sent prayers of strength to those who embark on the journey. However, there were quite a few comments asking on information how to travel to Poland or Germany through Belarus – for example, does somebody know a person who completed the journey successfully. When the conversation would get more detailed – discussing prices, etc., the FB users asked to move to private messaging.


DebunkEU.org analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:


  • DebunkEU.org analysis platform

  • CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles on Instagram.

  • Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.

  • TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.