"Irrelevant and insignificant": depiction of the Baltics in pro-Kremlin media

With the focus slowly moving away from the political upheaval in Belarus, the ever-present narrative of Russophobia is regaining its popularity in the Kremlin-related media. This rhetoric goes in line with depicting Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as irrelevant, irrational, and incompetent players in the international arena, as well as in their domestic affairs. Throughout the 1st - 31st of October, Debunk EU analysts found 666 articles with false and misleading content from 53 pro-Kremlin media outlets in the Baltic states in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Russian languages. The articles had a potential reach of 216.8 million contacts.

Within the monitored period, 112 articles with false and misleading content were found in Estonia (the number stood at 419 in September 2020), 233 in Latvia and 321 in Lithuania (against 304 and 844 hits in the previous month, respectively). 94.3% of the false and misleading coverage in the Baltics was negative towards Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Amount of disinformation related to the Baltic countries, DebunkEU data

The analysis has shown that the volume of false and misleading coverage on Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (666 articles) showed a steep decline compared to both September and August (1,567 and 1,433 articles, respectively).

Based on the research an assumption can be made that this indicates that Kremlin-related media most probably has limited amount of resources and cannot engage in all regions on the same level of coverage and interest. Judging from a decreasing disinformation tendency in all three countries, we can assume that the Kremlin has decided to diversify its media coverage this month and focus on other topics. Where exactly they have focused their resources and energy is not clear, but this assumption cannot be entirely rejected.

Disinformation in Lithuania sought a sharp drop (-57.6%), compared to previous months. The decreasing tendency was witnessed in other Baltic countries as well, which indicates that at least this month Kremlin shifted its focus from the Baltic region to other events (it could have been Nagorno-Karabakh military tensions, or/and U.S. presidential elections).

Events in Belarus tend to be the most important trigger/catalyst, that contributes to disinformation dynamics in Lithuania. Surprisingly though, domestic factors (such as Parliamentary elections in Lithuania) had almost no impact on disinformation activity/coverage in the Kremlin-related media. This suggests, that this month the Kremlin-related media (at least in Lithuania) tried to maintain a low profile and react only to such events/topics, that had strategic importance for the Kremlin regime (no pro-active disinformation cases were identified in October).

According to the research group, such tendency indicates that the activity of the Kremlin-related media in the Baltic region is going back to business as usual. An assumption can be made that during the previous months (August - September) more resources were more invested in the negative coverage about the Baltics – therefore, suggesting that Belarusian presidential elections topic was perceived as vital subject on which the Kremlin must have had a strong control.

Dynamics of disinformation related to the Baltic countries in October 2020, DebunkEU data

This paved the way for a stronger visibility of the ever-present rhetoric of Russophobia. Russophobia is a stable and strategic narrative, with a main goal to create a feeling that there is hatred towards Russians in other country’s policies. This narrative is targeted to Russian minorities – ethnic minorities in Baltics, other post-soviet countries, and Russian population inside the country to show that there are a lot of enemies around Russia (e.g. in the Baltics). The same goes with labeling policies, public figures, etc. as fascist – because of the heavy historical charge this narrative carries, it creates emotional triggers in Russian audiences.

The narrative of Russia being falsely presented as an enemy went in line with depicting the Baltics as irrelevant, irrational, and incompetent players in the international arena, as well as in their domestic affairs.
The main narratives in October 2020, DebunkEU data

The narrative of enemising Russia was the second most widespread within the false and misleading content targeting the Baltics: news about Estonian plans to boost their coastal defence and allegedly barring Russian ships from entering the Gulf of Finland, and Latvia deciding to deport of a Russian citizen, added greatly to the focus on the narrative through claiming that those are examples of anti-Russian policies being implemented in both countries.

The main sub-narratives in October 2020, DebunkEU data
The most popular articles based on social media interactions, DebunkEU data

In October 2020, Estonia was mostly presented as developing more comprehensive anti-Russian tactics. The story started when at the end of September Estonia announced the defence spending in 2021 would rise to €645.4 million, constituting 2.3% of GDP, with those additional funds to be allocated towards purchasing a coastal defence system. However, the news was translated by pro-Kremlin media into a plan to close the access to the Gulf of Finland to Russian military vessels, submarines and even civilian [sic] ships. Thus, Estonia’s plan was presented as an example of anti-Russian policy – even though the coastal system is being developed for solely defensive purposes and closing the Gulf of Finland to Russian ships was never mentioned by Estonian officials.

Responses to the news included such statements as if that happened, Estonia would become a part of Russian Federation. Estonia was also said to be trying to excel in the political arena by making such loud statements, as well trying to please the U.S. The variation of this story produced the most disinformation articles during the analysis period.

Top 5 narratives by reach in Estonia, DebunkEU data

In Estonia, baltnews.ee, launched in the Baltic countries in 2014 soon after the Crimean annexation, has led in terms of disinformation in Estonia, followed by news-front.info occupying the second place, just as it did in Latvia.

Share of disinformation related to Estonia by sources, DebunkEU data

Latvia was also accused of being Russophobic and trying to eliminate values of the Russian minority, such as their history, culture, and language. In addition, several disinformation articles presented Latvia as a country where human rights were violated or claimed it was a failed state.

Flows on disinformation concerning Latvia were often fuelled by events, most notably - the deportation of the Russian citizen and veteran Vladimir Norvind from Latvia. For many years, Mr. Norvind oversees veteran organisation as well as other cultural organisations maintaining the Soviet legacy in Latvia. He was identified as a threat to the national security because of his close ties with Russia, which creates a probability of manipulation by the Kremlin officials. This decision made by Latvian authorities was interpreted in Kremlin-related media as anti-Russian and violating human rights.

Additional topics which were used to target Latvia were willingness to maintain the culture in its former land, Abrene, which is now on the Russia's soil, multiple statements of Latvian President on maintaining the Latvian language and culture in the country, and 76th anniversary of Riga's City liberation from Nazis.

Data about disinformation concerning Latvia suggests that it is possible that the number of misleading/false articles has dropped because Latvia became not so active in the situation of Belarus. Therefore, the articles started to target rather internal issues and policies. Moreover, the second wave of the Covid-19 was still not so evident, so they abstained to discuss Latvia as failed in terms of the health crisis.

Top 5 narratives by reach in Latvia, DebunkEU data