Worldwide health crisis brought by COVID-19 is exhausting not only for healthcare systems, businesses, entire communities, but the media as well. The pandemic is being used to spread false and misleading narratives with one single aim – discrediting the Baltic countries and Poland and their efforts to fight the pandemic. According to Debunk EU analysis, in November the main targets of disinformation became quarantine measures, vaccination programs, NATO exercise, and general abilities of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland to cope with the virus.
In November 2020, Debunk EU team analysed 213 articles with false and misleading content from 47 media outlets in the Baltic countries and Poland in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian languages. The articles had a potential reach of 6.6 million contacts. The analysts have also looked through 108 misleading/false posts about COVID-19 posted on Facebook in Lithuanian language.
The articles with false and misleading content with regards to COVID-19 in Estonia during the analysed period were of two categories: firstly, COVID-19 and the measures taken to control it became an object of mis/disinformation; secondly, the pandemic was used to amplify the anti-NATO rhetoric, by making such claims as the alliance being a threat to the regional stability, wellbeing of local residents, and, in relation to COVID-19, to their health. One of the headlines serves as an example:
“Imbecility of Defense: Pandemic is no Hindrance to the U.S. Military Exercises in Estonia” (baltnews.ee, 23/11/2020).
This is one of the instances where the leading narrative in terms of potential contacts was “Despite the coronavirus, NATO is conducting military exercises” was used.
In November, an article from telegram.ee (19/11/2020) which has received the greatest number of social interactions, included many false allegations with regards to COVID-19 and issues associated with it. Thus, by saying that
“Kary Mullis, the creator of the PCR test method, has said that a positive test does not mean that a person is sick or infected”,
it reiterated the case of misleading information concerning the limitations of PCR tests, fact-checked and debunked by Reuters. The article also included such loud statements as “the obligatory wearing of masks is undoubtedly a hugely intrusive element of personal rights,” as well as claims supposedly supported by “some experts” that the restrictions due to the pandemic “were much more harmful to society and human health than the alleged virus itself.”
In Latvia, the main narrative concerned the country’s (in)ability to fight the pandemic. Notably, Latvia has led by the share of articles in Russian language: measured by mentions, only 5.9% of articles were in Latvian, against 94.1% of coverage being in Russian.
Moreover, if measured by reach, the contrast was even starker: Latvian made up a meagre share of 0.2%. This correlated strongly with the list of media sources within the analysed coverage: these were all pro-Kremlin media outlets, mostly targeting Russian speaking population.
The leading narrative in November was “Latvia fails to fight COVID-19”. The uncertainty inflicted by the pandemic has certainly brought many problems and the effect of those is as evident as ever. Therefore, this technique of inflated situations (using essential aspects of the statement that are true, but only to a certain degree), is easily accommodated to suit false messages and propagandist rhetoric. For example, this quote was shared by lv.sputiniknews.ru:
"In the meantime, private employers, instead of getting support, have acquired new responsibilities. Now they will have to determine the contact persons infected with COVID-19, that is, to deal with the work of epidemiologists. In addition, retail businesses are now known to be required to act as the police, ensuring that all buyers wear masks." lv.sputniknews.ru, 25/11/2020
Starting November 7, 2020, the amount of false and misleading coverage on COVID-19 in Lithuania has significantly increased. It is possible, that as with the first wave of COVID-19, the wave of disinformation coincided with the introduction of quarantine in Lithuania.
“Lithuania fails to fight COVID-19” was the leading narrative in the period of analysis (a share of 32.2%). Measured by reach, it was even more dominant (69.6% of the total volume in Lithuania). The latter had to do with the fact that the narrative was used to support the image of Lithuania as a failed state by such pro- Kremlin websites as rubaltic.ru and news-front.info, which, in contrast to the local language media outlets, had a considerably wider reach.
The involvement of Kremlin related media in Lithuania is evident when analysing the coverage by languages: although by mentions, Lithuanian dominated the coverage (73.3%), measured by reach it was Russian language to capture a similar share (78.8%).
Infa.lt topped the list of media sources in Lithuania. The editor of the website, Arvydas Daunys, is also known for posting his articles on such websites as sarmatas.lt, sputnik.lt and laisvaslaikrastis.lt. The latter are known for disseminating pro-Russian propaganda on the Lithuanian internet, as concluded by the country’s State Security Department.
The story involving COVID-19 with regards to Lithuania to receive the widest reach was an article on the Lithuanian healthcare system published by rubaltic.ru and republished by news-front.info on the same day (25/11/2020). It included such false claims as:
Lithuanian healthcare system being ineffective and unable to cope with COVID-19 crisis.
the success story of the Baltic states dealing with the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic being determined by the heritage of Soviet healthcare system.
democracies/free-market economies being ineffective to cope with COVID-19 pandemic and authoritarian regimes being better solution for such crises.
In addition to harmful content spread through online media, disinformation finds its ways on social media as well. Seemingly harmless meme posted on Facebook can cause a snow plough of misleading/false information. Conspiracy theories about allegedly empty hospitals, vaccines being used to insert microchips, lies about masks being harmful and other messages are spreading with the speed of the coronavirus itself. Additionally, with new restrictions Facebook users share their “tips and tricks” on how to avoid them. To strengthen Lithuanian public resilience towards such information and disclose which narratives are the most harmful, Debunk EU researched posts about COVID-19 shared on Facebook.
In total, 535 posts about COVID-19 were posted during November 2020. Debunk EU detected 108 cases of disinformation (75.2%) and misinformation (24.8%) about COVID-19. Disinformation and misinformation regarding Covid-19 topic were found in 28 different Facebook groups with number of members ranging from 615 to 26 700.
The analysis revealed that the dominant narrative on Facebook was "Violation of liberties in the name of COVID-19". This narrative was used to discredit introduced restrictive measures such as quarantine, mandatory wear of masks, social distancing, etc. The following predominant narratives tried to diminish the threat of the coronavirus and to emphasize the unsuccessful efforts of Lithuania to fight the pandemic.
Debunk EU detected that 92.7% of the disinformation and misinformation cases were posted in Lithuanian and only a minority (7.3%) were in Russian.
Compared to other analyzed Facebook groups, members of the group NEABEJINGI were the most active in sharing dis/misinformation about the pandemic. Moreover, on November 21st members of this group organized rallies against governmental decisions about COVID-19. Organizers invited people to gather next to the municipality buildings in every city of Lithuania and take off the masks in protest of restrictions during the pandemic. However, the rally did not attract many participants.
Posts which have received the most social interactions had attached articles quoting a member of Lithuanian parliament Dainius Kepenis. He frequently questions the need for restrictive measures and the effectiveness of the vaccine, moreover, doubts the reported numbers of infected. This article was shared in many Facebook groups - this indicates that people tend to react more actively to information spread by members of the government, yet similar cases burden the efforts to consolidate the society to fight the pandemic.