As March brought a couple of symbolic dates for NATO members, disinformation flow was tied to events such as the anniversaries of the Baltic countries joining the Alliance, and illegitimate referendum in Ukraine which led to annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. In addition to questioning the validity of the Baltic membership in NATO, pro-Kremlin media also spread accusations that the Alliance is prepared to wage war, and NATO troops bring new COVID-19 strains to member countries.
In March 2021, Debunk EU detected 9612 articles related to NATO, which were posted by hostile media sources. Within the period, Debunk EU analysts reviewed 3430 articles with potentially harmful content, identifying 752 false and misleading articles 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 432 million contacts. On average, approx. 24.3 false and misleading content pieces were identified per day.
This month, false and misleading information targeting NATO focused on three key areas that stood out in comparison with other topics:
1) NATO-Russia relations
2) Military activity of NATO
3) Relevance of the Alliance as of military-political organisation
False and misleading information targeting NATO sought high fluctuation throughout the month with up to 3 problematic information waves observed as exceeding the average flow. Starting from March 13th, the number of hostile articles gradually increased and reached its peak on March 16th, following the 7th anniversary of illegitimate referendum in Crimea, which paved a way for its accession to the Russian Federation on March 21st, 2014. Notably, on this day the number of NATO-related disinformation articles more than twice exceeded the average of hostile articles published within the month, as well as sought high activity of Polish and Lithuanian language non-systemic media outlets which supported false pro-Kremlin stories of NATO allegedly staging protests and coordinating coup d’etat in Ukraine back in 2013-2014.
Among other waves, it is worth to mention the increase of problematic information on March 29th, when for the first time since December 2020 false and misleading information cases published in local languages outweighed the number of articles published in Russian. Such distribution revealed itself as an outcome of false and misleading reactions to the 17th anniversary of the accession of Baltic countries to NATO, which sought to present the membership in the Alliance as ‘illegitimate’ and allegedly violating national law of the countries as well as ‘aggravating’ security situation in the region.
Throughout March, narrative ‘NATO is a threat’ maintained dominant role in distribution of false and misleading information with a total of 557 mentions identified – almost four times more compared to other narratives. It was also the most persistent narrative which indicates assertive and fierce rhetoric taking lead in hostile coverage on NATO.
This month, false and misleading narratives distributed evenly between NATO member states, with narrative ‘NATO is a threat’ applied to all members of the Alliance universally. United States continued to lead in terms of mentions in false and misleading publications on NATO. Measured by proportion, the country was more often mentioned with narrative ‘Cracking unity of NATO states’, which was applied to question U.S. commitments to the principles of collective security and will to defend its NATO allies in the Eastern flank.
Case №1 NATO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR PROVOKING ANNEXATION OF CRIMEA
What was claimed:
“<...> the West refuses to recognize the Russian status of the peninsula, since then it will be necessary to abandon plans to expand NATO to the East and admit the complete defeat of its military-political doctrine. <…> To consider Crimea an annexed and occupied territory is purely a kind of political speculation.” (gazeta.ru , 16/03/2021)
Allegations of NATO provoking annexation of Crimea back in 2014 do not pass factual threshold and qualify as forgery. Neither protests in Ukraine, nor illegitimate annexation of Crimea had anything to do with the Alliance. NATO has never considered basing ships and missiles in Crimea – the argument itself here is used to obscure violations of international law made by Russia and falsely ascribe the responsibility to other subjects, in this case NATO. Also, references in the articles to statements made by political figures of NATO countries are used as testimonies to create misleading impression of allegedly credible voices heard within the Alliance who would admit Western accusations towards Russia as being ‘unfounded’.
Case №2 NATO, U.S. AND THE EU ARE PREPARING A WAR TO RUSSIA
What was claimed:
“<…> the West is now preparing for neither more nor less a war. <…> [T]he defence budget of "aggressive" Russia is 17 times less than the American one! And the aggregate military budget of NATO countries, which are shaking so ostentatiously with fear of Russia, is more than a trillion dollars a year, that is, 23 times more than ours! <…> [P]reparation for war is sewn into these myriad military budgets of our potential friends.” (Vesti Nedeli, 28/03/2021)
Statements that NATO allegedly is preparing to unleash a war against Russia are unsubstantiated and based on flawed assumptions which are made with no regards to factual accuracy. Author of a TV program selectively presents comparison between military budgets of NATO states and Russia to make a more convincing argument. In fact, reference to military budgets of NATO countries is presented in a manipulative manner using incorrect criterion of data analysis – instead of measuring by GDP (%) parameter, author uses absolute numeric values of the country budgets which shows the size and wealth of the countries, but not the value spent on defence in relation to other sectors. Measured by GDP (%), the picture would be quite different with Russia leading in terms of GDP on defence (3.9%) as compared with the average GDP of NATO countries (2.55%) according to the World Bank data of 2019.
Case №3 NATO EFP INTRODUCED NEW COVID-19 VIRUS STRAINS IN BALTIC COUNTRIES
What was claimed:
“<…> Norwegian servicemen of the Battlegroup neglected Covid-19 quarantine rules in Lithuania on weekends. <…> It is understood that many (not only Norwegian) NATO troops experienced psychological discomfort during the Covid-19 lockdown. That is why the servicemen are forced to solve this problem in various ways, for example, to meet with local girls.” (baltnews.ee, 25/03/2021)
Statements that Norwegian, British, and Danish soldiers serving in multinational battalions in Baltic countries could be held responsible for deteriorating epidemiologic situation are speculations that obscure geographical facts on Covid-19 strain outbreaks in the countries. In regard to Lithuania, new strains of South African Covid-19 were first reported in Marijampolė and Vilnius districts, whilst NATO battalion is stationed in different district which at the time of the reported outbreak (March 23rd) was following national movement restrictions and, hence, could not cause the spread of new Covid-19 strain in Lithuania.
Case №4 NATO IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE, HYSTERICAL AND UNTRUSTWORTHY BLOC
What was claimed:
“<...> We saw this very five minutes of hatred at a meeting of the NATO bloc. They all went out and competed, who would have more hysterical foam. Foam, bulging eyes, and who will show more hatred for Russia“. (vesti.ru, 25/03/2021)
Allegations that NATO is not interested in dialogue with Russia and instead chooses to pursue a policy of confrontation are simplified statements that misrepresent the essential aspects of NATO-Russia relations. Partnership building has been an important milestone in NATO’s approach to Russia as witnessed by signing NATO-Russia Founding act in 1997 and creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002. The status of relations has changed in 2014 when NATO suspended practical cooperation due to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. However, political, and military channels remain open –for example, in 2020 military representatives and high-level officials from Russia and NATO maintained contacts in areas of common interests. Therefore, claims that NATO opposes to a dialogue with Russia are not sufficient.
Case №5 MEMBERSHIP IN NATO HAS TURNED BALTIC COUNTRIES INTO DESSERTED TERRITORIES
What was claimed:
“<…> The Russian threat ... Fantasies about it have been circulating in the heads of the Baltic elites for several years. Fuelled by the American "colleagues" in the bloc, they have become the reason that the militarization of the region has already reached some completely unthinkable levels, and Lithuania's military spending has now exceeded 2% of the country's GDP. <…> Was it worth it for the sake of confrontation with Russia to make their own states almost deserted? Unlikely. But is it possible to explain this to those who see confrontation with Moscow as the only reason for their existence...” (riafan.ru, 29/03/2021)
Statements of Baltic countries allegedly turning into socially and economically failed states fall under a recurring pro-Kremlin narrative that is often used as an emotional trigger and is not factually accurate. Membership in NATO is used in a ‘simplified enemy’ manner to falsely present it along with the alleged militarization as the primary causes of an invented situation, in this case – the social and economic collapse. Therefore, claims that membership in the Alliance has caused social and economic poverty in the Baltic countries are unsubstantiated and fall under ‘hyperbolization’ rhetorical technique which seeks to inflate and/or falsely exaggerate particular situations.
Compared to previous month, in March false and misleading coverage on NATO slightly increased (+5.9%) both in terms of mentions per problematic case and the overall flow (+36.8%), yet at the same time sought a sharp drop (-29.1%) in the number of potential contacts reached. Contrasts between the two also indicate that March sought an increase in the engagement of new hostile media actors, which though active were characterised by a low capacity to reach wider audiences.
In March, problematic information was mostly published in the Russian language (74.1%), followed by Lithuanian (12.1%), Polish (8.2%), Latvian (3.3%) and English (2.3%) languages, respectively. Articles analysed throughout the month in Estonian contained factual neutral information on NATO and were not problematic.
Publications in Russian took dominant share (96.6%) of the audiences covered, whilst articles in English (3%), Latvian (0.005%), Lithuanian (0.01%) and Polish (0.5%) amounted for slightly more than 3% of potential contacts reached.
Measured by traffic, false and misleading information on NATO, this month, was intended to reach and/or potentially focused more on domestic audiences of the Russian Federation, amounting for up to 71% of contacts reached. Foreign audiences in countries with Russian-speaking populations and/or diaspora were potentially targeted as secondary audiences, namely in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, which lead in terms of traffic and varied between 2 to 5% per country, respectively.
This month, the main distributors of NATO-related disinformation in the Baltic countries and Poland were cont.ws, riafan.ru, sputniknews.lt and ria.ru, which made up to a fifth of the overall coverage. Also, noteworthy is the fact of the activity of China-related media outlets which though limited (only several false and misleading articles published in English) was for the first time recorded in this year.
In terms of distribution by media sources, ria.ru, rambler.ru and rt.com stood out in the audiences covered, amounting for more than a half (~52%) of all potential contacts reached in March.