With a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases, healthcare systems, businesses, the general public are nothing less but exhausted — and the media sector is no exception. A huge surplus of information not only carries false news, misinformation, but also becomes a means of disinformation in geopolitics. In the first two weeks of October, Debunk EU analysts spotted nine cases of disinformation related to the coronavirus in the Baltic countries: two cases in connection with Lithuania, none with Latvia and seven with Estonia. The articles had a potential reach of 96,411 contacts through the analysed online websites.
COVID-19 is keeping its position as the most discussed topic in the news, and rightfully so — at the end of October 2020, a weekly increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lithuania stands at over 120%. The indicators in Estonia and Latvia, although at a slower pace, are also on the rise (more than 87% and 57%, respectively).
With the number of cases rapidly increasing, attempts to manipulate public opinion are also on the rise. Debunk EU analysis has shown that false and misleading information on COVID-19 was used as a means to validate Kremlin-promoted clichés, such as:
Russophobia/anti-Russian policies in the Baltics;
Cracking the unity of the EU;
Inability of the Baltics to maintain healthy economies;
Inability of the Baltics to act as independent players.
In the first two weeks of October 2020, most disinformation cases were found in Estonian media space. Baltija.eu led in terms of misleading and false content (three articles, all in Russian), it was followed by telegram.ee (in Estonian language) and sputniknews.ru (in Russian), which posted two articles each.
Baltija.eu, an Estonian NGO partnering with Russian state organisations that purvey soft influence, such as Rossotrudnichestvo and Russkiy Mir Foundation, is known for producing a pro-Kremlin news stream. Telegram.ee has been posting under the categories of health (alternative medicine), mysticism, NWO etc. Sputnik, a Russian state-owned multimedia platform, has been shut down by Estonian authorities.
It is also evident that disinformation about COVID-19 rapidly spreads through social media, however, more research needs to be done on this topic.
The articles in Estonia during the analysed period were split into two categories, which are reflected in the following Narratives chart:
Those grouped under the narrative of COVID-19 effect is overestimated were published in Estonian language and included a common denominator: the statement that in Estonia, only 17 deaths were caused by coronavirus alone, while the rest of the 64 had co-morbidities listed in their causes of death, alongside the virus. In addition, a notice on the 17 deaths was inserted in a translated article by Jeff Deist, the president of the U.S.-based Mises Institute, entitled The Absurdity of Covid “Cases” (objektiiv.ee, 12/10/2020).
The statement made by the former Acting Director of the Estonian Health Board Mari-Anne Härma was used to validate the assertion about the unnecessary measures taken against the spread of the virus and the harm that the lockdown brings, as they spoke of the “fact that hundreds of thousands of people will soon be unemployed here”, although
“there is more and more evidence that there is no reason to panic”
and “almost all governments and parties in the world have accompanied the propaganda” (telegram.ee, 06/10/2020).
Another batch of articles in Estonia, categorised under the narrative of Estonia fails to fight Covid-19, is an example of how the pandemic serves to justify and promote the mythologised stereotype of Russophobic countries, Estonia in this case. For example, a quote by the Health Board’s Emergency Medicine Department Arkadi Popov, stating that the availability of key information in the Russian language could also be a factor in some of the recent outbreaks in Ida-Viru County and Tallinn, was selectively applied to create a provocative headlines, such as Russian-Speakers in Estonia Have a Greater Risk of Contracting COVID-19 Due to Lack of Information, Expert Says (baltija.eu, 05/10/2020).
In Lithuania, disinformation related to COVID-19 concerned the ability of the EU overall and Lithuania’s capability to withstand the challenges a the second wave of the pandemic, as well as the role of the pandemic in the Lithuanian parliamentary election in October 2020.
The Head of the Economic Research Sector at the Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences, was quoted in response to a statement by Lithuanian Finance Minister Vilius Šapoka asserting that Lithuania was financially capable to withstand another coronavirus wave. According to the expert, when the second wave of COVID-19 hits the Baltics, they will not be able to recover quickly even with the help of the EU. Moreover, the economic downturn will possibly lead to strengthening separatism, as each EU member-state “will try to use as many resources as possible for their own recovery, and not to help others” (sputniknews.ru, 14/10/2020).
Coronavirus was also said to decide the winners of the parliamentary elections:
“The invisible virus COVID-19 has already significantly influenced the formation of not only the future power of Lithuania, but also the hegemon of the West, the U.S.”,-(sputniknews.ru, 01/10/2020).
Additionally, a parallel between the Lithuanian and the U.S. election was drawn (“everything is the same in Lithuania”), which echoes the pro-Kremlin media’s narrative of the Baltic states blindly following the U.S. and being not independent in their decisions.
Surges of misleading and false content are inherent to the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout April-June 2020, Debunk EU spotted 617 disinformation cases related to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the context of COVID-19. The articles reached over 123.4 million contacts through the analysed online websites. As the analysis for the month of October has shown, disinformation is not going away, however, the spread of false articles is not as rapid as the rise of COVID-19 cases.
However, it is quite evident that articles with misleading or false information in them have already affected public opinion about the COVID-19. According to a recent public opinion poll by Vilmorus, only every second resident of Lithuania would get a coronavirus vaccine once it is available, and the rest would refuse to get vaccinated (42.9% said they would get the vaccine, and 42.5% said they would not, with 14.7% having no opinion on the issue).