Lithuanian "elves" combat Russian influence online - WP

16:00, 29 December 2016
World
279 0

Elves against trolls sounds more than just something out of The Lord of the Rings to Lithuania's 43-year-old business consultant and blogger Ricardas Savukynas as the battle he's fighting is no fantasy. The man is part of an informal internet army of Lithuanians trying to counter what they describe as hate speech and pro-Russia propaganda, The Washington Post reports.

REUTERS

"I am just a regular guy from Lithuania, a citizen, who once noticed that Russian propaganda is being spread in this country by huge numbers of groups on Facebook," he told The Associated Press, WP reports. "Seeing this I thought that it cannot be a natural thing."

Savukynas' fellow volunteers — who've dubbed themselves "elves" — patrol social media, coordinating their actions through Facebook or Skype to expose fake accounts. On a busy day, Savukynas said that fellow elves report as many as 10 or 20 to get them removed. He himself focuses on writing, maintaining a personal blog devoted to, among other things, deconstructing Soviet nostalgia or pulling apart conspiracy theories.

Read alsoLithuania Court rules Gazprom to pay EUR 36 mln fineThe elves do a decent job of “pinpointing some manipulation and some social networking sites,” said Nerijus Maliukevicius, a researcher at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations, who studies the role of media during times of conflict. But in a telephone interview, Maliukevicius said that Lithuania needs a complex counterstrategy to beat what he describes as Kremlin propaganda.

And the elf versus troll war on Facebook is just one battlefield. News websites and broadcasters have also been drawn into the mix. 

"We recognized, especially recently, that we have a pretty huge and long lasting disinformation campaign against our society," said Tomas Ceponis, an analyst for the Lithuanian military. He said the power of propaganda was harder to quantify than tanks or planes, but it was clearly aimed at "really a very huge variety of targets."

Read alsoLithuanian Parliament urges EU to extend sanctions against RussiaDelfi, one of the main news sites in Lithuania, was one of them. It found its comment sections filling up with pro-Russia posts in the lead up to the Ukrainian confrontation, said Monika Garbaciauskaite, the editor-in-chief, and now has full-time staff deleting the most extreme messages.

The hostile propaganda has led to more aggressive action from both sides.

Lithuania's leading commercial news channel TV3 has been repeatedly targeted by hackers who compromised the group's networks three times, according to Sigitas Babilius, TV3's head of news. Last month, Lithuania banned Russia’s RTR Planeta channel until February after a Russian politician made anti-U.S. comments deemed as "incitement to war, discord and hatred." Similar three-month bans on Russian state-owned channels have been ordered in previous years.

Lithuania, meanwhile, has launched a campaign on television urging citizens to report any suspicious activity — on the street or on the web.

Read alsoCzech Republic to fight "fake news" with specialist unitDespite Russia's discontent with the move, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius makes no apology for the bans.

"A lie is not an alternative point of view," Linkevicius said. "One can say 'it’s freedom of speech, everyone can say whatever he wants.' Of course, I agree. But if it’s (a) resourced propaganda machine brainwashing people, it's not just an alternative point of view. It’s a weapon."

Read alsoUgly things Moscow might do if Ukraine is consigned to Russia's sphere of influenceLithuania, which like other Baltic nations was long subject to Moscow’s rule, feels those concerns more keenly than most — all the more so after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

If you see a spelling error on our site, select it and press Ctrl+Enter