‘Elves’ bat­tle Rus­sian me­dia trolls

Baltic web army at war with Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY LIUDAS DAPKUS

VIL­NIUS, LITHUA­NIA | Elves against trolls — it sounds like some­thing out of “The Lord of the Rings.” But to Ri­car­das Savuky­nas, the bat­tle he’s fight­ing is no fan­tasy.

The 43-year-old busi­ness con­sul­tant and blog­ger is part of an in­for­mal in­ter­net army of Lithua­ni­ans try­ing to counter what they de­scribe as an or­ga­nized cam­paign of fake news, hate speech and pro-Rus­sia pro­pa­ganda from across the border.

“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 said over tea at a restau­rant in Vil­nius’ old town. “See­ing this I thought, that it can­not be a nat­u­ral thing.”

Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

The 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, Mr. Mal­iuke­vi­cius said that Lithua­nia needs a com­plex coun­ter­strat­egy to de­feat what he de­scribes as Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda. “Elves are just one bit of this,” he said.

Talk of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence is bubbling on both sides of the At­lantic in the wake of the re­cent U.S. elec­tion, which pro­pelled Rus­sia-friendly can­di­date Don­ald Trump to power amid al­le­ga­tions of Krem­lin in­ter­fer­ence. Ear­lier this month, Ger­many’s in­tel­li­gence agency ac­cused Moscow of try­ing to desta­bi­lize the coun­try with pro­pa­ganda and cy­ber­at­tacks be­fore its gen­eral elec­tion planned for next year.

Lithua­nia, 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.

And the elf-vs.-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.”

Delfi, 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 run-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 sta­te­owned 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.

The moves ran­kle Moscow’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the tiny NATO na­tion.

“I do not think that stick­ing a pro­pa­ganda la­bel on an­other’s point of view is right,” Rus­sian Am­bas­sador Alexan­der Udaltsov said in an in­ter­view. “It’s al­ways bet­ter to use coun­ter­ar­gu­ments to prove your truth, but, un­for­tu­nately, our West­ern part­ners lack these ar­gu­ments and con­tinue with bans of Rus­sian TV sta­tions.”

Lithua­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Li­nas Linke­vi­cius makes no apol­ogy for the cen­sor­ship of tar­geted Rus­sian me­dia out­lets.

“A lie is not an al­ter­na­tive point of view,” Mr. 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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ri­car­das Savuky­nas is one of the Lithua­nian vol­un­teers who has dubbed them­selves “elves” and pa­trol so­cial me­dia to ex­pose fake news, hate speech and pro-Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda from across the border.

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