News2020.03.25 08:00

Coronavirus disinformation takes hold of diaspora

Benas Gerdžiūnas, 2020.03.25 08:00

As the coronavirus went global, so did disinformation. The ballooning European diasporas in the era of Schengen and free movement posed a convenient target. With almost a fifth of its citizens abroad, Lithuania was no exception.

“I listened to a Russian doctor’s recording from Tenerife,” read one of the thousands of comments in a popular Lithuanian diaspora Facebook group. “[The doctor] said the workers were completely unprotected, and the deceased were issued any diagnosis other than the coronavirus.”

Something is being hidden from us, the source implied. Seeking to sow confusion and distrust, Kremlin-linked disinformation capitalised on the climate of fear surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The diaspora is one of the most susceptible [groups] for disinformation,” said Vaidas Matulaitis, the head of PR at the Lithuanian World Community.

The danger stems from the fact that many emigres remain part of the Russian-language media sphere.

“It’s no secret that many middle-aged, or elderly, people in the recent wave of emigration are more comfortable [consuming] content in Russian,” he said.

And therefore, “the so-called Facebook bubbles,” including the widespread diaspora groups, “become very important” in the spread of disinformation, according to Matulaitis.

The EU’s foreign policy branch, the European External Action Service, said in a March 16 report that Russia had deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” in multiple languages to push contradictory and malicious fake news in Europe.

“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries [...] in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” the EU said.

The key identified narratives varied from claiming the virus was a hoax to saying the alleged staggering death toll was being hidden from the public.

Many Russian-language social media posts, as well as contradictory and false information in the Lithuanian and Russian languages, found their way into Lithuanian diaspora groups on Facebook.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the groups have already been dealing with a barrage of fake profiles and posts. Danutė Regelskienė is one of the four administrators looking after a 24,000-member Vokietijos Lietuviai (Lithuanians in Germany) group on Facebook.

“There have been an increase in members lately, with some of them apparently having the sole aim to spread disinformation,” she said. “Especially articles in Russian language [...] and videos about conspiracies.”

“We block them, but we also have jobs, so we are grateful to our members who report them, [as] we don’t have enough time,” said Regelskienė. “There have always been ‘trolls’, but lately they have been smart – they block [the admins] so we can’t see their profiles and then start posting.”

Although diasporas are not the sole nor even perhaps the main carriers of disinformation, the Facebook groups are characterised by active engagement, thousands of members, greater post reach compared to other pages, and a largely unmoderated informational space.

Many groups on Facebook are also being created for the sole purpose to be resold, according to the group Vakcina nuo Vatnikų, or Vaccine against Vatniks, a derogatory term for conservative Kremlin supporters.

Vakcina nuo Vatnikų is a collective of Lithuania’s so-called elves who challenge Russian trolls and disinformation online. These volunteers have grown in prominence following Russia’s hostile disinformation during the conflict in Ukraine. The majority of ‘elves’ stay anonymous to protect their identities due to the sensitive nature of their work.

There has been a growing number of groups about the coronavirus which are “often administered by fake profiles and pages,” it said. “If these groups are later sold, they can be bought by people hostile [to Lithuania].”

“The biggest threat to the diaspora is that they receive information about Lithuania online,” which can be ripe for abuse, said the ‘elves’.

Previously, pages posting soft-news content, pictures and quotes about Lithuania, that were also popular among the country’s diaspora, switched overnight to spreading Russia’s Sputnik propaganda articles.

In January 2019, Facebook removed 364 such “inauthentic” pages that originated in Russia and operated in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Despite appearing as general interest pages, they “were linked to employees of Sputnik” and “frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment,” according to Facebook.

As disinformation surrounding Covid-19 has grown, Facebook has come under increasing international condemnation for failing to respond to the abuse of its platforms.

EUvsDisinfo, the European Union’s anti-disinformation agency, said on March 19 that “despite their publicly announced measures,” Facebook and other social media platforms were struggling to prevent “the proliferation of dangerous coronavirus-related disinformation, despite allocating significant resources to this task”.

The Lithuanian Military previously told that since February, it had registered around 150 instances of informational incidents in Lithuanian, English, Russian and other languages that involved Covid-19.

“The disinformation spreads across multiple groups where there’s no control,” said the ‘elves’. “A person can therefore receive misleading information from several sources. Then, the person will get lost on what’s the truth and might also then spread disinformation.”

UK researchers from East Anglia University already warned in February that those who believed in conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic were less likely to take protective measures.

Disinformation and fakes spreading on social media, therefore, can cost lives, they said.

Meanwhile, videos circulating among Lithuanian Facebook users showed returnees claiming the virus was a hoax and saying they would not observe the nationwide quarantine announced on March 16.

This helped foster a largely hostile climate on social media, with commentators calling to detain or bar returning Lithuanian citizens.

The goal of any disinformation campaign is exactly that – to sow “disunity and mistrust," Peter Stano, the EU’s spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, previously told Deutsche Welle.

Lithuania is now moving to introduce stricter quarantine measures, including placing all returnees in mandatory two-week isolation.

“People act irresponsibly,” Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga told LRT RADIO on Monday. “The scenes captured by the media [show] people saying there’s no such virus, it’s all made up,” and taking the decision to not self-isolate, he said.

A decision that may have been the outcome of chaotic response across Europe, personal biases, but also – hostile disinformation.

LRT has been certified according to the Journalism Trust Initiative Programme