News

2020.05.02 10:00

LRT FACTS. Who is behind anti-quarantine protest in Lithuania?

Jurga Bakaitė, LRT.lt2020.05.02 10:00

Fringe protests against coronavirus measures have been seen across the world, including in Lithuania.

While organisers seek to present the protests as spontaneous grassroot movements, conspiracy theories and fringe activists play a central role in them, LRT FACTS has discovered.

Anonymous organisers

About ten cars turned up near the parliament building in Vilnius on April 24, honking as they drove past before the police ordered them to disperse, the tv3.lt news website reported.

The action was entitled ‘For freedom, let's stop quarantine’ and was organised anonymously through a channel on the Telegram messaging app.

The channel, which includes nearly 250 members, and its messages are public. A link to channel was posted by a fake profile on a public Facebook event page.

Many of the messages criticised the Lithuanian government's decision to extend quarantine measures, arguing they were destroying the economy.

However, the invitation to the event included puzzling combinations of letters and numbers.

“We are tired of your bans and we will not remain silent! Let's all unite! 21_Q17_30. The number 21 is a sign of success angels. The angel's number 21 is unity, fulfilment and happiness. Q17 30 years since the independence from the Soviet Union,” the invitation read, adding the hashtag #WWG1WGA.

#Q17 and #WWG1WGA are popular hashtags associated with the notorious American conspiracy theory QAnon. According to its proponents, the so-called deep state is conspiring against President Donald Trump and his followers, while the world is run by a secret government assisted by the media and a “paedophile ring”.

The FBI has designated QAnon a “domestic terrorism threat,” the first time the label has been used for a conspiracy theory, which has attracted a significant following and public support from some politicians.

Mysticism and grievances

The organisers of the Lithuanian anti-quarantine event used quasi-religious vocabulary reminiscent of that associated with QAnon, invoking the “awakening”.

“I hope that there are awakened ones among the officers," some of the messages read, or “we need to share so that people are awakened” and “people in Lithuania are only starting to awaken, but it will take some more time, not everyone understands”.

Most participants in the discussions, however, invoked much more down-to-earth conspiracy theories popular in Lithuania, for instance, that the coronavirus is much less dangerous than claimed and the authorities are hiding the truth about it.

“The quarantine gets extended every two weeks, because they were scared to announce for months, for fear of panic,” the Telegram channel's administrator wrote.

“The WHO said they would enter people's homes and take the infected away. The laws are being made to suit them,” another participant said.

“[We're staying home] over a fake pandemic, a flu under a different name,” a user wrote, adding that the media in different countries were reporting about the death of one boy, but giving him different names.

“The death statistics are falsified,” was the comment among many.

On the channel, people expressed frustration over the work of the Lithuanian government and parliament, “lies propagated in the media” and called for resisting “the system”.

They were also posting links to stories about protests in the US and other countries as well as to other conspiracy theories, about vaccines and George Soros.

A common call was to use national symbols to protest quarantine measures: wave flags, sing the national anthem. Some proposed the slogan “freedom to the nation, enough with lies” and invoked the Lithuanian book smugglers from the 19th century, as well sa the anti-Soviet guerilla fighters, potent symbols of resistance against foreign domination.

Some people on the channel, however, were sharing genuine personal frustrations. “I won't be able to survive another month [at home] with a wife and a small kid,” said one. “Why won't they let us get a haircut, one can't breathe through the mask or see anything through the hair,” complained another.

Well-known conspiracy theorists

While the protest was organised anonymously, it involved people known for propagating fringe conspiracy theories.

Early on, a call to take part in an action against “total control” appeared on the Facebook profile of Marius Gabrilavičius, also known as M. G. Maksimalietis, the founder of minfo.lt.

The website, as well as Gabrilavičius' personal profile, publishes dubitable information on subjects like vaccination, health and international politics.

The website itself has announced that Facebook started blocking links to its stories, since many of them have been deemed misleading by third-party fact-checkers.

The well-know reporter Rita Miliūtė said back in 2018 that the website posted disproportionately much information about the activities of politicians from one party – the Farmers and Greens Union which currently leads the Lithuanian government – and one of the writers was the party's member and a parliament staffer.

Meanwhile the website's non-political sections are dominated by stories about dangers of vaccination.

On his Facebook profile, Gabrilavičius has called on Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis and Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga – both delegated by the Farmers and Greens Union – to stop executing “demands of the WHO devils”.

Discussions about the protest action also took place on the ‘Unfollow 15min.lt’ Facebook group (the name refers to one of Lithuania's main online media outlets) which currently boasts 20,000 members and features conspiracy theories about harmful effects of 5G and vaccination.

Kazimieras Juraitis, a fringe politician who tried to run for president in 2019, invited his followers on YouTube to attend the protest. His channel also posted a video saying that Juraitis was approached by the police over the protest.

“As far as I know, he [Juraitis] is not organising the event, it's a civic initiative,” an unidentified spokesman for Juraitis claimed in the video which, however, also included advice on how to avoid police attention during the protest.

Juraitis' channel, much like minfo.lt, has been identified by fact-checkers as misleading.

VERDICT

Conspiracy theory. Organisers of the anti-quarantine protest near the Lithuanian parliament took pains to present it as a grassroot action, even though well-known conspiracy theory propagators, including Marius Gabrilavičius and Kazimieras Juraitis, were behind the fake Facebook profiles that organised the event. Conspiracy theories and unverified claims that the government was hiding the truth were used to mobilise more people.