News

2021.03.02 08:00

Who spreads vaccine lies in the Baltics?

„Re:Baltica“2021.03.02 08:00

An investigation by Re:Baltica details vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories proliferating in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.

Until relatively recently, journalists generally considered the anti-vaccination movement to consist primarily of misguided new mothers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this view has changed dramatically. Misinformation on vaccines is now being spread on social media by healthy living evangelists and other profiteers, people seeking to grow their political capital, and fans of Kremlin propaganda.

Lithuania. Influential men claiming that a healthy lifestyle protects against Covid-19

Jolita (name changed at the interviewee’s request) from Vilnius first encountered vaccine hesitancy in her antenatal group. Initially, she intended to follow standard vaccination advice, but other vaccine-hesitant expectant parents influenced her opinion. “I understood that there was some information I was not aware of. I started looking into it and found some groups on Facebook,” she said. Her decision to decline vaccinations for her children shocked her mother-in-law, a doctor.

During an interview in June, she decried Facebook’s labelling and ‘censorship’ of anti-vaccination content. She said she liked to watch London Real, an online television channel accused of spreading conspiracy theories. Last summer, London Real posted the now infamous misinformation movie Plandemic, watched by millions around the world, which claimed that Covid-19 is a hoax created in the interest of pharmaceutical companies.

To estimate the scale of the anti-vaccination movement’s influence, a parliamentary committee asked the Lithuanian army to analyse anti-vaccination comments posted on major media platforms and their social media accounts.

The head of the army’s strategic communications department, Gintaras Koryzna, says that anti-vaxxers constituted 7 percent of the participants in online discussions. He noticed that, in addition to posting comments, they have attempted to disrupt the work of state institutions, by mass-emailing MPs or government accounts, for example.

“Our analysts believe that they first coordinate their positions in closed groups before voicing them in public,” Koryzna told Re:Baltica. Most of the publicly available pages that they analysed were linked to small-scale YouTube channels or Facebook pages spreading conspiracy theories. In addition, 70 percent of the content was not in Lithuanian, and two thirds of that was in Russian.

The analysts trace the main Covid-19 vaccination conspiracy theories to the summer of 2020. The theories were made easier to promote in a society already polarised by the vaccine debate.

In 2014, the then health minister Vytenis Andriukaitis issued an order to require vaccination certificates in kindergartens. This measure mobilised both parents and politicians. In two years, over 80 parents complained unsuccessfully to the equal opportunities ombudsperson.

At the end of 2015, four MPs from three different parties took the issue to court, and the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania declared the vaccination certificate order to be unconstitutional. With this decision, those who had been dissatisfied with the policy formed an association, which is now less active.

Today’s anti-vaccine movement is guided by numerous influential men who spread misinformation via social media claiming that healthy living protects against Covid-19.

For two decades, Viktor Uspaskich has alternated between the national and the European parliament. Together with fellow members of the Labour Party, which he founded, Uspaskich was embroiled in a lengthy court process for alleged accounting fraud. The courts eventually ruled that there was no evidence of malicious intent.

During this time, he stopped consuming meat, alcohol and tobacco. Assuming a new role as a health guru, Uspaskich claimed that he could ‘eat’ the coronavirus and remain unscathed. To treat Covid-19, he now offers structured water produced by a company whose shares indirectly belong to his children.

Read more: Lithuanian MEP under fire for advertising Covid-19 ‘cure’

Uspaskich said on Facebook and YouTube that vaccines “puncture” immunity and that his party would protect vaccine refusers.

According to Facebook data, Uspaskich has been by far the largest spender on Facebook ads in Lithuania since March 2019. Various sources (himself, the Labour Party and an unspecified source) spent close to 66,000 euros between March 2019 and January 2021 on promoting his page.

Marius Gabrilavičius, also known as Maksimalietis, is another big spender on Facebook. Over the same period, he spent 18,000 euros on advertising his website, minfo.lt, a news site he founded, and LNA – a Facebook page that mixes mainstream and fringe news.

Gabrilavičius presents himself as a hypnotherapist who helps people overcome addictions. In 2019, minfo.lt published claims that the MMR vaccine injects neurotoxins into the brain and that the mainstream media manipulates measles statistics. Some of these articles were lifted from vaccine sceptics’ Facebook posts.

Gabrilavičius attempted to establish his own political party in 2019, supporting Mindaugas Puidokas as he ran for president. 15min, one of the largest news websites and Facebook’s official fact-checking partner in Lithuania, reported how in spring Maksimalietis became a leader in Facebook ad spending.

Facebook limits the reach of posts labelled as misleading and repeat offenders face restrictions on their ad spending. Upset about 15min‘s work debunking his claims, Gabrilavičius embarked on a crusade against the website, creating a Facebook group to campaign against fact-checkers, traditional media, and “censorship” on social networks.

Gabrilavičius was seen promoting an August protest against the pandemic containment measures. A Facebook group Gabrilavičius co-founded to rally against 15min was listed as a co-organiser of a similar protest in May.

Months before any vaccine against Covid-19 was approved, these activists accused Bill Gates of masterminding “forced vaccination”. Gabrilavičius has 185,000 followers and another Facebook page of his has 41,000.

Dainius Kepenis, founder of a healthy lifestyle school, who was elected to the parliament in 2016 from the Farmers and Greens Union and became a member of the health committee, also likes to talk about vaccines. Parliamentary transcripts show that during discussions on vaccines, he claimed that they contain remnants of aborted foetuses and monkeys. Recently, Kepenis kept fact-checkers busy by selectively posting reports about Covid-19 vaccines.

Toying with Q

Millionaire Ugnius Kiguolis was highly visible during Kepenis’s widely criticised conferences. For decades, the mainstream media has lavished attention on his relationships, new cars and real estate. Lithuanian fact-checkers, meanwhile, identified Kiguolis as one of the first disseminators of Covid-19 conspiracy theories in Lithuania back in January 2020.

Fact-checkers have noted Kiguolis’s use of symbols associated with QAnon, a conspiracy theory originating in the US claiming that the world is ruled by satan worshipping child abusers against whom former president Donald Trump is putting up a clandestine fight.

In October, Kiguolis enthusiastically promoted a campaign to support Trump. But when asked what his relationship with the QAnon movement was, he replied: “Probably the same as yours.” After the Latvian version of this article came out, Kiguolis published a blog post claiming that the authors were receiving orders from the Open Society Foundation.

The summer and autumn of 2020 saw an explosion in the number of Lithuanian Twitter accounts containing the letter Q. Some have since been suspended. LRT, the public broadcaster, noted that anti-lockdown protests have been coordinated on Telegram and Facebook by QAnon-affiliated groups, including a group moderated by Gabrilavičius of minfo.lt and celebrity athlete Žydrūnas Savickas.

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

While Kiguolis and Puidokas shared cryptic hints with their followers, Kazimieras Juraitis, another former presidential candidate, went all in to promote QAnon ideas in Lithuania. His website contains seven videos titled “Q news”, with one of the latest entitled “The end of the plandemic”. In his ‘news shows’, he talks to a frog character – a common QAnon symbol.

Estonia. From discussing post-vaccination swelling to violence

Estonia also has a long history of debating childhood vaccination.

The conversation on how to increase vaccination rates goes back at least as far as 2003 because of a sharp dip in the vaccination coverage after it was made optional. Back then, doctors were blamed for not updating patients’ vaccination records and for wasting public money. Now the central issue is the number of children going unvaccinated.

In 2014, the Ministry of Social Affairs created a working group with the main goal of informing people about vaccination. A report published in 2017 shows that the anticipated results were not achieved.

At the same time, a new Facebook group called “Side effects of vaccines and drugs” was becoming ever more popular. Within a few years, it had attracted thousands, including prominent figures such as the Estonian MEP Jaak Madison (EKRE), the singer Lenna Kuurmaa, and others.

In 2017, most of the content was targeted at parents; for example, members discussed a child’s arm swelling after getting a tuberculosis shot. However, that has changed significantly. Lately, the most popular posts concern conspiracy theories – that no one is hospitalised because of Covid-19, that the media is corrupt, that masks don’t work, and that Bill Gates is going to microchip everyone. All these theories stem from abroad.

Prior to the pandemic, the anti-vaccine group had ten thousand members. In the space of a year, the number has grown to 14,000, about half that of the most popular anti-vaxxer Facebook page in Latvia.

The non-governmental organisation maintaining this Facebook group also collects donations which enable it to continue spreading misinformation. For example, at the end of 2020, several well-known radio stations ran an ad from the NGO which aimed to scare people away from getting the Covid-19 vaccination. The organisation also publishes books, organises seminars and even sells coffee mugs.

False information about the vaccines, along with other Covid-19 misinformation, is also disseminated by Estonia’s most popular fake news site Telegram. It has almost 70,000 followers on Facebook – significantly more than any of its counterparts in Latvia.

Previously, the website, created by a charming Estonian couple, mainly published lifestyle articles and tips for improving well-being. To attract a larger audience, it published video interviews with various celebrities. Conspiracy theories were also added during the pandemic and the number of Facebook followers increased significantly. Some content is only available for a fee. During the pandemic, Telegram also published a magazine claiming that the coronavirus was man-made, and this was readily available in all the supermarket newsstands.

The recent attacks on both Irja Lutsar and Peep Talving have shown that conspiracy theories go hand in hand with violence, both verbal and physical.

Epidemiologist and government advisor Lutsar received a phone call from Andrei Vesterinen, a Russian propagandist and lawyer running a business fighting Covid-19 restrictions, such as the requirement to wear masks. He mocked and insulted Lutsar and later posted the conversation online without permission. The video went viral amongst conspiracy theorists. The verbal abuse against Lutsar was condemned by the prime minister, members of the scientific community and doctors.

A week later, Talving, the head surgeon of the Northern Estonian Regional Hospital, was attacked in the parking lot after work. The tire of his car was slashed and a masked man threw urine in his face. The authorities later said that the attack was not motivated by Talving’s work as a scientific adviser to the government on the Covid-19 restrictions.

Both cases are the first signs that well-known representatives of the scientific community have good reason to be fearful of expressing themselves in public.

Currently, Estonia's laws for restricting disinformation do not work, because in order to make a successful complaint, one must demonstrate that the offending action has real-life negative consequences. Furthermore, the websites that are spreading wrongful information are not being shut down.

Latvia. Police involvement is no obstacle

The support for prominent Latvian anti-vaxxers is not as visible as in Estonia and there are not as many influential conspiracy theorists as in Lithuania. However, the number of people planning not to vaccinate is no lower.

A poll by the research centre SKDS conducted at the request of the Latvian public media portal LSM gives a partial insight into the possible reasons. People who mainly consume Russian media content are the most likely group to say they won’t get vaccinated. Since autumn, Russian media have been portraying Western-made vaccines as dangerous and wrapped up in scandals.

Social media analysis tools available to fact-checkers show that thousands of people in Latvia have been willing to share such blatant disinformation. People who prefer to get their information from social media also tend to be less trusting than those who prefer to consume news from traditional Latvian-language media.

The answer to the question “Are you going to get vaccinated if offered to?” by the primary source of information

Jānis Pļaviņš, a seller of the so-called structured water product Memory Water, is one of the most prolific and popular spreaders of anti-vaccine messages. He and two other well-known dealers in misinformation, Aivis Vasiļevskis and Andris Ciekurs, began attracting followers with false stories well before the pandemic hit. The supposed dangers of 5G technology was one of their go-to topics.

Initially, they worked separately, but lately they have started cooperating to help create and distribute each other’s content. Their latest joint project is an online show called Free State TV. One of the interviewees on the show was former journalist Kristīna Duņeca, the creator of a Latvian anti-vaxxer Facebook page.

None of them have more than 10,000 followers, which is not many in comparison to the Lithuanian and Estonian misinformation spreaders, although some of their posts gain a lot of popularity. One of the latest examples is a pamphlet made by Duņeca, which she encouraged people to print and distribute. It incorrectly claims that Covid-19 vaccines contain foetal cells and that people who use any other medication are not allowed to have the vaccine. Despite the falsehoods, it was reported that even a general practitioner decided to share the pamphlet with her patients.

The most observant social media users might have noticed the cooperation between Pļaviņš and the member of the Latvian parliament Aldis Gobzems, who is currently in the opposition but is forming a new party and hopes to win the next election. In violation of the restrictions on gathering, Pļaviņš organised a protest against Covid-19 measures, which Gobzems also attended.

After the protest, Pļaviņš and his ally, the businessman Arnolds Babris, were invited to Riga Castle, the residence of the president of Latvia, to express their opinion as representatives of the opposition. Both men also attended a service held by the religious organisation New Generation, whose leader, Aleksejs Ledjajevs, also scares his followers about vaccines.

Unlike Pļaviņš, who regularly spreads lies about vaccines via Facebook and other platforms, Gobzems doesn’t overtly campaign against vaccination. At the same time, he has announced that he doesn’t see the need to get vaccinated himself. He also says that the phrase “trust science” is silly and that he doesn’t support vaccination for people who are not in any of the risk groups. More than 54,000 people follow him on Facebook.

However, the biggest scandal related to Covid-19 misinformation was caused by Marina Kornatovska, a feldsher working at the Riga East University Hospital.

For one, she claimed that the vaccines have crippled people in the UK. One of her videos reached about two million people in Latvia, Ukraine, Estonia and elsewhere, with 45,000 also sharing it.

The police, whose efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19 disinformation had publicly gone unnoticed until then, detained both her and another individual, Valentīns Jeremejevs, who had helped her spread the wrongful claims.

This run-in with the law doesn’t seem to have caused them much inconvenience. In mid-January, the organisation Jeremejevs represents was prohibited from participating in public events and from publishing any information on its social media accounts.

They regularly violate this order and continue to publish conspiracy theories on Facebook and Telegram, including unfounded claims on topics ranging from forced vaccination to global satanist elites abusing children.

Lithuania: Daiva Repečkaite, Eva von Schaper (received a grant from Journalism.eu for the investigation)

Estonia: Heliis Raudsik, Delfi.ee

Latvia: Sabīne Bērziņa

Editor: Evita Puriņa