Information, inimical to Lithuania and very similar to what gets broadcast on the state-controlled media in Russia, regularly appear on a number of Lithuanian online platforms: Ldiena, Šauksmas, Ekspertai, Sarmatas, Versijos, Revoliucija, Laisvas Laikraštis, Socialistinis Liaudies Frontas, Karštas Komentaras.
Some of them present themselves as news outlets while others are fringe group blogs, but together they attract about 17,000 visitors a day.
Jonas Kovalskis, deputy chairman of the Socialist People’s Front, once said in an interview to Laisvas Laikraštis (The Free Gazette): “In information war, the reliability or quality of information is not what matters. What matters is the quantity of misinformation. It creates a field of total lies that makes even critical minds succumb to the power of untruth.”
A poignant case illustrating Kovalskis’ point was a story that circulated last month. Šauksmas and later Laisvas Laikraštis reported that Arab migrants in Berlin kidnapped and tortured a 13-year-old girl from a Russian family. These portals quoted media reports on Russian television and the daily Moskovskyi Komsomolets. Lithuanian portals published these stories well after German police dismissed them as untrue.
This story recalls another “viral” piece of misinformation propagated by Russian media about a boy who was allegedly crucified in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine. That wasn’t true either.
Assaults on history
Gediminas Grina, former head of the State Security Department, said that the spread of such stories is often orchestrated from Moscow. One of the Kremlin’s central foreign policy goals is to control the former Soviet states, often using the internet.
Grina said that Moscow is interested in spreading “alternative truths”, anti-Western and pro-Russian ideas, and anything against the current political constitution in Lithuania, its army, foreign policy, membership in NATO and the European Union.
“If anyone questions our membership, it is either because they do not understand the huge economic benefits we draw from it or they do it intentionally,” Grina said.
These online outlets, presenting themselves as “non-mainstream media”, do not only focus on topical events, but often target history. Last July, on the eve of the Statehood Day when Lithuania commemorates the crowning of its only King Mindaugas in 1253, self-styled historian Aivaras Lileika wrote on Karštas Komentaras: “Mindaugas was not someone who united the Baltic state, but who divided it… Decent historians see Mindaugas as one of the most despicable, darkest personalities in our Sarmatian-Lithuania history.”
Each January 13, when Lithuania remembers a more recent landmark in its history, detractors denigrate the significance of the events in 1991 when civilian Lithuanians defended the state from an attempted Soviet coup.
Writing on Ldiena, Blogger Paulius Radvanskis used the occasion to attack the legitimacy of the state: “Ask yourselves, please, what you are fighting for, what you will be fighting for once you join the army. For Lithuania or for individuals running Lithuania? Think who is the true enemy of ours. Vladimir Putin behind the TV screen or the rotten Lithuanian elite behind the steering wheel of the state?”
Such statements, while blatantly misleading, also teeter on the brink of legality, said journalistic ethics inspector Gražina Ramanauskienė-Tiumenevienė. She adds, however, that proving the limit has been crossed can be difficult.
“Portals like ekspertai.eu and Ldiena often balance on the line, we are constantly monitoring them. We have opened an investigation over Laisvas Laikraštis which incited ethnic discord in one of its publications,” the inspector said.
Joining forces before elections
Experts monitoring online media say that pro-Russian portals in Lithuania have been combining resources for some time now: they exchange stories, publish op-eds by the same individuals advancing the pro-Russian line. In recent months, however, these fringe groups have been mobilizing for political goals, too.
Last June, MP Audrius Nakas, who was elected with the Path of Courage list, politician Zigmas Vaišvila and Jonas Mažintas, the president of the Lithuanian Aeroclub, announced they were founding the “June 3 Club”.
They were soon joined by Rolandas Paulauskas’ organization “Mūsų Gretos” (“Our Ranks”). In November, Valdemaras Valkiūnas said his Republican Party was joining in, too. “Nacionalinis Interesas” (“National Interest”), the Pensioners Party (led by Vytautas Jurgis Kadys), and public figure Gediminas Paplauskas have also announced they were siding with the club, as did the People’s Party led by Aras Sutkus.
The stated goal of the group is to call a referendum and put to a vote a question whether or not the Lisbon Treaty clashes with Lithuanian sovereignty. They also want to lower requirements for calling a referendum, from 300,000 signatures from eligible voters to 100,000. This way, they say, it will be the nation running the state and not its elected representatives.
Political analyst Linas Kojala, of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, said that these individuals greatly overestimated their influence in Lithuanian society, which he said was still not very great. Still, Kojala believes that the aim of these groups is to build an influential political organization and perhaps even be elected to parliament.
“The attempt is to build a network of people sympathising with this ideology or at least with the ideological line of the Kremlin. It is not just about influencing the public, but also about political goals: to create an alternative political force, unite all the groups that are already sharing information. All this points to the ambition of being a new force in politics,” Kojala said.