In 2016, the Eastern Europe Studies Centre together with scientists from Vilnius University released one of the most detailed studies on Russian disinformation in Lithuania. The following conclusions were among the most important in it. Hostile propaganda in Lithuania has several aims: firstly, to encourage distrust in Lithuania’s political institutions and democracy, present the current social economic and social situation as threatening. Second, downplay the idea of independent Lithuania, as well as its individual elements such as national pride, its history, support for the military. Third, increase distrust in the European Union and NATO, also placing divides between Lithuania and its strategic partners, Vytautas Keršanskas writes on lrt.lt.
Another significant discovery was that different parts of the public are unequally susceptive to hostile propaganda. The most susceptive are those influenced by soviet nostalgia as well as those disappointed with the current state of democracy in Lithuania. Thus, in order to expand the number of pro-Kremlin Lithuanian citizens, more attention from Russian propaganda was directed toward these two groups.
In order to test, what changes occurred over the past two years and also how Lithuanian citizens view the means of combatting hostile propaganda, this summer the Eastern Europe Studies Centre commissioned a repeat public opinion survey, which was performed by Spinter Tyrimai.
The survey showed that in terms of Lithuania’s soviet past, the trends are positive – there are fewer of those believing that things were better in the soviet era and fewer undecided. Furthermore, there was a clear growth in those disagreeing with this statement, a total of 48% of respondents. Soviet nostalgia is linked to age – among older than 56 years old respondents, the number viewing the soviet past was greater than average, while among youth – less than average.
In terms of satisfaction with democracy, the evaluation was also better than in 2016, albeit remaining around 40%. Also, respondents were more inclined to view the impact of regular citizens on decision making with more scepticism, which illustrates the existing gap between state institutions and citizens. Thus while the glorification of the soviet era appears to no longer have a significant effect and is being rejected, the efforts of Kremlin propagandists to reinforce the divide between the public and the government as well as state institutions have fallen in line with public opinions and can easier spread.
In terms of various narratives found in the Russian disinformation distribution, it was noticed that the idea of benefits in improving relations between Lithuania and Russia was received rather positively – around 50% agreed with such a decision. However, this certainly does not mean that the threat of Kremlin’s foreign policy is not comprehended or that citizens support withdrawing sanctions against Russia. 40% agree that Russia’s policy poses a direct threat to East European states, while 54% believe the sanctions should not be withdrawn. A significant number did not have an opinion on these matters.
Speaking of combatting hostile propaganda, the measures specified most often are limitations on channels disseminating hatred or false information, strengthening news media literacy and critical thinking and also strengthening and spreading our own narrative.
More than half of the respondents agreed that more leisure and artistic production encouraging patriotism is necessary, while around 40% agreed with limitations on restrictions on Russian television channels featuring one-sided information. In terms of media literacy, only half of the respondents make use of more than one information source and only a third confirms the content of news in news portals.
So what do the numbers found in the investigation mean? Firstly, despite a constant flow of disinformation from Russia, Lithuanian citizens’ support for the stance on Russia, Kremlin politics and threat evaluations remain little changed. Second, there is need to focus on targeted information policy. For example, media literacy levels are rather low, creating a favourable medium for fake news to infiltrate. Third, external, such as soviet nostalgia or “rotten West”, narratives are not very effective in our public, however there is a divide existing between citizens and state institutions, which forms a favourable medium for Kremlin propagandists to seek and highlight this divide. Here we need broader work in recreating public and government trust rather than just a strategy to combat propaganda.