It’s not political parties or the Kremlin hiding behind pseudo news sites in the Latvian Facebook – at least for now.
On a dreary November day that is more suitable for spending it online than outside Aivis Plotins created a poll on a Facebook page, asking whether the Latvian parliament should be dissolved.
Aivis comes from a generation whose worldview is formed by World Weird Web: with short attention span, peer influencers in social networks and YouTube, algorithms which pushes posts aligned with one’s world views, plenty of cat pictures – and fake news.
Aivis describes himself as “a funny 19-year-old guy from Ogre,” a town 30 kilometres east of the Latvian capital, Riga. He gained the 15 minutes of the Internet fame by posting a joke about how a single guy should prepare meat dumplings. The joke was picked up by major news outlets in Latvia.
The poll on the dissolution of parliament, and calling snap general elections in a country of slightly fewer than 2 million people went viral pretty quickly. “150,000 unique views. It may be a Latvian record,” he happily admitted in Facebook message to Re:Baltica.
One of his followers added a link to a news article about a little-known group called “Power to the People of Latvia” making a second official attempt to collect signatures online to dissolve the parliament (it collected 514 signatures during the first attempt a year ago).
In the mainstream media, this news slipped as a marginal phenomenon. Even if group managed to collect the necessary 155,000 signatures and the majority voted to dissolve the parliament, a snap election would be held just a few months before the regular general elections, which is slated for October 2018.
In the Facebook, the flood of memes, posts and items which resembled the news left an impression as if the early elections could be called tomorrow. FB pages whose interest about politics usually manifests itself in posting video’s of populist MP Artuss Kaimins, shared the news that now voters can sign up to dissolve the parliament on the internet. They were followed by video tutorials on how to sign up and speculations who would replace the current political parties.
Kaimins, an actor by profession, recently formed a new political party called “Who Owns the State”. Before becoming MP, Kaimins ran a video/radio show in which he barraged his guests with provocative questions. The show was broadcast on Boom FM. The videos of the interviews were later posted on YouTube. He had gained enough notoriety to be elected to parliament two years ago on the ticket of the Latvian Association of Regions (LRA) but quit the LRA in December 2015 over differences with the faction’s leaders.
When the state-run government services portal Latvija.lv suffered another set of technical difficulties, it gave birth to a conspiracy theory that the ruling class is not interested in snap elections.
Re: Baltica estimate that in a few days the information about the signature drive was shared on FB pages, reaching out more than 600,000 followers. This is three times more than the viewership of the most popular show on Latvian TV.
Aivis’ poll shows how and why this happens. He claims that he is not linked to any political party and doesn’t make money off FB, but likes an instant result. “Today’s hot topic is the parliament’s dissolution,” he says, adding that this is why people shared this on their social media account. He himself does not want early elections because they won’t change anything: the same people will return to power as before. “I was sad to see my friends who do not even hold political views answering to my poll and responding with a YES, the Saeima should be dissolved,” he says.
Alvis posted the poll to the Facebook page “Best Vines Latvia” [sic]. From there it was shared by an interlinked network FB of pages with horoscopes, memes, advice on dieting and cars, which at the end led to website Zeltene.lv.
This – and many similar networks – makes money from FB and Google AdSense. Re:Baltica’s investigation concentrated on the most popular or the most active promoters of parliament’s dismissal.
There networks are not run by the Russian state-sponsored propaganda factories, their affiliates or local political parties – at least for now. Owners are “digital nomads”, 20- and 30-somethings without a political past who don’t appear to seek to dumbify people, or stir the public anger. Web pages don’t list their “newsroom” addresses because they don’t have features of a classical journalism: editors, writers, reporters. Generally speaking, owners are the people with various business interests, who analyze what will bring in more clicks and, consequently, more money.
How The Business Works
“One man’s biggest mistake is let the other man put a smile on his woman,” is one news item in zeltene.lv shared by more than 60 users in a period of three hours. 70 users liked it. 16,000 Facebook followed Zeltene.lv page. If it was a traditional news site, it would be very happy with a level of engagement.
Oskars Prikulis, a former aide to two members of parliament who previously also worked in the business daily, manages 40 pages on Facebook. About as many are registered in the Latvian social media platform draugiem.lv. He maintains 50 accounts on Twitter.
They all have one task: to drive traffic to seven websites he owns, which focuses on relationships, health and horoscopes, which “you won’t believe me, are written by a professional astrologer,” he said in an interview with Re;Baltica.
Around 1.5 million people visit his pages every month. Zeltene.lv, however, is the most popular: around 300,000 unique hits every month. Prikulis says this traffic translated to an income of about 1,500 euros a month. The expenses are small because the content is being taken and translated from foreign-language sites.
According to Prikulis, the content quality is not important for the internet business. In the beginning, he tried to offer quality pieces written by professionals, but the audience shrunk. He says that the Facebook algorithm is designed in such a way that only 6 percent of the page’s followers will see one particular post or another. If the follower did not like two or three posts of the page that he or she followed, he or she won’t see the fourth one, he says. He concluded that he needed to create more pages and publish things that people enjoy: aphorisms and adages, animal photos, horoscopes.
The poll on the dissolution of parliament is the only political news item on his site because as a business, he tends to avoid politics on purpose. Before the recent local elections three years ago some parties offered to deploy their content, but he refused because, he says, he did not want problems with the anti-corruption agency. He posted the poll to experiment with the Facebook Live function. His conclusion: you can earn money not only with the horoscopes, but also with the negative political news. That day, his page had gained 1,000 new followers.
“It is often said that people are fed with up the yellow press and negative content, but now, I saw it for myself how much the negative content is read,” he said.
Runabildes.lv (literally “Pictures Speak”) is one of the most popular FB pages in Latvia, affiliated with the news-like portal of the same name. The content is generated by users who send in videos. More than 128,000 people follow this page as of this writing.
“The key editorial criteria is the publication of those items that would attract more clicks because that generates income from advertising to those who work on the site,” said Arturs Laukmanis, the site’s creator, in an email to Re:Baltica. Laukmanis did not want to meet in person, but his LinkedIn profile shows that he used to be a product manager at Farmeko, a pharmaceutical company. Right now, he is working as an IT and social media expert.
The day when the news about the signature drive to dissolve the parliament was published, it was shared by 1,224 people with more than 380 comments. Many of them were aggressive, several contained hate speech.
“Tie them up to a pole so that everyone could spit into their thieving faces,” in comments to news piece writes one of followers, Karlis Pakalnins. “I have read that Hitler had a good way [to deal with them] that we could use … one with a hole in the head and into the pit,” added another user Arturs Orba Kaneps. “Until we start physical cleansing, they will pay no heed. That’s history’s truth, however harsh it may be,” says the user Raivis Plivna.
Apart from the signature drive to dissolve the parliament, other most popular news items that week include an interview about politicians by a businesswoman Linda Liepina with the headline, “Are you a MORON?”, prepared by another FB pseudo-news site ritakafija.lv (translates as the Morning Coffee). Up next is a video about “Emotional Thoughts of a Latvian Guy About What’s Going On in Latvia Or ‘Sorry, Latvia, We Don’t Want It This Way.” In it, standing with his back to the picturesque winter background, a bald young man rants about the stolen state. The article gained more than 27,000 readers: quite a success for a young youtuber whose usual fooling around with his friends rarely gathers more than 5,000 views. On youtube, this video was seen by 154,220 people in a week.
According to the site’s creator the decision to post a video is with the site’s administrators. There are fewer than five of them, but none have journalist background or training. “We try to avoid posting propaganda news and to possibly filter it out. None of the political parties finances us. And really, no one has expressed an interest.” The team is considering selling the site, along with the responsibility for its content to new owners, because owners consider it a business project, not a political one.
That does not mean that politicians are completely absent from the site’s content. There are many videos with Artuss Kaimins, compared to other politicians, but it may be easily explained: his videos are very popular.
Literally the site’s name means Morning Coffee. Its owners are Klāvs Ašmanis and Ulams Mazulis, two young, serial enterpreneurs who agreed to meet with Re:Baltica in their office which is situated in the one of flats in picturesque art-deco quarter of Riga. Unlike others, this site is registered as a mass media and its editor has worked in journalism.
Ašmanis, a confident 26-year old young man wearing an indigo blue jacket with a handkerchief in its pocket, explains that the duo met at university. Both started building businesses: created and sold home pages, a Groupon-like site kuponiem.lv, founded a casting agency.
They drew their inspiration from another blog, Fenikssfun.lv, and their own experiences buying paid articles in the mainstream news outlets like Delfi and TVNET. “It was surprising that there were only 400 hits. It felt like we had wasted our money [paying for the articles],” says Klavs. “Then we figured: why not create a large media outlet.”
They started off creating pages on Facebook. One page, at first. Then, they started divide the audience. Articles on weight loss for women. Proverbs for women. A pedal to the metal for men. “At first, we wanted some positive news, but positive news get only 10 to 15 thousand hits. Everybody whines that there is so much negative, but when positive news reaches them, they don’t want to share it on the social media. If a person is angry, he or she will read it to the end, share it and add a comment.”
Currently, they manage eight pages with about 60,000 – 70,000 followers. About 1,000 people a week join the aphorism group without any prompt. The site cooperates with the free-to-air TV channel Riga TV 24, where they host an interview show every weekend.
News from the political realm rarely make the site. But when they do, it’s usually Kaimins. The site’s creators say that Kaimins followers are the most accessible for video interviews and re-posts. “I wouldn’t even know how to approach [Riga’s mayor and an avid social network user] Ušakovs,” Ašmanis says.
When asked about the campaign to dissolve the parliament, Ašmanis insists that the news published on the site were not fake. He says that the job of his journalists is not to verify whether the post is true or the interviewee lies – they act as intermediaries who allow the public to see the story and judge themselves if it is true.
A Few Factories Of Falsehoods
The reports about fake news factories that pollute internet with unverified information started spreading shortly after the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2013, which has been followed by an aggressive propaganda campaign. The stories relaunched with a new vigor after the election of Donald Trump the next president of the United States. It turned out that people engaged more actively to fake news than to news articles by respectable news media outlets. About 140 sites supporting Donald Trump have been created by young people in a small town in the FRY Macedonia. Their sole goal was to cash in on the election, not influence the election itself. A survey of 7,800 middle-school students published by the Stanford University in November found that more than 82 percent of them were not able to distinguish between sponsored content and real news. Many judged the authenticity of the news item by whether it was accompanied by a large photograph.
Popular Latvian FB news-like pages are seldomly total fakes, full of outright lies. Mostly these outlets lack a proper editorial process: fact checking, news value judgment and context, and operate on the single criteria: how popular will the post be. Their content creates an impression that everything is terrible, but here are some jokes to divert attention from it.
In our investigation, Re:Baltica has found one exception: a Facebook page “A VIP Club – A selection of proverbs,” which is connected to a website called montana.lv.
The most recent news at the time of writing said that “90 percent of members of parliament believe that the minimum wage and pensions are too large in Latvia? SHAME!” To read the news, the user is sent to the site’s Facebook page, where in order to read it, the user has to like the page. Then, the user would see a couple of sentences about a proposal to cut a minimum wage.
The news is a lie. The page’s owner is Raivis Raspopovs, who sees nothing wrong with fake news. “I do not know if it’s fake or not… I have read it somewhere or someone has said it somewhere and on this basis, I have posted an article. It’s purely as a rumor,” Raspopovs writes. “The portal is a distraction from the mundane. Everything shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Judging by 73 comments and 2500 shares, it didn’t look like the readers took it as a joke. For them it has become part of the daily cocktail: “Everything is terrible.”
Raspopovs says that “VIP Club” gets around 200,000 unique visitors each month, which turns into a good pay. He declined to say how much he makes off of the site. “Everything depends on the content. My guy, who posts articles, can grab people. That is why the page grows every day.”
Nozagts.com / ukradeno.nozagts.com
This site literally translates as “stolen.” The network of pages that lead to this site and its Russian-language version has more followers than anything similar on Latvian FB. The reason is simple: new owners took over the most popular FB page, “TomaJoki”, with its little less than 150,000 subscribers. It mainly consisted of mainly consisted of jokes, animal pics and alike.
Nozagts.com was registered in October 2016. The site mostly publishes political articles: about the dissolution of the parliament, the oligarchs, wasteful spending. What makes this site stands out is its registrant’s connection to Kremlin-friendly political forces.
The core of the site is made up by former journalists that worked at the local Russian-language channel TV 5, which was shut down after it was purchased by Sweden-based Modern Times Group, and Vesti.lv, a web site of a pro-Putin local Russian-language newspaper.
The site registrant attempted to hide, but the digital track lead us to Ivans Staļnojs, a man previously known as Edgars Zālītis who changed his name after the controversial school reform in 2004 which led to the largest protests by ethnic Russian minority in the post-Soviet Latvia. Staļnojs actively organised and participated in them, as a leader of youth organization of the Latvian Socialist Party, which has been led by the last Soviet-era chairman of the Latvian Communist Party Alfreds Rubiks. After the protests, he didn’t join any of the political parties which organised them.
Blogger Jānis Polis has written that Staļnojs has worked as a realtor in Century21 BaltWest, which was headed by a Russian citizen Valery Engels, a historian connected with several NGOs funded by Russia.
From politics Staļnojs moved to TV5 where he worked as a special projects director. At that time, Andrejs Mamikins, now a Latvia’s member of the European Parliament from Harmony – party that draws on support from Latvia’s sizeable Russian-speaking population – worked as a TV journalist there. Riga City Council, headed by another former journalist and now leader of Harmony Nils Ušakovs, used to purchase the special program in the channel.
The head of the channel was Mihails Šeitelmans who fired a popular TV journalist Oļegs Ignatjevs and TV5 editor-in-chief Vlads Andrejevs who both tied their dismissal with the pressure from Usakovs and the municipal council to get rid of critical voices.
Recently, Staļnojs worked as a consultant for vesti.lv to help promote the site’s content online, said the newspaper’s managing editor Andrejs Švedovs. The site editor was Vladislavs Užulis, who now is the managing editor at nozagts.com.
“He left about two months ago. He was all mysterious, talked about a new news resources that would pay more,” Švedovs said.
Užulis asked for questions in writing, but in the end declined to be interviewed. Staļnojs avoided an interview, too.
The site is runs on a server, which belongs to a former TV5 video engineer and IT pro Aleksejs Mehonošins. Mamikins.lv, the site of the Latvian MEP, also runs on the same server along with other sites like a site called ForPutin.com, which was never launched.
Mamikins declined to comment. Mehonošins told Re:Baltica that sites that run on his server are not connected to one another. He alleged that ForPutin.com was created a joke. After the interview, the site was closed.
Up until last week, nozagts.com did not contain any information about its editors or publishers. However, it was advertising massively in the leading news portal in Latvia, Delfi.lv, making it seem like a respectable media outlet.
“I personally know Ivan. We have cooperated for the last two years when the vesti.lv widget was on our site. And when he started talking about new project, I decided why not continue [this cooperation]. I trust him,” said the chairman of the board of Delfi Konstantīns Kuzikovs. That means that the two sites are not direct competitors, rather they share information and raise each other’s rating.
As the internet became awash with a rumour that the site nozagts.com may have receiving money from Russia, Delfi stopped the cooperation until the Security Police completes its investigation.
“I cannot say whether I like this content or not. It’s not Delfi’s style and of course, it’s populism. But I cannot see that there would be some kind of pro-Kremlin or pro-American position. I cannot say that I see some kind of propaganda, such as urging people to go out on the streets and praising Putin as our president,” Kuzikovs said.
After the Re:Baltica requests for interviews the site finally published its editors and publisher which it claims is “Sheitelman and Partners Ltd”. According to the Latvian companies data-base “Lursoft”, it belongs to Šeitelman, former TV5 employee Svetlana Punte and Jūlija Zaiceva. Šeitelmans, whose phone had been turned off all day, posted on Facebook an announcement that he is starting to build a new media empire and purchased “ukradeno.nozagts.com” which will be followed by a TV channel.
The Facebook group “TomaJoki”, which is the basis of the nozagts.com’s initial audience, was created by Toms Litovnieks. Another digital-savvy youngster, he was detained by local police three years ago on suspicion of operating an illegal torrent web site, torrenti.lv.
In a Facebook chat, Litovnieks said that he is currently learning Spanish in Ecuador. He said he gave the Facebook group to nozagts.com for free under the condition that he will be getting a salary as soon as new page will start to make money from advertising. He thinks that the interests of people creating nozagts.com are not suspicious because they are being promoted by Delfi. “You think Delfi aren’t smart enough to explore who owns the site? Or do you think that they would support bad people?” Litovnieks asked rhetorically. However, if it turned out that the site is being used for propaganda or illegal purposes, Litovnieks would be willing to shut it down.
“I created them, I can also sink them.”
Written by Inga Spriņģe and Sanita Jemberga
Edited by Sanita Jemberga
Translated in English by Aleks Tapiņš
Illustrations: Lote Lārmane
Re:Baltica thanks Lawrence Alexander (Bellingcat) for helping with digital trace while investigating the web pages