Latvia is the first of the Baltic States that has convicted a person who spreads fake news – he has been found guilty of hooliganism and incitement to hatred on social media. Meanwhile, Estonia and Lithuania are relying on educating society rather than handing out criminal penalties.
At the beginning of last year, when the world was warily watching the spread of the new Covid-19 virus in China, the social media influencer Niks Endziņš from Latvia saw an opportunity to grow his follower base. He published a short video on Facebook: “The coronavirus is in Latvia! Please, share and warn others!”
In the video, the young man explained that China and “the Chinese need to be f*****g exterminated”, all they know how to do is manufacture fake products; the first case of Covid-19 is in Latvia – a woman who flew in from China and is now in the hospital.
Those were lies. At the time – January 30, 2020 – there was not a single recorded case of Covid-19 in Latvia. The Facebook video went viral. The next day, Endziņš was detained by the police.
Solitary confinement was nothing new for Endziņš. In the summer of 2018, he was detained together with two other youths after they had published lies about a supermarket in the center of Riga that had supposedly collapsed, a burglary at Swedbank, and criminals who had escaped the Central Prison. It was the first time that the police in Latvia detained someone for spreading fake news, basing their actions on the article on hooliganism in the Penal Code. The police explained that the false information had unsettled society and disturbed the work of the affected institutions and businesses. The case has not been resolved yet because one of the accused has been delaying the process, the prosecutor said.
Currently, in Latvia there are six criminal proceedings against spreaders of false information, the State Police told Re:Baltica. Two of them are the aforementioned cases involving Endziņš. Three cases were opened last year and one this year – the police investigations are ongoing.
Latvia is the only one of the Baltic States that resorts to the Penal Code in combating misinformation and where state institutions have detained people spreading fake news. Even though in Lithuania and Estonia there has also been talk of the state exercising the Penal Code against spreaders of disinformation, the concern that it will restrict freedom of speech has proven to be stronger. Latvia’s neighbouring states are currently relying on media literacy to educate society. In Estonia, there is a special team at the State Chancellery working on the issue, while Lithuania has involved military analysts, a Re:Baltica analysis shows.
Motivated by fame, money or beliefs?
In the fall of 2018, upon being released after three months in confinement, the rapper Endziņš immediately sought to use his popularity and recorded the song Behind Bars. In the music video he is at a luxurious seaside villa with a Porsche in the backyard, singing about a “warm home” and “friends, who turned their backs”. In the song he doesn’t mention that he had to spend time behind bars for spreading fake news with the intention to make money from online advertisements. The prosecutor Dace Lapinska believes that this was his main motivation. She is not able to name a specific amount he earned, but it might be about a few hundred euros.
In the “Chinese case”, for which Endziņš was detained in 2020, the motivation was to become famous on social media. This year in April the court sentenced him to seven months in prison for hooliganism and incitement to ethnic hatred.
“Endziņš loves being talked and written about. He wants to become an authority figure for the young,” the prosecutor Lapinska believes.
The desire to make money from Google ads, fame and ideological convictions – these three things provide the motivation to promote misinformation, says Dmitrijs Homenko, deputy head of the Economic Crimes Enforcement Department of the State Police of Latvia. During Covid-19, the last two elements have been predominant and the spreaders or disinformation are often radicalised groups or organisations.
“The aim is to gain attention and to attract followers that could be used for other social campaigns,” Homenko explains.
The professional misinformer and wannabe politician Valenīns Jeremejevs also matches Homenko’s description – he was detained last December, together with the physician’s assistant Marina Kornatovska, for spreading lies about Covid-19. On Facebook Jeremejevs publishes falsehoods about life in Latvia on a regular basis. The climax of his activities was his conversation with Kornatovksa, who claimed that her colleagues in a leading hospital in Latvia are worsening the situation of Covid-19 patients by giving them a questionable drug, which leads to their death. The police detained both of them last year after this conversation.
Kornatovska was released soon after, but Jeremejevs’ wife had to pay 50 000 euros in bail before he could get out of prison. The State Security Service also had to intervene – they asked the court to shut down Jeremejevs’ foundation The Popular Power Front, which publishes calls for various kinds of protests on its Facebook page on a regular basis. The court upheld the claim, but, as observed by Re:Baltica, the page and its followers are still active.
The State Police initiated all the previously mentioned investigations on the basis of hooliganism. This article of the Penal Code prescribes a prison sentence of up to two years, community service or a fine for “a gross disturbance of the public order, which is manifested in obvious disrespect for the public or in insolence,” and disturbs the peace of people, the work of institutions or organisations.
Even before Re:Baltica was able to ask about the potential implications of these actions on the right to freedom of speech, Homenko already had an answer: “The police are not against the opinion of an individual,” but against the consequences of voicing it in the real world.
“If the relevant institution believes that these activities disrupt its work, then there can be no doubt that the episode will be investigated in the context of hooliganism,” Homenko says.
In the case of physician’s assistant Marina, her lies caused societal panic and they were targeted against the epidemiological safety of the population. In Endziņš “Chinese case”, a representative from the Ministry of Health testified as a victim – the Ministry had to respond to the questions of anxious citizens and as a result its primary work responsibilities had to be put on hold.
Homenko says that his colleagues in other European Union countries also struggle with the problems caused by disinformation, “Everyone has to confront the question – who is going to say what is fake news and what isn’t? The State Police doesn’t evaluate news content. We investigate crimes that have consequences.”
Estonia – avoiding punishment is more effective
In early April, several hundred people took part in a protest in front of the Estonian Parliament against legislative amendments that in their opinion would turn Estonia into a police state. Signs carried by the protesters showed politicians in support of the amendments behind bars together with their email addresses and phone numbers.The far-right opposition party EKRE has endorsed the several week-long protests, boosting its approval ratings.
The fuss caused by the amendments was exaggerated. The changes were intended to allow the police to punish violations of Covid-19 restrictions – just as can be done in Latvia and Lithuania. Before this, only the Health Board (Terviseamet), which is responsible for disease surveillance and control in Estonia, had the power to initiate legal proceedings for non-compliance with the restrictions.
Fearing aggression and incitement to violence, regular police officers and riot police units – men with black masks carrying batons – were deployed to help maintain order at the protests next to the parliament building. Many people and opinion makers were outraged by the move. The police were criticized for excessive demonstrations of force and for restricting freedom of speech. The Minister of the Interior appeared on national television claiming that in Estonia “the expression of free speech is fully intact.” The police were concerned about the well known pro-Kremlin activists taking part in the protests, who had already made attempts to provoke the authorities, for instance, by entering stores without masks.
Martin Laine, an Eesti Ekspress investigative journalist, who has researched protest coordination, believes that sharp reaction to the police actions also reflects Estonia’s stance towards people who spread disinformation or break with Covid-19 restrictions. The police rarely get involved because it is generally believed that it is more effective to give someone who violates the restrictions a mask than to penalize them for not wearing one.
This opinion was reaffirmed to Re:Baltica in writing by Vallo Koppel, PBGB’s Head of Strategic Staff: “In case of a violation, police officers first inform people of why it is important to wear a mask or comply with other requirements.”
Only if the police officers have a reason to believe that the person is deliberately not wearing a mask will they inform the Health Board, which has the right to impose punitive measures.
This is also confirmed by the statistics on the number of penalties issued.
Since the beginning of this year, 50 cases involving violations of the Covid-19 restrictions have been initiated in Estonia. According to Estonia’s Health Board, fines have been issued in 24 of those cases. In Latvia, more than 26 000 administrative proceedings have been launched in the first four months of this year. The information provided by the State Police shows that the majority of the cases were started because of noncompliance with restrictions on gatherings, people not wearing masks, and the avoidance of filling out the covidpass.lv survey when entering the country. The State Police also point out that the number of warnings issued is far greater than the fines that have followed.
To make sure that the general public has access to quality information about current events, the State Chancellery of Estonia employs a crisis communications team – it is their job to monitor social media, mass media outlets and to conduct monthly opinion polls.
““When reading about events on Facebook, it seems that things have gotten out of hand – most people seem to be against vaccines, for example. Opinion polls and media give a better sense of what is going on in the society,” says Siim Kumpas, a Strategic Communication Adviser at the Government Office of Estonia. The information gathered by the team helps to understand the questions that worry people. Based on the findings, they can better design their communication campaigns and prepare explanatory material. This material is also used by the national crisis hotline to answers people’s questions.
Kumpas believes that the strategy is a success – since March last year the informational webpage has had more than 5.5 million views. They have created a Facebook page where medical professionals answer questions people have about Covid-19 and have organized media literacy campaigns.
The Penal Code of Estonia doesn’t define or limit the use of disinformation, says the Government Office representative. In particular cases, theoretically, a person spreading false information could be charged on the basis of laws that forbid, for example, incitement to war, or incitement of hatred.
According to the Public Health Act of Estonia, the Health Board can initiate a case and impose a penalty for spreading information that can harm a person’s health, but the law hasn’t been used. The spokesperson of the Board told Re:Baltica that they would need very strong evidence to invoke the article, and, besides, “censorship is forbidden by the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia”.
“In our experience, there is no point in arguing with the conspiracy theorists, because it often means it will only bring more attention to them and their message will be amplified,” says Merilin Vernik, a Board advisor.
The investigative journalist Martin Laine believes that the people spreading disinformation should be held responsible. As an example, he says police involvement would have been beneficial when a Facebook post claiming that the government was building concentration camps for Covid-19 patients started gaining traction during the crisis. To calm people down, the Minister of Interior had to get involved – he posted about it on his social media, calling it fake news.
“Freedom of expression has been a delicate subject during the whole crisis. Criminal consequences for someone spreading misinformation would, for sure, have a lot of backlash, but it doesn’t mean that I think it would be wrong. There should be means to protect people,” Laine believes.
Instead, the Estonian Police is urging people to report to Facebook itself about misinformation or to reach out to special web-constables about it. These are employees of the State Police whose days are spent in the virtual world with the primary goal of preventing people from falling into the traps laid by fraudsters. It is possible to notify them of disinformation, but in reality the police only respond if falsehoods have been spread about their work.
In Lithuania the army helps out
At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Mažvydas Kunevičius, the Chief Lieutenant at the Strategic Communication Department of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, started his days before 6 AM. An hour later he was already briefing the Emergency Operations Center of the Ministry of Health on the latest occurrences in media and on social networks.
“Every morning I would report on the information sphere over the past 24 hours – what disinformation narratives I had detected, what questions to expect from the media,” Kunevičius told Re:Baltica. After the morning meeting, Kunevičius would sit down and read whatever was published in Lithuanian media and would thoroughly examine the comments on their social media pages to anticipate the questions that the minister, the ministry, and the government are likely to receive.
Together with four other intelligence analysts from the military, Kunevičius was seconded by the Ministry of Health to monitor the general mood of society.
Similarly to Estonia, in Lithuania the emphasis in the fight against disinformation is on providing timely, quality information to society. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, where the mood of the public is monitored by teams at the State Chancellery, Lithuania has deployed intelligence analysts from the army for the task. They use special software which allows them to search for problematic social media posts by typing in specific keywords. Afterward they can examine the users behind the accounts who have made these posts. Kunevičius doubts whether all are real people behind all of these accounts.
“Sometimes I encountered profiles that went on 24/7, 50 or so posts a day,” the analyst explains.
Between February and May last year, the analysts found over a 1000 cases of misleading claims, conspiracy theories, and disruptive calls to action, mostly on YouTube, Facebook, VKontakte, Reddit, Twitter, as well as on websites imitating news portals. According to the information provided by the analysts to the Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT, between 2019 and 2020 the amount of disinformation grew by almost 20%. The most popular myths that were being spread are the well-known untruths claiming that Covid-19 is a biological weapon created by the USA, that the virus can be defeated by eating garlic, and that the vaccines are experimental.
Last year, in response to a request by a parliamentary committee, the analysts looked into anti-vaccination comments posted on major media platforms and their social media accounts. From all the participants in the online discussions, only 7% of them were anti-vaxxers and about 30% of the content referenced in the comment sections was in Lithuanian, the analysts concluded. Two-thirds of the referenced content was in Russian.
Last year, when the Armed Forces made their research public, rumors started spreading on social media that the analysts are filtering and blocking online comments the Ministry of Health.
Gintaras Koryzna, the Head of the Strategic Communication Department of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, denies it. “This is not correct,” he told Re:Baltica, explaining that the ministry had asked for an analysis of the keywords and the most harmful messages in the comment sections of the Ministry of Health’s social network pages. “Our main recommendation was to create some rules of the game and publish them on their Facebook page, and then decide what to do with those who break these rules,” Koryzna explains.
As a result, the Ministry of Health posted a disclaimer on their Facebook page, saying that they will delete comments which spread disinformation, violate laws, or call for people to disobey the government’s legitimate decrees. Accounts that post such content repeatedly will be blocked. The Ministry also uses the Facebook feature that allows it to automatically hide comments with specific words. This way they can “hide” offensive words like “liars” and “thieves”, popular conspiracy theory keywords such as “5G”, and words like “murder” and “kill”.
The limited possibilities of action
Kunevičius points out that it is almost impossible to find out the people behind the most active social media accounts, whose purpose is to discredit and bury useful information in a tumult of disinformation. Therefore there’s nobody who can be held accountable. Discovering instances of disinformation and propaganda is basically all that the army analysts can and are allowed to do.
PR consultant and propaganda researcher Liutauras Ulevičius says that the military is limited in what it can do, and this is where their efforts to combat disinformation fall short. Ulevičius has himself volunteered with the Lithuanian Armed Forces, but in 2016 he quit, finding the role of the military very restricted in the task that it set out to achieve.
“As long as we don’t have a clear invasion… the military cannot use force,” he told Re:Baltica, “and that’s a problem because the information war is raging on.”
The countermeasure used in this virtual information war is educating society. The Ministry of Defence funds different projects carried out by NGOs. This year, for example, one of these projects was a documentary film about truth and lies in relation to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, just as in Estonia, people spreading fake news don’t face criminal penalties in Lithuania. Instead, learning from the example set by Estonia, a virtual policing team started searching social networks in early April. Their main task is to prevent serious crimes – drug sales, peddling smuggled goods, threats. Minister of Interior Agnė Bilotaitė has suggested that the virtual police could also be used to combat disinformation, but there needs to be a clear definition of “fake news” to do so. While that hasn’t been done and as long as there is no legal responsibility for disinformation, the virtual officers will not be deployed to tackle it, the police spokesperson Ramūnas Matonis told Re:Baltica.
Whether the police will begin to combat disinformation or not, Kunevičius is sure that he will have plenty of work. He has left his position at the Armed Forces and is currently working at the Ministry of Energy. It hired him to monitor disinformation relating to energy, a topic of concern due to the escalating conflict about the new nuclear power plant in Belarus between Lithuania and its neighbor.
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Translated into English by Ieva Raudsepa