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Moscow’s Disinformation Offensive During COVID-19: The Case of Lithuania

Richard Weitz & Aurimas Lukas Pieciukaitis

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Russian media outlets have waged a comprehensive disinformation campaign throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) and the EU External Action Service (EEAS) have identified numerous stories in Kremlinlinked accounts that have sought to discredit the policies and performance of Western democracies, while conversely painting Russian actions in a most positive light.1 According to the GEC, throughout the pandemic, “the full Russian ecosystem of official state media, proxy news sites, and social media personas have been pushing multiple disinformation narratives.”2

Though Soviet propaganda made ready use of print and broadcast media, the advent of internet-based social media such as Twitter and Facebook have offered authoritarian governments new opportunities to promote disinformation through multi-dimensional influence campaigns. These practices have included:

  • Establishing false persona(inauthentic actors) on social media
  • Creating online social communities, such as Facebook groups, organized around political issues or other values (e.g., pro-gun rights groups, anti-racists, militant environmentalists), often by exploiting the hyperlinks and “like” features of software algorithms that reinforce messaging
  • Mobilizing so-called “troll farms” of hired shift workers, often physically co-located, who manually engineer mass social media disinformation campaigns; one of the best known of these is the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency
  • Using automated social media accounts (“bots”) that employ algorithms to rapidly disseminate messages that can overshadow other narratives
  • Using microtargeting to target messages for precise groups (e.g., communicating one message to right-wing populists and another to left-wing anarchists
  • Undermining trust in government messaging, independent journalists, and established media sources to create space for false messages (i.e., to support the idea that there are no objective facts and that all truth is relative)
  • Exacerbating or engineering internet conflicts to boost audience attention and promote divisions among targeted audiences
  • Malign actors combine these techniques in comprehensive, state-sponsored information operations.

According to open-source data, Russian disinformation tactics during the pandemic have combined messages in publicly-controlled TV broadcasts, newspaper columns, or other media under government control, with disinformation transmitted through inauthentic social media accounts with unacknowledged or obscured ties to Russian government agencies.3 These crafted narratives have been directed at the United States, European democracies, and other foreign and domestic audiences. Lithuania, as a front-line state anchoring NATO’s eastern defenses against Russia, has long been a target of Moscow’s disinformation operations.

In general, Russian government propaganda aims to depict Baltic countries as flawed and failing states. By distorting history, Moscow strives to obscure or justify the Soviet Union’s brutal occupation of the Baltic republics. Furthermore, Kremlin-linked media deceitfully characterizes the Baltics’ post-independence policies as being under the control of neo-fascists. The latter falsehood helps Russia incite political and cultural divisions within Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian information managers also attempt to drive a wedge between the Baltic states and their EU and NATO allies while emphasizing the necessity of Russia’s neighbors deferring more to Moscow’s priorities.4

The presence of NATO forces in the Baltics is a frequent target of Russia’s disinformation campaigns. In 2017, the speaker of the Lithuanian parliament and others received false information that some of NATO’s German soldiers raped a young girl.5 That same year, members of the Lithuanian parliament received e-mails falsely alleging that the commander of a NATO multinational battlegroup was a Russian agent.6 In 2019, fake stories about German tanks desecrating a Jewish cemetery in Lithuania were shared through e-mails and social media.7 In the summer of 2018, hacked news sites claimed that NATO-Lithuanian military exercises had tested weapons of mass destruction and that radioactive material contaminated the Neris river.8 Unsurprisingly, the State Security Department of Lithuania predicts additional cyber-enabled disinformation attacks on the NATO forces in the country.9

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1 Lea Gabrielle, “Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda Related to COVID-19 Special Briefing,” U.S. Department of State, March 27, 2020, https://www.state.gov/briefing-with-special-envoy-lea-gabrielle-global-engagement-center-on-disinformation-and-propaganda-related-to-covid-19/; and “EEAS Special Report: Disinformation on the Coronavirus – Short Assessment of the Information Environment,” EUvsDiSiNFO, March 19, 2020, https://euvsdisinfo.eu/eeas-special-report-disinformation-on-the-coronavirus-short-assessment-of-the-information-environment/.
2 Gabrielle, “Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda.”
3 Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, Russian Intelligence Agencies Push Disinformation on Pandemic,“ The New York Times, July 28, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/us/politics/ russia-disinformation-coronavirus.html
4 Andrius Vaišnys, Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Mažvydas Jastramskis, Vytautas Keršanskas, Darius Buinauskas, Linas Kojala, Simonas Klimanskis, Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė, Šarūnas legadas (eds.), Rusijos propaganda: analizė, įvertinimas, rekomendacijos (Vilnius: Rytų Europos studijų centras, 2017), pp. 57-58.
5 Ingrida Steniulienė, “Prokuratūra: melagingas pranešimas apie vokiečių karius išsiųstas ne iš ES valstybės,” BNS, 15min, February 17, 2017, “https://www.15min.lt/naujiena/aktualu/lietuva/ prokuratura-melagingas-pranesimas-apie-vokieciu-karius-issiustas-ne-is-es-valstybes-56-756858.
6 Vaidas Saldžiūnas, “Prieš NATO karius Lietuvoje – dar viena ataka: nusitaikė į Vokietijos bataliono vadą,” Delfi, March 31, 2017, https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/demaskuok/pries-nato-karius-lietuvoje-dar-viena-ataka-nusitaike-i-vokietijos-bataliono-vada.d?id=74217552
7 Vilius Petkauskas, “Feisbuke kartoja melą apie Kauno žydų kapines,” 15min, October 29, 2019, https://www.15min.lt/naujiena/ aktualu/lietuva/feisbuke-kartoja-mela-apie-kauno-zydu-kapines-56-1224232; and Vaidas Saldžiūnas, “Pasaulį šiurpina melaginga naujiena: kaltina NATO tankus išniekinus Kauno žydų kapines”, DELFI, September 26, 2019, https://www.delfi.lt/news/ daily/demaskuok/pasauli-siurpina-melaginga-naujiena-kaltina-nato-tankus-isniekinus-kauno-zydu-kapines.d?id=82354093.
8 Vaidotas Beniušis, “Įsilaužus į naujienų portalus paskelbtos melagingos žinios apie karines pratybas Lietuvoje”, 15min, BNS, June 20, 2019, https://www.15min.lt/naujiena/aktualu/ lietuva/isilauzus-i-naujienu-portalus-paskelbtos-melagingos-zinios-apie-karines-pratybas-lietuvoje-56-1162468.
9 Minister of National Defense and State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania, National Threat Assessment 2020 (Vilnius: Second Investigation Department Under the Minister of National Defense and State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania, 2020), p. 44

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