Baltic Elves confront Russian trolls in growing East-West information war
Volunteers in Baltic states debunk pro-Kremlin fake news and anti-western propaganda
Juris Ulmanis, a Riga-based entrepreneur who is a member of Latvia’s volunteer national guard and a Baltic “elf”. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Ingmars Bisenieks, a translator and editor in Latvia who challenges Russian “trolls” and pro-Kremlin disinformation online. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
When Donald Trump told a crowd in Warsaw last week that the West must “meet new forms of aggression, including propaganda... in new ways and on all new battlefields”, the US president surely knew nothing of a growing band of volunteers who are already doing just that not far from the Polish capital.
Their frontline is in cyberspace and their weapons are keyboards and computers, yet the combatants sound like characters from Norse mythology or Lord of the Rings.
As East-West political tension plays out online in salvos of fake news and skirmishes on social media, Russian “trolls” who push Kremlin propaganda now face a resolute foe in northeast Europe: the Baltic Elves.
“Reading about what was happening in Ukraine in 2014, it seemed like 80 per cent of comments on our news portals were pro-Kremlin,” says Baltas (35), a founder of the Baltic Elves in Lithuania, recalling Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
“They said Russia was right and Ukraine wrong; that Nato and the West were aggressors and occupiers in the Baltic countries. But no one I knew thought like that. So we decided to fight back – to express our opinions and not let them dominate.
“It started with a couple of us and it grew and grew. Soon we realised we needed to create a Google group, and we needed a name for it. We thought – we will be fighting trolls, so who does that – elves do that! So we called the group the ‘homeland of elves’ – that’s how the name appeared.”
There are now about 200 Lithuanian elves, who debunk the fake news stories and pro-Kremlin narratives that can be spread rapidly by botnets – vast networks of infected computers – and false social media profiles, as well as by real people who believe the stories or paid trolls such as those based at Russia’s now-infamous Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg.
The sprawling US investigation into Moscow’s alleged meddling in last year’s presidential election, and what French president Emmanuel Macron calls foiled Russian efforts to undermine his country’s recent vote, have thrown a spotlight on the Kremlin’s use of disinformation and propaganda.
For the Baltic states, which escaped 50 years of Soviet occupation in 1991, all this is old and familiar news.
“Russian trolls here say that Nato and the EU are weak and divided; the Baltic countries are failed states, where everything is bad and everyone leaves to find work; that we have lost our sovereignty to the decadent West and there are no gains from EU membership; and that Nato is provoking Russia and making us a target,” says Ingmars Bisenieks (47), a translator and editor who fights trolls in Latvia.
“It’s impossible to confront every troll,” he adds. “But we put out information based on facts that are proven and from reliable sources, from respected organisations, international media and scientific and academic institutions.”
Bisenieks formed the Latvian Elves this year with Juris Ulmanis, a Bronx-born former telecoms executive and founder of start-ups in education and information technology.
“I grew up in America during the cold war, hearing stories of how my grandparents were sent to Siberia. The idea of a free Latvia was just a dream then,” he says in a busy bar in a beautiful art nouveau district of Riga.
“We thought the cold war was over. Then suddenly you see Russia going into Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and the warning lights go on.”
Ulmanis is a member of Latvia’s volunteer national guard, a part of the “total defence” concept of security that is applied by all three Baltic states – small nations in which civilians would play a key role in helping defend against any invasion.
“We are all responsible for our security,” Ulmanis says. “Everyone can do something – join the national guard or go online and spread the truth about what’s going on. Identify what’s not true, say why and spread that message. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The motivation is the same for Baltas – which may be his nom de guerre – who works in advertising but fights the trolls whenever he can.
“Some people train with the national guard to defend their country,” he says. “This is our way of defending our country in the information space.”