Lithuanian Citizens Combat Disinformation as Lawmakers Bicker
While the Lithuanian parliament sways back and forth on signing a bill outlawing media disinformation and distortion of historical memory, many of its citizens, known as elves, are seeking immediate action and have voluntarily launched a full online offensive against misleading pro-Russian propaganda on social media.
During January of 2018, the Seimas, Lithuania’s unicameral parliament, began debating a bill proposed by the majority parties to ban disinformation in the news. According to the draft bill, disinformation consists of any media which aims to “distort the historical memory of the Republic of Lithuania” or “promotes distrust in and dissatisfaction with the country and its institutions.”
Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), a nongovernmental organization advocating for the civil liberties of Europeans, sides with the Lithuanian parliamentary opposition in their distrust of the bill. According to Liberties, such a broad ban on political opposition would be unconstitutional in its treatment of political expression and would disregard the European Convention of Human Rights. They propose that the dissemination of and conversation about anti-government publications is a fundamental right of media institutions and citizens alike, and that hindering it would do more harm than good.
Yet the threat of a so-called Russian information war in Lithuania is far-reaching and undeniable. Anonymous cyber-attacks take the form of anti-NATO headlines, such as U.S. armored trucks killing a boy on his bike or NATO intentions to invade Belarus, and often end up in popular Lithuanian publications. While none of these events have been directly traced back to the Kremlin, Lieutenant Colonel of the Portuguese Armed Forces Miguel Simoes links them with Russia’s strategy "to confuse rather than convince, to divide opinions rather than provide an alternative viewpoint.”
As the legislative back-and-forth drags on, the Lithuanian elves have battled disinformation, collaborating with organizations like Demaskuok (Debunk in English), or Lithuania’s Military Strategic Communications branch (STRATCOM) to pinpoint, assess, and eradicate harmfully fake news the moment it appears. This direct approach sidesteps the potential drawback of the Seimas bill proposal by combating disinformation from the bottom up.
There have also been countervailing efforts by the news agencies themselves, such as the news portal Delfi.lt spreading safe internet practices and knowledge to its readers with a manual for cyber-attack recognition and maintenance for the everyday consumer.
As the Kremlin staunchly denies its intervention in Lithuanian media, and as parliamentary efforts meet significant opposition, the mass public has taken a stand for themselves. “Fifteen years ago many Lithuanians felt safe under NATO’s shield. Now we understand that we have to contribute ourselves to defend our country – also on the internet,” proclaimed elf Remigijus Šimašius.