Fighting Russian Тrolls: “Elves Army” Fights Russian Propaganda in Lithuania
Russian “troll farms” – organized online agitators identify complaints in other countries and then insert themselves in those debates in order to boost them. Instead of promoting a political ideology, professional Russian trolls focus on stirring up emotions over heated topics, such as gun control issues or immigration to the United States, to then turn Americans against Americans. The tactic is – divide and conquer
Author: Ana Anastasovska
After annexing the Crimean peninsula seven years ago and threatening Ukraine for the first time, Russia declared war on Europe. This war is still going on, especially on the Internet. In Lithuania, Russia’s neighbor and the first Soviet republic to declare independence from the bloc in 1990, an online army of volunteers every day combats the constant influx of Russian fake news and propaganda, writes FRANCE 24.
A 50-year-old father of two who works a “normal” job during the day, a few hours after work, but also during breaks, turns into an online soldier who fights Russian trolls. The warrior named “Hawk” in an interview with FRANCE 24 said that he monitors the toxic pages and tries to find fake news, mainly on Facebook, because most Russian trolls appear there.
More recently, he has also been dedicating some of his time to sharing memes of the Russian army “to show that Russia isn’t scary and terrible as it makes itself out to be.”
Hawk began his mission in the summer of 2014, just months after Russia suddenly invaded and annexed Crimea.
“It was a wake-up call,” he remembers. “Look, we were occupied [by the former USSR] for 50 years, and that memory is still pretty fresh over here. A lot of Lithuanian families have relatives that were killed during that time or sent to prison camps in Siberia. So for us, the freedom we have now is very, very important. What we have done in this country in the past 30 years is kind of magic.”
Seeing what was happening in Ukraine in 2014, Hawk and a few of his friends got scared, and decided to found an online resistance movement: The Lithuanian Elves.
“With what was going on, we felt it was not enough to just sit and watch TV and discuss things. We felt like we needed to do something, and decided it was quite easy to put up a fight on the internet.”
Although the grassroots movement started out small – “a small group of friends, and then friends inviting friends” – the Elves now have an army of around 4,000 volunteers in Lithuania.
“We are really a pain in the ass for the Russians because they have to pay for their troll farms, but we’re doing this for free, meaning we’re decreasing their efficiency a lot.” – Hawk says.
Throughout the years, the Elves have witnessed all kinds of fake news seep through into Lithuanian social media, targeting politicians, diplomatic policies or trying to sow general social discord on important topics such as Covid-19, but also frequent attempts to undermine and instil distrust in NATO.
“NATO is the No. 1 target for Russian propaganda here. And it’s always the same type of narrative: that NATO has occupied Baltic countries. And they recycle that fake story about a NATO soldier raping a girl.”
The reason for these consistent troll attacks on NATO, Hawk explained, is because “for the Baltic states, becoming NATO members was our only chance to survive.”
How Russian troll farms work
Without dropping a bomb or firing a shot, nations can do tremendous harm to one another through cyberwarfare. But even without, say, hacking into a power plant or weapons system, malicious actors can erode trust in institutions and breed an atmosphere of contempt, distrust, and even violence among citizens writes Heinz College in its analysis.
“In 2014, Russia started to invest small amounts of money in troll farms. Nothing on the scale of a typical military operation. [The intelligence services would spend] a million here, a million there,” said Sarah E. Mendelson, Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and head of Heinz College in Washington, D.C.
She remarks that until that point, Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t have much interest in social media as a tool. That changed after Putin saw uprisings of Russian citizens protesting corruption, including his own return to presidential power in 2011 and 2012; these citizen uprisings developed spontaneously and organically in part on social media.
Russian “troll farms”—groups of organized online agitators—identify grievances in other countries and then insert themselves into those debates with the aim of inflaming them. Rather than promoting any one political ideology, professional Russian trolls instead focus on fanning Americans’ emotions around heated topics such as gun control or immigration, and then pitting Americans against Americans. The tactic is—literally—divide and conquer.
“They’re not making these things up. They’re finding tensions that exist on Facebook or Twitter, and they’re amplifying,” said Mendelson.
“It’s pretty basic social marketing, using social media in ways that are hugely successful. And not terribly expensive, in the scheme of things, for the amount of chaos that they created.”
Russian trolls target Western media
A report published by a British university in September 2021 reveals that Western media websites have been hijacked by pro-Russian trolls to spread propaganda and misinformation in support of the Kremlin.
The Crime and Research Security Institute at Cardiff University said it had unearthed evidence from 32 major news outlets in 16 countries that have been targeted via manipulation of their readers’ comments sections. They include the Daily Mail, Daily Express, and The Times in Britain; Fox News and the Washington Post in the United States; France’s Le Figaro; Germany’s Der Spiegel and Die Welt; and La Stampa in Italy.
Researchers say they found 242 stories where “provocative pro-Russian or anti-Western statements” were posted in reaction to stories related to Russia.
Russian-language outlets then used them as the basis for stories to suggest wider support among the Western public for Russian policies and President Vladimir Putin.
The research into online activity was conducted during ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine earlier this year. But the unit said the tactics have been escalating since 2018, amid heightening tensions between Moscow and the West.
Crime and Security Research Institute director Martin Innes said the trolling operation was “significant” given its sophistication, scope, and scale.
“By hijacking the comments sections of Western media brands, it has been able to present its propaganda as indicative of mainstream opinion,” he added.
Researchers used data science recognition and detection techniques, which indicated an orchestrated campaign, with suspicious account profiles repeatedly changing their persona and location.
The report said there was evidence of coordination between Russian state-owned media, those with a history of spreading misinformation, and outlets identified by Western intelligence as having links to Russian security services.