Meet the Lithuanian ‘Elves’ Fighting Russian Disinformation
Henrikas Savickis opened a new play on the same day Russia invaded Ukraine. Although he was an actor in Kaunas’ National Theater, the 51 year-old still made a contribution to Russia. After logging on to a private Facebook group seemingly devoted to Yorkshire puppies, he took up his weapon of choice—the keyboard—and began correcting and reporting the lies he saw.
Yorkshire dogs are an example of a small informal group of Lithuanian citizens that have, over the last eight years, been fighting against Russian disinformation. The group’s members number in the thousands, and although most keep their identities secret, they include bartenders, doctors, students, businesspeople, and at least one member of the Lithuanian parliament. And although they go by the whimsical name of “elves,” they are a serious part of a broader coalition across different levels of society that have made Lithuania a leader in that OtherThe information war.
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They got their name, says their founder Ricardas Savukynas, “because elves fight trolls.” Working alone, and meeting only in the virtual space of Facebook groups, they jump into action whenever one member identifies a piece of fake news or a number of fake accounts that seem to be the clear product of Russian troll farms. The group reports disinformation to Facebook en masse and eventually, Facebook removes it. (Facebook did not reply to TIME’s request for comment by the time of publication.)
And for all its simplicity, the method has proven effective enough that Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense has recommended it as an alternative to young men eager to join the fight to defend Ukraine but who lack the military experience necessary to do so, according to two who spoke to TIME.
Over the last several years, disinformation has been threatening the entire world. You can read more about theManipulation of Elections in the United StatesTo the spreading of anti-vax conspiracies during the pandemic, to the casting of the Ukraine war as a “special military option” designed to “liberate” the country, it has become increasingly clear just how eager the Putin regime is to spread distorted facts, lies, and propaganda in its attempts to destabilize Western nations, secure the loyalty of its own citizens, and further its expansionist ambitions. Even though there are questions about Russia’s ability to reap the benefits of its investment, the events leading up to the invasion in Ukraine show how disinformation can open the door to actual conflict.
In Lithuania, a tiny country of 2.8 million, where geographic proximity and history have led many to believe they are next in Putin’s sight lines, those tactics are especially pervasive. “Propaganda is just part of our reality here in the Baltic States,” says Viktor Denisenko, a journalist and communications professor at Vilnius University. “The Kremlin has been trying to influence our information space for a long time.”
Experts claim it didn’t stop. Lithuania, which was held by the Soviet Union 50 years ago, was still a target for Russian propaganda campaigns even though it had declared independence in 1990. “After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Western countries simply retired their [propaganda] specialists and put away all their knowledge in folders,” says Master Sergeant Tomas Ceponis, senior specialist in the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense’s Counter Hybrid Response Group. “But Russia didn’t; they actually strengthened it, putting more resources into it and using new technologies to spread disinformation.”
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These efforts have been increasing in recent years. According to the ministry, the number of discrete “information incidents” (where a single event—real or invented—is given a particular spin and then disseminated through various media) rose to 5,030 in 2021 from 3,412 the previous year. Ministry statistics show that 583 incidents were reported in January 2022. TIME shared one example: In early 2020, there weren’t any COVID-19 cases for Lithuania. A story was published in an online Kremlin newspaper claiming that a U.S. soldier at NATO Base in Lithuania had COVID-19. The story was false, but it was picked up by numerous other outlets and was intended, per the Ministry analyst’s explanation, to persuade any Lithuanians on the fence about NATO that these foreign soldiers posed a threat to the country. Although it ran in numerous outlets, the story counts as one “incident.”)
The same recurring themes—in the past and the present—underlie the disinformation: that Lithuania is not democratic but fascist, that it is a failed state run by Nazis or neo-Nazis, and that NATO has occupied it and are using it to establish outposts against Russia. If that sounds at all familiar, there’s a reason. “All the narratives we see today against Ukraine, those were first used against the Baltic States,” says Denisenko. “They’re kind of permanent, traditional narratives.
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Savukynas (48) a Vilnius consultant and blogger was among those who noticed these narratives. Around a decade ago, he started coming across what he describes as “strange” Facebook groups that, although they were ostensibly dedicated to different topics—parenting, alternative medicine, veganism—posted much of the same content. “They started to say that our government was lying, that Soviet times were quite good, that NATO was an aggressor, that the European Union is an occupier,” Savukynas says. “And after that, they started to talk about how Putin was good and how Lithuania should become associated with Russia, and so on and so on. The pattern was the same in very different kinds of groups.”
Russia had been planning to invade Crimea and annexe it in 2014. Savukynas saw content in Lithuania, where 5.8% of its population are Russian ethnicities and Russia has published in Lithuanian much the same propaganda at home. This was to prepare for invasion. He took action. A group of his friends and him started to collectively flag fake news comments in online articles. They eventually created a benign-looking Facebook group that would not attract attention. Anyone could report fake news and other online propaganda to the group.
Within a short period, thousands—most of them using pseudonyms to protect themselves from trolls and potentially more serious threats— had joined that group or set up similar ones on their own. Because of their anonymity and decentralized structure, it is difficult to determine hard numbers but one prominent “elf” group counts 22,000 members. They also work to disinformation through publishing truths and getting fake accounts closed down. “You can only fight lies with truth,” Savukynas says.
Jurgita Sejoniene joined the group because of this principle. She is a Vilnius-based radiologist and was shocked by all the misinformation she found online about COVID-19 in 2020. “You would see things saying that there is no pandemic, that the virus is fake, that masks harm people, that it’s just an excuse for the government to control people,” she says. “And that the vaccines we use, they are unsafe. Except for the Sputnik vaccine.”
For the past two years, she’s used her training as a health care professional to counter daily those lies and distortions with accurate information. She’s done it not only while raising two small daughters, but after being elected to parliament as well. “Most of my constituents do not know I’m an elf,” she says, with a mischievous smile.
The other elves and she have been very busy, even though the disinformation about the coronavirus that was permeating social media disappeared to make way for more current geopolitical events. “In the last year, we saw enormous amounts of fake accounts like never before,” Savukynas says. “You would go to a Facebook article about Ukraine and you’d see 30 or 50 comments that are almost the same: that Ukraine is fascist, that Ukrainians kill people, that Lithuanians should improve relations with Russia, that Lithuania is occupied by NATO, and so on. And when you start checking you realize that they’re almost all the same and that they’re almost all fake.”
It is a mystery to the extent that a wide range of people have taken up the challenge of countering disinformation. But they’re not acting alone; a large part of Lithuania’s success in countering disinformation is that institutions in different spheres have also taken on the work. A think tank called Debunk collaborates with elves as well as with analysts and media companies, and, thanks to a grant from Google’s innovation fund, researches disinformation and runs educational media literacy campaigns. Delfi is the head of Lie Detector, a newsroom that checks factual accuracy. DIGIRES (a newly launched network that includes academics, media professionals, and NGOs) conducts research about digital resilience. They are also developing an artificial intelligence tool to spot disinformation.
It doesn’t stop there. “It’s a multi-level system,” says DIGIRES director Auksè Balcytiene of Lithuania’s approach. “It goes up all the way up to the government level and the Ministry of Defense.” In 2009, the ministry founded the Counter Hybrid Response Group to monitor and analyze the propaganda and disinformation directed toward Lithuanians. Its work includes monitoring the dissemination of the ever-present stories about NATO and the EU and the supposedly failing Lithuanian state to news topics. Much of their work also involves making information available for the rest of society.
Since its inception, the group has made it a point to make its results public, so that lawmakers could use them. Years before Facebook’s decision on Feb. 28 toBlock the Russian outlets Sputnik & RT in EuropeLithuanian legislators had done this before. (Putin responded to Facebook’s move by blocking Facebook inside Russia on Friday and signing legislation effectively criminalizing any public opposition to or independent reporting about the war in Ukraine.) Regular and active communication with business, schools, and the media is also a hallmark of lawmakers. “Lithuania is more resistant to hostile disinformation, but I always stress that this is not because we have a different DNA or a silver bullet,” says Master Sergeant Ceponis. “One reason is because we do our homework. We give hundreds of lectures a year, we work with media, we work with politicians.”
The motivation to live in the past is a motivator for Lithuanians. “Every family in Lithuania was touched by Russia’s occupation,” says Dominyka Daskeviciute, an analyst in the department. ”We very well know what their means are, how they do things. That’s why we are resilient.”
Last fall, a heightened flow of disinformation making “historical” arguments for why an independent Ukraine should not exist made it clear to the defense group that something was coming. According to Daskeviciute, when Putin said last week that Ukraine doesn’t have historical reasons to exist it became clear that an invasion was on the horizon.
“Everything,” she adds, “happens in the information environment first.” That’s Teil of what makes the Lithuanian context so worrying for many. “We see that at a minimum they are trying to get across the message that the Baltic region culturally and economically belongs to Russia, and maximum that the Baltic region is partRussia. Some have been skeptical of the maximalist viewpoint. But when we see the events that we’re seeing today, it’s clearer than ever that these ambitions are very, very true.”
That was the reason Henrikas Savickis tried to squeeze time in between his next curtain opening to perform some elf work. “With Crimea, we saw that the mind of the people, their patriotism, had been eaten away by Russia, so it was easier to take the land. If we aren’t prepared here to withstand Russian propaganda, the same could happen here.”