In early March, several articles appeared on various Russian websites quoting U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump as saying: “Recently the Baltic states declared that they cannot progress because their neighbor is Russia. We can help them out here: their neighbors can be African countries. We’ll resettle all the Balts to the African continent and move the African population to the Baltics, and we’ll change the names of the countries accordingly.”
The false fact or narrative: Most of the published articles just referred to other articles without referring to the original source, but some claim that the original interview—given by Trump to Lithuanian journalist Dainius Radzevičius—was published by American Forces Network Europe, a U.S. military website.
The truth: There is no proof the interview ever took place. Radzevičius, its supposed author, insisted he never interviewed Trump, and that his name was used to create the fake story. He wrote about this on his Facebook page „Троли русские бред пишут о Д. Трампе и такие фейки делают от моего лица.“ [Russian trolls are writing lies on D. Trump, and using my name for fake stories] and in his blog. On 7 March, StopFake.org exposed the story as a fake.
Technique: Creating a “believable lie,” exploiting the failure of some journalists to verify sources, exploiting the media’s thirst for scandals, and using the name and credibility of a well-known journalist.
Analysis: The story was a fake, but the techniques used to spread it were interesting. Assuming that not all media sites intentionally engage in disinformation, why did they publish it? Four factors seem to have influenced that decision. First, it was easy enough to believe that Trump might have actually said this, not only because of the wording and mentality of the false quote, but also because of Trump’s attitude towards Russia. So it was a so-called “believable lie,” easy enough to believe without much skepticism. Second, using the name of a well-known journalist added credibility. Third, it shows one of the main deficiencies of journalism: a tendency to not to verify facts or find the real source of a news story. Fourth, if the story was about something less scandalous, it would probably have not been published. But the large number of hits proves this is not only something readers want, but is something the media is ready to provide to keep readers—even if the facts are questionable.
On 3 March, the media site rubaltic.ru published an article “Абсолютное большинство эстонцев выступает за русский язык” [The vast majority of Estonians in favor of the Russian language]. The article stated that “The vast majority of ethnic Estonians consider learning the Russian language important and are interested in Russian culture. The opinion of the Estonian people contradicts the language policy of Estonian authorities, who for last 25 years have ensured that the importance of the Russian language and opportunities to study it were as small as possible.”
False fact or narrative: The Estonian government is promoting the steady decrease of Russian language media and is discouraging opportunities to study the Russian language.
The truth: On the contrary, Russian is taught in the vast majority of Estonia’s secondary schools, colleges and universities. Instead of closing down Russian-language media channels, the Estonian government has opened new TV channels broadcasting in Russian: besides Estonian Public Broadcasting TV (channel ETV2), which also airs programs in Russian or with Russian subtitles, last September the government launched the Russian-language TV channel ETV+. Estonia also has:
four main Russian-language radio stations: Radio4 (Estonian Public Broadcasting, 41,000 listeners average quarter-hour, or AQH); Russkoje Radio (18,000 listeners AQH); Narodnaja Radio (16,000 listeners AQH), and Sky Radio (14,000 listeners AQH).
seven main Russian-language newspapers: Severnoje Poberežje (local news, circulation of 64,700); Stolitsa (local news, 55,000); Linnaleht in Russian (local news, 27,000); Den za Dnjom (full service, 12,000); MK Estonija (full service, 12,000); Postimees in Russian (full service, 6,000) and Delovõje Vedomosti (business news, 4,000).
three main online media sites: Rus.delfi.ee (full service, 123,000 users); Rus.postimees.ee (full service, 78,000 users); Rus.err.ee (Estonian Public Broadcasting website in Russian, full service, 23,261 users).
Technique: False facts
Analysis: This article tries to repeat the old narrative used several times before by pro-Kremlin media: the “good people” vs. “bad government” argument. In this case, the people of Estonia want to study Russian and consume Russian-language media, but their government won’t let them. The article also suggests that since Estonian policymakers— who claim to be Russian experts—don’t really understand attitudes towards the Russian language—the West should stop treating them as experts.