A poisonous tale of disinformation in Tallinn

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On 30 June,—a news site connected to the Kremlin’s global propaganda network—published an article based on a two-year-old rumor about former Estonian Center Party (ECP) leader Edgar Savisaar being poisoned by opponents with artificial flesh-eating bacteria. Yet even if expressed humorously, as it was in this case, the bias “when there’s smoke, there’s fire” injects doubt into society and suggests that in Estonia, assassination is an acceptable way to eliminate a pro-Moscow politician.

The article, which suggested that Savisaar was poisoned to prevent his participation in politics, was based on a statement made by ECP member Meelis Pai. It compared this case with the very real poisoning of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yushchenko. This comparison not only sowed doubt about Savisaar being poisoned but also suggested that Yushchenko was not. therefore presents three aspects that warrant attention: one hinting that a pro-Kremlin politician was poisoned; another hinting that a pro-Western Ukrainian politician was not poisoned; and finally the use of a misinformation technique, expressed by the metaphor “when there’s smoke, there’s fire”—indicating that both the first and the second hint are at least partially true.

But some background information is needed to understand the context of the article.

This fall, Estonia is having local elections, for the first time with the changed leadership of the ECP. After 25 years with Savisaar at the helm, in November 2016 the party elected Jüri Ratas as its new chairman. Among Estonia’s Russian speakers, the ECP is the most popular party; it has formal ties with Russia’s ruling United Russia party. Savisaar is under criminal investigation, accused of money laundering as well as accepting bribes and large-scale illegal donations. The presence of Ratas—his successor and Estonia’s current prime minister—has led to confrontation between the party’s pro-Savisaar and pro-Ratas wings. This confrontation culminated with a plan by the pro-Savisaar wing to participate in local elections separately from the ECP. This idea was explained by ECP member Pai as a necessary step against the forces that want to depose the former leader. According to Pai, Savisaar was poisoned with artificial Streptococcus pyogenes, or flesh-eating bacteria.

This is not the first time such rumors about Savisaar have been spread. In September 2015, Estonian-born Russian civil servant and pro-Kremlin political activist Dmitri Linter—whom pro-Kremlin media channels often use to give the so-called “Estonian point of view,”—hinted in and in the pro-Kremlin EADaily that the poisoning may have occurred. Linter referred to “high-level centrists” who are privately “discussing it among themselves.”

Even though the source of the “poisoned politician” rumor is unclear, and despite the fact that in the most recent article described it in a humorous way, the story leaves the impression that artificial flesh-eating bacteria was indeed used in Estonia to get rid of a well-known politician.

Savisaar did get a bacterial infection in 2015 after visiting Thailand, and doctors who had to amputate his leg said Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria got into his system via a scratch. Savisaar published his entire medical history on Facebook confirming the infection, but nothing that would confirm the rumor that he was poisoned.

The article’s comparison between Savisaar’s “poisoning” and the very real poisoning of Ukraine’s Yushchenko also is a stretch (Viktor Yushchenko was a pro-Western candidate in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, facing off against the Kremlin's preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych). Yushchenko’s doctors,confirmed the presence of dioxin; likewise, Estonian doctors confirmed Savisaar’s Streptococcus infection but offered no proof of “artificially created flesh-eating bacteria.”

Even though the article is humorous in tone and avoids making direct statements, it leaves the door open to the belief that rumors must be at least partially true. The metaphorical expression “when there’s smoke, there’s fire” is perceived as the truth—because of the inevitable bond between smoke and fire in the real world. This bond was described by philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce as a “natural sign” of the fire, i.e. when we see smoke, then the presence of fire is inevitable. So, even though rumors may not have any basis in the real world, the very nature of this metaphor suggests it is true.

As Johnson and Lakoff showed in their Metaphors We Live By, metaphors can be dangerous: once we have started using them, it is difficult to think outside of them. They foresaw that metaphors could be used as an ideological weapon; this Baltnews article is a good example of that.