Briefs

Disinformation targets Lithuania's Magnitsky Act

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On 16 November, Lithuania’s Seimas, or parliament, unanimously adopted amendments to the Law on the Legal Status of Aliens—known as the Magnitsky Act—banning entry to foreigners linked to large-scale corruption, money laundering, or human rights violations in their own countries. The previous law had prohibited aliens who posed a threat to national security or public order from entering Lithuania.

Local pro-Kremlin media outlets in the Russian and Lithuanian languages—Sputniknews.lt, Regnum.ru, Rubaltic.ru, and Ria Novosti—criticized the new law in ways consistent with Kremlin propaganda practices. They gave disinformation to the Lithuanian public as well as its Russian-speaking minority.

Sputniknews.lt quoted Aleksandr Udaltsov, Russia’s ambassador to Lithuania, as saying that Russia would ban many Lithuanian citizens from entering Russia in response to the legislation. Another article in Sputniknews.lt quoted Jelena Panina, a member of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, who warned that U.S. influence over Lithuania would degrade the country, sparking an exodus of young people. This suggests that Lithuanians do not agree with the politics of their government. 

Both articles aimed to fuel dissatisfaction among Lithuanians towards their government and spread concern that Moscow might blacklist those with business and personal contacts in Russia. The articles also sought to demonstrate Russia’s ability to retaliate for the parliament’s vote, as it did in 2012—following U.S. passage of the Magnitsky Act—when President Vladimir Putin banned American families from adopting Russian orphans.

The Russian version of Sputniknews.lt (Sputnik Litva) emphasizes a narrative that diminishes Lithuania as a state. Its article says Lithuania “has produced one more anti-Russia product” and that Lithuania’s “Magnitsky law is absurd and meaningless” because “official Vilnius actively uses the [existing] law” to ban entry of Russian citizens. Rubaltic.ru, a pro-Kremlin media website in Kaliningrad, described its passage as a “foreign policy public relations activity” to attract attention and demonstrate to its “NATO partners [its] anti-Russian position.” The articles also used the well-worn narrative that Russia is a victim of “Russophobia.” 

Several points should be made. First, the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda actions are proactive, not reactive. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab reported that Kremlin media outlets launched their anti-Magnitsky Act campaign well ahead of its passage. 

Second, these outlets create a disinformation environment for their readers, not just a lineal storytelling of the event. In the month before the bill’s passage, four or five pro-Kremlin media outlets kept posting articles criticizing Lithuania’s intention to pass the Magnitsky Act. They repeated the same narratives: that Lithuania is a failing state and subordinated to the United States, that Russia is a victim of Lithuanian Russophobia, and that Russia is capable of retaliating. They followed longstanding narratives and used them flexibly.

Third, pro-Kremlin media outlets try to manipulate readers by creating a disinformation environment in which readers lose track of the truth. These outlets circumvent any constructive, fact-based analysis of the Magnitsky Act and how it will be implemented. Instead, the Kremlin media quarrels and writes negative comments about the country that adopted the act. 

Finally, unlike in the West, the pro-Kremlin media identifies the Putin regime with the entire Russian population. It is rather cynical that Kremlin information outlets try to manipulate Russian society at large to make them feel responsible for crimes they didn’t commit. The Kremlin-controlled media outlets interpret the Magnitsky Act as an attack against the Russian people, while in reality, it is against corrupt, kleptocratic individuals in Moscow who violate human rights.