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Latvia: 23-29 January 2017

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Latvian media publishes pro-Kremlin news articles about a phone call between Putin and Trump that emphasizes friendly relations between the two presidents.

Event: On 29 January, the Latvian news portal TvNet posted a news story based on a New York Times article about the telephone call the previous day between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The same day, the Latvian edition of the pro-Kremlin website Sputnik posted a story on the reaction to the presidents’ conversation.

The false fact or narrative: The title of TvNet story—which was republished from the website of Russian state-owned TV channel NTV—stated that “The New York Times has called the conversation between Putin and Trump the beginning of ‘a new era.’” The Times, according to the TVNet story, said that “by conducting an hour-long telephone call with Putin, President Trump began a new era in relations with Russia. The tone of the conversation was evidently friendly, indicating a drastic shift toward good relations.”

The Sputnik article, “The Baltic states are in panic after the conversation between Putin and Trump,” focused on the opinion of Russian TV host and pro-Kremlin Duma member Alexey Pushkarov about that call. In a tweet, Pushkarov said “Kyiv, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Warsaw, Oslo, Stockholm, NATO are in panic from the outcome of the Putin-Trump conversation. They are preparing for ‘hard times.’” Sputnik also quoted another Pushkarov tweet which claimed that, according to U.S. sources, “the tone of the conversation between Trump and Putin was warm, whereas the conversation between Trump and Merkel was businesslike, and the conversation with Hollande was tense.” Both of Pushkarov’s tweets spread on Twitter and were publicized on many Russian-language websites.

Reality on the ground: The New York Times called the Trump-Putin conversation the beginning of “a new era of diplomacy with Russia.” TvNet, however, shortened and generalized this claim to “a new era,” thus broadening the original meaning and exaggerating the historical significance of the call. TvNet also misattributed the assessment of the conversation as “friendly” and as “a drastic shift” to the Times. In fact, this assessment came from the Trump administration itself—creating the impression that Times somehow praised the conversation. Moreover, the quote about “a new era” posted by TVNet does not exist in such form in the original article. It is constructed from different paragraphs of the Times article but presented as a direct quote from the original. TvNet also ignores Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Western sanctions against Russia, and Moscow’s hacking of the U.S. presidential election. These topics do appear in the Times article.

The Sputnik news title, in turn, presents Pushkarov’s opinion about the Baltic states as fact—yet it contains no official reaction by the Baltic states on the Trump-Putin conversation that could support Pushkarov’s claim about panic in the Baltics or elsewhere. Likewise, Pushkarov’s tweet about the different tones of Trump’s phone calls with Putin, Merkel and Hollande cites obscure U.S. sources. It offers no evidence to corroborate Pushkarov’s claim, yet the unsubstantiated statement about Trump’s different approach to the leaders of Russia, Germany and France was carried by several Latvian Russian-language websites.

Technique: Misleading title, no proof, exaggeration.

Audience: Latvia’s Russian-speaking community as well as ethnic Latvians.

Analysis: This case shows how, in a situation with very limited official information available, pro-Kremlin media sought to frame the conversation between Trump and Putin. By downplaying conflict-oriented topics, it insisted that an internationally recognized U.S. newspaper is pleased about the friendly relations between the two leaders. Likewise, pro-Kremlin news articles tried to compare Trump’s conversation with Putin to those he had with other Western leaders, repeating the narrative that Trump’s determination to establish good relations with Russia has demoralized NATO in general and the Baltic states in particular.