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Disinformation campaign targets media literacy efforts in Latvia

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  • Pro-Kremliskie mediji vēršas pret mediju lietotpratības iniciatīvām Latvijā   Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
The Baltic states’ growing concerns about Kremlin information warfare have spawned various media literacy initiatives aimed at boosting the resilience of local societies. But pro-Kremlin media outlets carefully follow these attempts and try to discredit them.

In March, the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence published research on the role of humor in Russian and Ukrainian strategic communication. The report explored how Moscow uses well-known comedy shows for propaganda purposes. The authors concluded, among other things, that Russian comedy shows frame President Vladimir Putin as “a father of the state” while portraying Russia as a victim vis-à-vis the Western world.

Pro-Kremlin media reacted immediately by mocking both the report’s findings and the scholars who wrote it. In doing so, they overlooked the fact that humor is a legitimate research field in political communication. For example, an RTR news story on the report completely avoided mentioning the main subject of StratCom’s research: the role of censorship and self-censorship joking about Russian political leaders. Notably, RTR included the opinion of Maria Zakharova, the official representative of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, who mocked only the research without going deeper in its conclusions (see starting from 03:26).

A more recent project by Re:Baltica, a nonprofit investigative journalism website, offers another example illustrating the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine media literacy initiatives in Latvia’s public space. The Re:Baltica investigation reveals how local pro-Kremlin media operate, as well as their role in the Kremlin propaganda machine. It found that the owners of the most aggressive websites are closely related to the Kremlin. However, Grigory Zubarev, a TV commentator on Pervy Baltiskij Kanal (PBK), angrily criticized the investigation. In particular, Zubarev attacked Re:Baltica’s article about the Latvian Russian-language daily Segodnya (CEPA has frequently analyzed the pro-Kremlin content of the Segodnya website in its briefs).

Re:Baltica’s investigation revealed that Segodnya’s owner has avoided taxes while continuing to produce extremely pro-Kremlin content. Zubarev cast doubt on Re:Baltica’s reliability since it has received money from U.S. institutions. He also argued that Re:Baltica’s article didn’t prove that Segodnya publishes fake news, although that was not the main purpose of the article.

Meanwhile, Zubarev ignored more crucial issues addressed by the Re:Baltica article—namely, why adds misleading, incendiary titles to news it republishes from pro-Kremlin news agencies, or how the owner of Segodnya/ has for years avoided paying taxes (its total tax debt is now €300,000), but is still in business. In fact, PBK—which airs Zubarev’s program—is the most popular TV channel among Latvia’s Russophones, retransmitting the content of Russian state-owned TV channel Pervij kanal.

Russia’s reaction to the NATO StratCom research and Re:Baltica investigation illustrates the difficulties Latvia’s media literacy initiatives must endure. To be sure, these initiatives may strengthen civil resilience toward the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts. Yet the reliability issue is particularly relevant, in that criticism of pro-Kremlin media produced outside the Russophone milieu might lack credibility since many Russian speakers see such external criticism as profoundly biased. Moreover, according to various surveys, most of Latvia’s Russophones do not accept explicit criticism of Kremlin policy. In our previous briefs on fake news about the Victory Day celebrations or about an explosion in Riga’s Central Market, we have, however, argued that Russophones are more likely to accept criticism of Kremlin disinformation if it is expressed by the leaders of Russophone community or Russophone media outlets themselves.

Photo: Reuters/Forum