This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 14 August 2016

In last week’s note, we discussed the impact of Russia’s disinformation policy on Estonia. Using the work of my colleague Urve Eslas, we noted that Moscow appears to be targeting Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority in order to inflame tensions between them and the ethnic Estonians who form the country’s dominant ethnic group. Three narratives are common: Estonia’s government is fascist, it is non-democratic, and it discriminates against the Russian-speaking minority. Not surprisingly, that minority prefers Russian-language and often Russian state-owned media. These messages are transmitted in four ways: by “gathering” sites with mostly local news content that discredits Estonia and is meant to be picked up by other Russian-language or international media; by local distributing channels which also focus on local news, but whose main goal is to spread disinformation about other countries as well as Estonia; via Russian-language international TV channels that seek to spread disinformation about global events; and by English-language TV channels whose content is mostly international news, but whose primary audience is overseas—even though they can be viewed in Estonia.

Media consumption patterns in Lithuania to some extent resemble those in Estonia, according to expert Dalia Bankauskaitė, who monitors Lithuanian media for CEPA. But Moscow’s strategy may differ in a key way, although there is little solid data available. Russian media in Lithuania, perhaps unlike the case in Estonia, appears to target all elements of society that understand Russian (roughly half the Lithuanian population). Russian-language talk shows, for example, blanket Lithuania’s airwaves and Russian movies can be purchased cheaply. In addition, most people older than 40 understand Russian culture and humor; they know Russian actors and writers and share similar memories, which might also explain the popularity of such programs.

The information war environment differs among the two nations in other ways. First, Lithuania’s pro-Kremlin “gathering” sites are especially influential because they play a key role in setting the agenda for political debate and analysis. Lithuania media react to events and commentaries, especially by Russian media. Data is lacking, though, on the views of Lithuania’s Russian, Polish, Jewish and Belarusian minorities. If their concerns are ignored, they may become more vulnerable to Russian propaganda. Second, with regard to “distributing channels” which focus on local news, Russians, Poles and other ethnic minorities apparently get their information directly from Russian media—as do many older Lithuanians who understand Russian and watch Russian TV. The impact is clear: the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, the political party representing Lithuania’s ethnic Poles, incorporates topics and points of view similar to Russian propaganda into its public statements and activities. Finally, Russian-language international TV channels that seek to spread disinformation about global events also apparently have audiences among all of Lithuania’s ethnic groups, not just the minorities.

To be sure, focusing on just Russian-language material does not account for the entire range of Russian information influence. As this week’s Lithuania brief shows, pro-Kremlin ideas—no matter how outlandish they are—seep into Lithuanian-language media as well. But a comparison of Russian information policy in Estonia and Lithuania raises important questions about Kremlin tactics. Are the differences due to the fact that the proportion of ethnic Russians is much higher in Estonia (26 percent) than in Lithuania (6 percent)? Or are they due to other factors?

We also need to know much more about the impact of Russia’s information tools on Eastern European elites, at a minimum on how successfully it can set the agenda. The press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think,” political scientist Bernard Cohen once wrote, but it can be stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. The world will look different to different people depending on the map drawn for them by writers, editors and publishers of the paper they read—especially if that map is drawn up in Moscow.