Briefs

Latvia: 8-14 August 2016

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During the summer, Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media publishes invented stories to remind the country’s ethnic Russians that their social status is insecure.

Event:
On 27 July, the webpage of Russia’s state-run newspaper Rossiskaya gazeta published news about an explosion in Riga’s Central Market that badly injured six people and damaged 30 cars. The story quoted Ints Kuzis, head of the Latvian State Police, as saying most likely no one survived under the ruins. Rossiskaya gazeta cited Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti as the primary source of this information. The following day, pro-Kremlin Russian news agency Regnum ran an article about a memorandum of understanding between the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence and Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cooperate on various strategic communication projects such as joint conferences and workshops. The Russian Internet portals described the agreement in a more balanced manner.

Reality on the ground:
Neither event happened, meaning Russia’s mainstream media covered completely invented stories and quoted officials who had never given interviews related to these fake events. Rossiskaya gazeta itself may have concocted the story about the explosion in Riga. Although it cited RIA Novosti, that agency never actually published anything about the blast. The story disappeared from Rossiskaya gazeta’s webpage soon after Latvian media suggested the story had been fabricated. The article also disappeared from other Russian portals and only a screenshot of the original publication remains. Interestingly,Vesti.lv—a prominent pro-Kremlin, Latvian-language website—condemned Rossiskaya gazeta on the grounds that such fake stories demonstrate the newspaper’s desire “to support the trend of terrorism in Europe.” Meanwhile, Riga-based StratCom responded to the fake NATO story sarcastically, tweeting that “the signing of the agreement was so secret that even the [center’s] director did not know about that.”

Technique:
false facts; completely made-up news.

Audience:
Russian-speaking Latvians, readers in Russia.

Analysis: 
At first sight, these two pro-Kremlin disinformation cases look trivial. But they take on greater importance when seen in a broader perspective. False news about an explosion in Riga as well as the story about NATO’s memorandum nurtures a sense of insecurity among Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority. It also reminds readers in Russia that anti-Russian policies thrive in Lativa. The Riga blast story may be a test of how Latvian society reacts to emergency situations during summer, when the news cycle slows down and Latvian media becomes more reckless.

Arguably, Latvia’s Russian-language media has reacted critically to such provocations. The behavior of Vesti.lv deserves special attention, though in recent months, the country’s Russian-language media have frequently illuminated and criticized disinformation coming from Russia’s media. This criticism suggests that such disinformation undermines the image of local Russian speakers, especially when Russian mainstream media creates unjustified panic and insecurity.