Taxi Driver Tall Tale Takes a Nation

How false information shared by a taxi driver evolved from a Facebook post to a national news story

On October 8, MixNews, a Russian language media outlet in Latvia, published an article stating NATO soldiers in Latvia lived in hotels in Riga paid for by the Latvian government rather than the barracks in Adazhi. This information originated with a Facebook user called Kristine Liepina, who shared a conversation she had with a taxi driver.

https://www.facebook.com/kristine.liepina5/posts/1975808649368279

The post read:

Yesterday I was talking with a taxi driver who told me a few facts about NATO soldiers in Latvia. It turns out that they do not even live in Ādaži, in barracks, or in training ranges, as we may have thought, but conveniently stay in Riga’s best hotels, hang out at cafes and often use taxi. It is interesting how these guards are going to go to war, if the war will really start, it will likely last for 20 minutes, in this time they will not manage to reach Adazhi… What pisses me off is that expensive hotels and taxi services are paid from our money !!!

P.S. The driver also told me that one of the African-American peace keepers he had driven from a fine hotel to the airport, tried to persuade the driver to give him another check, like splitting it 50 to 50, which was offensive to the driver and he answered go, go, no 50 to 50 and no check! The soldier then was surprised and asked: really, you won’t give me any !? Apparently, and with solid reasons, there is a perception of Latvia as a corrupt country at all levels!

Liepina posted her story on October 6. In total, it garnered more than 100 impressions, over 250 shares, and 78 comments.

Other media outlets also picked up the story. The Russian language version of the controversial Latvian media outlet Focus picked up the story from MixNews. Focus.lv’s domain hosts a salacious online media outlet called Nozagts. In 2016, an activist investigated the people operating the website and highlighted their ties with Russia.

On October 8, when the post started to get traction online, the Latvian Army’s commented on Kristine Liepina’s post via Facebook.

https://www.facebook.com/Latvijasarmija/posts/1445355315501836

The post read:

Referring to your post on your Facebook, we invite you not to disseminate false and negative information from controversial sources about allied troop contributors, that does not legally comply with the facts.

Please note that approximately 1200 ally troops have been residing since June in the Adazi base. Through their constant presence in Latvia, they strengthen our country, and ensure your security, your family’s and people close to you!

The Ministry of Defense claims that the soldiers do not have to permanently stay in the Adazhi base in the barracks or in the training ranges. The Adazhi base is not a place of imprisonment where the soldiers should spend 24 hours a day. Perhaps, such a simplified idea comes from the conscription times. Therefore, we would like to draw your attention to the fact that every soldier has a free time, which he can spend at his discretion — go to see the golden autumn in Sigulda, or take an excursion to Riga, use taxi services, visit restaurants, Latvian Art Museum and other attractions throughout the territory of Latvia.

Your willingness to look at the allied troop’s wallet and the attempt to create anxiety in Latvian society is not justified, because the remuneration and living costs of the Allied Soldiers’ Service in Latvia, are covered from the defense budget of NATO or a specific Canadian-led combat group, depending on the specific cost position.

If you have truthful information that any of the soldiers of allied troops has violated the norms or laws of public decency, we invite you to contact the Ministry of Defense of Latvia at any time with specific facts.

To raise awareness about the defense industry, the role of soldiers in strengthening national defense and security, we invite you to follow the information @Latvijas Armijas in the social media Facebook, Twitter, as well as to look at the website of the National Armed Forces: www.mil.lv, before spreading rumors.

The post garnered over 900 impressions and 80 comments.

Getting more attention

After the Latvian Army reacted to Kristine Liepina’s post on Facebook, other media outlets started to report about the case of disinformation.

On October 9, MixNews reported on the Latvian Army’s reply. Sputnik Latvia and two pro-Kremlin media outlets covering Latvia and the Baltics, RuBaltic.ru and Vesti.lv, soon followed and also addressed the fact that Latvian taxpayers do not pay for NATO soldiers’ hotels and taxi rides.

MixNews and RuBaltic.ru wrote short articles that mostly quoted the Latvian Army’s post.

Sputnik Latvia’s report, perhaps unsurprisingly, elaborated more on the sentiment expressed in the comment section of the Kristine Liepina’s post. The article first listed the comments that expressed negative sentiment towards NATO soldiers, followed by comments skeptical of the statements expressed by the taxi driver Liepina cited in her post.

Unlike other pro-Kremlin media outlets, Vesti.lv added its own interpretation of the Latvian Army’s comment on Facebook.

The lead paragraph of the article read:

The National Armed Forces of Latvia call on residents to verify its reliability or to contact the Ministry of Defense directly for clarification before publishing information about NATO Allied soldiers in Latvia. Otherwise, you can damage the reputation of both Latvia and your own, writes Mixnews.lv.

Liepina’s post reached Russia too. On October 9, the Russian media outlet Komsomolyskaya Pravda reported on the post. The article also provided a summary of the conversation in the comment section.

The paragraph reads:

Facebook users began actively commenting on what she wrote. Some claimed that they also saw soldiers stationed in the capital hotels, others were indignant that this was due to the money of Latvian taxpayers, while others said that it was not the host party that was paying for it, but the allies. In addition, Latvia did not fulfill the obligation and did not build housing for all “elite” soldiers who arrived in the country.

The article on Komsomolyskaya Pravda failed to gain much traction. Users shared the article only three times, and it generated two comments.

Latvian language media outlets addressed Kristine Liepina’s Facebook post as well. In particular, TVNet.lv, the second largest online media outlet in Latvia; the online versions of the major Latvian newspapers Latvijas Avize and Neatkariga Rita Avize; and the online version of the popular TV channel TV 3 all reported on the post.

History repeating

A similar case of a pro-Kremlin media reporting based on a Facebook post negatively portraying NATO troops in the Baltic states happened a year ago in Estonia.

A Facebook user called Julia Adams commented on a Facebook post by an Estonian journalist Jevgeni Levik about a bad experience she had with British soldiers in an Estonian hospital.

The original comment posted a year ago is not available. At the time, Baltnews.ee, a pro-Kremlin media outlet in Estonia, used the original comment to create a story. Jevgeni Levik later shared the post and Julia Adams commented on it.

https://www.facebook.com/jevgenilevik.tallinn/posts/217676571979308

The comment read:

Now they will put me in jail (emoji) I will get shit out of them (emoji)

The conmment confirms that Julia Adams wrote the original post on Facebook.

The title of Baltnews.ee’s article used a quote from Julia Adams’ comment, which read, “A resident of Estonia to British military: yes, I am Putin’s agent and we are everywhere. Everywhere!”

The full comment quoted by the article reads:

Today I gave blood for new documents and filled out forms for doctors. There were a lot of British soldiers on medical check-up and vaccinations in Mustamäe hospital. An old granny has come and was standing, and these douchebags have taken up all the chairs and are sitting like on a sofa.

I asked in English to give the granny a seat. They started to hatch on me and started to resent to each other, saying what a strange people Estonians are. That blew me up: Why u r here? In Estonia? Do u really think that people are happy that u fc ** ass *** are occupying our country and coming here to destroy peace and normal life ??? U r not welcome here !!! And never will be!

I kicked a chair. They jumped and formed a crowd. I helped the granny to sit. When I went to the doctor’s room, I said: I will be right back! And yes! I am an agent of Putin and we are everywhere !!! Everywhere !!!

Over eight Russian language media outlets picked up the post at the time, including Sputnik Latvia, Vesti.lv, and Russian media Komsamolysaya Pravda.

Conclusion

Both of these cases demonstrate how pro-Kremlin outlets turn a single, negative Facebook post about NATO soldiers in the Baltic States into a national news story with wider amplification.

Unverified facts and hyberolic statements proliferate on social media. If posted by accounts of supposedly real people, biased media outlets or journalists may turn potentially dubious subjective experiences into generalized, objective facts.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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