Language Lies About Latvia

How a simple population statistic was exaggerated to fit a false narrative in Latvia

The sign reads: “Ethnic Russians in Latvia are 42% of the population. We are paying taxes and we have rights to get education in Russian!” (Source: TVnet)

On October 23, several hundred Russian-speakers gathered in front of the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science to protest the government’s decision to have Russian schools begin teaching in Latvian only. Many Russian media outlets reported Russian language in Latvia is considered foreign despite 40 percent of the residents speak Russian as their mother tongue.

As reported before, this is a false fact.

According to the Latvian Central Bureau of Statistics (LCBS), Russians comprised just 25.4 percent of the total population at the beginning of 2017. Ethnic Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Poles often use Russian as their primary language. Together with ethnic Russians, Russian-speakers make up 33 percent of the total population.

(Source: csb.gov.lv)

According to the Census data gathered in 2011, 33.8 percent of Latvians spoke Russian language at home.

(Source: csb.gov.lv)

Google results

If a journalist “googles” in Russian while located in Russia the below search question, many sources of disinformation appear.

How many Russian-speakers are in Latvia?

(Source: Google search)

The first three results were Wikipedia articles. The fourth most relevant result was an article on Baltnews.lv, a Kremlin-supported media outlet in Latvia, titled “Russians in Latvia. How many were there, are there and will be there?”

The fifth relevant result was an article by a Russian think-tank, which focuses on Eurasia.

Information on Wikipedia

The first Google result, if searched in Russian, is a Wikipedia article titled “Population in Latvia”.
 
 The article uses table with a reference to LCBS Census data gathered in 2011.

The title reads: “The spread of population in statistical regions in Latvia by the everyday language (used at home) according to Census in 2011.” (Source: ru.wikipedia.org)

The references to the data source indeed lead to LCBS Census data gathered in 2011, however, the table that the website generated contain a number which is less than the Wikipedia article mentions.

(Source: csb.gov.lv)

Though the total number of the Russian-speakers is correct, the ratio of the Russian-speakers in Latvia was made almost 3.5 percent larger, which created a solid case for rounding the figure of 37.23 percent up to 40 percent. The evidence may seem an insignificant discrepancy, but it provides credence to an extremely prevalent false narrative in Latvia on Wikipedia, an extremely high traffic reference site even if it is user generated.

There is also a Wikipedia article in Latvian about Russian speakers that mentions 37.5 percent of Russian speakers in Latvia recorded in Census data gathered 17 years ago in 2000.

(Source: csb.gov.lv)

Unfortunately, LCBS webpage does not generate the ratio of Russian speakers in Latvia in 2000. If calculated, the Census 2000 data theoretically recorded 37.49 percent of Russian speakers living in Latvia in 2000. The same source does not fully explain where the figure of 37.23 percent came from, but it leads us to a possible source of disinformation.

Local sources in Russian

Another source of disinformation that shows up as one of the top search results on Google is an article published by Baltnews.lv a Russian media outlet in Latvia. However, the Baltic Center of Investigative Journalism found out the Baltnews portals are connected with Sputnik, even though each national version of the Batlnews media outlet operates locally.

The article title reads: “Russians in Latvia. How many were there, are there and will be there?” (Source: Baltnews.lv)

The author of the above article, Andrey Solopenko, describes himself as a sociologist. The article was published on December 7, 2015, and the author could have used the Census data from 2011. Instead Solopenko used the data from 2000, which better fits the exaggerated Russian language narrative.

The highlighted paragraph reads:

“At the same time, in addition to ethnic Russians for whom this language is native, 37% of the population of the republic communicate in Russian in the family, according to the census. This allows us to state with confidence that there are relatively more Russian-speaking residents in Latvia than in any other country in the world, except for Russia, which is an ethnic homeland for many compatriots”.

Moreover, according to a web archive, in 2013 a website of Russian community in Latvia published Solopenko’s presentation in which he mentioned the most up-to-date number of Russian speakers available.

The sentence he used reads:

“In the country, the proportion of residents who predominantly use Russian in the family is 698,757 people, or 33.8% of Latvian residents, who have indicated their own language”.

It is not clear why in the most recent article about the Russians in Latvia Solopenko used old data. Nevertheless, this source of information did not show up on the first pages of the Google search. Such statement would convince a Russian journalist that almost 40 percent residents in Latvia speak Russian.

Similar phrasing is used in another local webpage titled “Russians in Latvia”. The “About” page explains that the project is organized by the Institute of Russian Cultural Heritage of Latvia and intended to be “a public, encyclopedic, constantly updated guide on the Internet.”

In a sub-section of the same website about modern Latvia, an article titled “Problems and hopes of Russians in Latvia” reads:

“The Russian language in Latvia has artificial ‘foreign language’ status, although it is the mother tongue or the language of home communication for almost 40% of the population”.

These sources about a foreign country may seem trustworthy enough for a journalist to use in their reporting. For instance, Russian mainstream media outlet RIA Novasti used the false figure in its reporting since 2012, when talking about a referendum to give Russian language the status of official state language. However, the census data still shows the figure is false.

Conclusion

The fact that almost 40 percent of Latvians are predominantly Russian speakers is false and outdated. Since 2011, the official figure of Russian speakers in Latvia is 33.8 percent. Wikipedia and articles written by Latvian Russians use false or outdated figure that there are over 37 percent Russian speakers in Latvia. Though it is possible to search information in Latvian Central Bureau of Statistics in English, the vast amount of false information in Russian language makes it likely that the false fact about the number of Russian speakers in Latvia will keep spreading.


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

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