#BalticBrief: Battle At The App Store

How the digital campaign to ban a Latvian language app developed

(Source: @DFRLab via Google Play)

On January 24, Latvian State Language Center released a mobile app that allows Android smartphone users to report good and bad examples of Latvian language use. The app launch was announced on major Latvian media, but the Russian language community did not receive it well. On January 31, the spokesperson of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova called the language app “a language inquisition”.

@DFRLab previously reported about the Russian language community fighting against education reform to have so-called “Russian schools” begin teaching in Latvian. Multiple protests about the language of learning has made any topic concerning language in Latvia very sensitive.

The Latvian language, a member of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European family, is Latvia’s only official language. It has just over one million speakers, and the fear that the language would become extinct was one of the drivers of Latvia’s push for renewed independence from the USSR in the late 1980s. The task of the Latvian language authority is to defend and promote the language and to insist on its use in public places; this is seen by many in the Russian language community as an attack on their language and identity.

Negative ratings

At the time of this report, the app had two-star rating on Google Play store. The majority of ratings were defined by two extremes — 278 five-star votes and 858 one-star votes.

(Source: Google Play)

The one-star reviews in English were the first comments that showed up in a quick search on Google Play.

(Source: Google Play)

Some five-star reviews show if searched by rating. Some of them reflect on the negative reviews by alleged trolls.

(Source: Google Play)

Analysis of the review section showed that by January 29 most of the one-star reviews were given in Russian language and most of the five-star reviews were in Latvian. The number of reviews in English were split between one-star and five-star ratings.

(Source: @DFRLab via Google Play)

Below is a time-laps of the app rating status from January 24 to January 29. The visualization illustrates the ratio between the heavy amount of negative ratings over positive ratings did not change over time.

(Source: @DFRLab via Google Play)

Digital campaign to ban the app

On January 25, the Russian version of Latvian media outlet Focus published an article with a call to ban the app. The social media widget by the article suggested it was shared over five hundred times.
 
About fifteen minutes later, an article with the same title was published on pro-Kremlin news site in Latvia Vesti.lv.

Title translated from Russian: “On Social Media Instructions Have Appeared on “How to ban the new app for the State Language Center”. Left (Source: Focus); Right (Source: Vesti.lv).

Both articles quoted instructions on how to ban the app on the Google Play store and mentioned instructions were first published on social networks. No source of the instructions was named, hyper-linked, or exposed in the report. @DFRLab found the original post embedded in another version of Vesti.lv.

The author of the post was Facebook user Rita Korznikova. According to her public profile, she is based in Riga, Latvia.

(Source: Facebook / Rita Korznikova)

Her post read:

People!!!

We show the center of the state language that the whole world is not with them. If we go to the page with the news, there are two links: for Android (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details…) and for iOS (iOS version yet, so mac users do not need to worry yet). Be sure to install the application (otherwise there will be no possibility to leave a complaint and a response), you do not need to run it, just delete it afterwards. On the application page, we will find the link at the very bottom: “Complaints” (“Flag as inappropriate”), click and write that the application contributes to the policy of apartheid, conducted by Latvia against national minorities. Also, do not forget to leave the rating (1) and comment to the application. In the commentary, you can write exactly the same thing as in the complaint. Let’s ban this nasty office in the market once and for all! The maximum repost is welcomed

Her post raised just twelve reactions as of date, nevertheless the detailed call to action and a screenshot of the app interface was reposted by Focus verbatim and achieved significant traction on the web.

Left: (Source: Facebook / Rita Korznikova); Right: (Source: Focus).

The instructions spread on other Russian language media outlets in Latvia.

(Source: @DFRLab via Google)

On January 26, Russian media outlet in Latvia Press.lv republished the instructions. The article achieved at least 356 shares and its post on Facebook was shared 98 times.

Post translated from Russian: “‘Language Friend’ could be banned if we join our forces”. Title of the article: “How to shut the mouths of ‘Language stool pigeons’? An instruction appeared on the web” (Source: Facebook / Press.lv)

Counter campaign

Latvian-language media outlets noticed the instructions about the campaign to ban the app from the Google Play store on media outlets in Russian.

On January 26, Latvian national conservative newspaper “Latvijas Avize” published an article about the spread of information about the negative campaign. It mentioned Press.lv as the most likely origin of the campaign.

The same day, the website of Latvian mainstream newspaper “Diena.lv” published a similar article. Both Press.lv and Focus were mentioned as the sources that spread the negative campaign. 
 
In response to Diena.lv article, a Latvian nationalist party board member Janis Iesalnieks’ called to mobilize against the alleged “Kremlin troll” attack on Twitter. The tweet was retweeted just 29 times.

Analysis of the user reviews showed publications in Russian played a significant role to increase negative reviews on January 25. Whereas, the visibility of the campaign boosted by publications in Latvian mobilized countermeasures to give the app a five-star rating on January 26.

(Source: @DFRLab via Google Play)

Conclusion

The so-called “Troll War” over the mobile app released by the Latvian State Language Center originated from regular social media users and was boosted by local media outlets.

The people who gave negative reviews to the app were mostly against the idea of looking into Latvian language use. The topic remains highly heated topic due to the attempts of Russian language community in Latvia to prevent the so-called “Russian schools” from teaching in Latvian. 
 
Therefore, the Android users who participated in the negative campaign most likely were not an organized group of “trolls” paid by the Kremlin. Likewise, the users who participated in the counter-campaign, most likely were not paid by anyone.

The “Troll War” over the language app demonstrates how the issue of language in Latvia continues to create controversy.


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

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